What does it mean to be a father? A mother? As a transgender woman who was a father for ten years and has been a mother for eight years and counting, Jennifer Finney Boylan is in a unique position to examine these roles from both angles, as well as a “third gender,” a reference to the in-between period during her transition.
Stuck in the Middle with You is not the author’s first memoir about her experiences as a transgender woman; though this book does discuss some of the details of her transition, it mostly focuses on how her gender shaped her experiences as a parent and spouse. Split into three parts, one for each gender-related phase of her life, the book also breaks with traditional memoir format by including interviews about parenting and gender with the likes of Edward Albee, Richard Russo, Ann Beattie, and Augusten Burroughs.
This was the first time I’d ever read any of Boylan’s work, and I was quickly entranced by her lyrical prose and thoughtful reflections. As a white, middle class woman with stable employment and a supportive environment, she’ll be the first to admit that, though far from smooth, her transition was a best-case scenario:
We’d waited and waited for some terrible doom, but the days had passed and we all continued to thrive. It had seemed incomprehensible to us, that the world could be as forgiving as we had found it, especially since I’d heard stories firsthand from other trans people who, in nearly identical circumstances, had found only cruelty and rejection. Some had found violence. On the whole, it was hard to deny that our family has been very, very lucky.
Understandably, there was still a rocky period when she finally made the decision to come out to her wife; there was a period of time when neither of them knew whether a divorce was imminent or how her transition would impact the family. Ultimately, she and her wife ended up staying together, and the children (who were both still young at the time) adapted fairly quickly, settling on calling her “Maddy” — a melding of “mommy” and “daddy.”
On womanhood, she writes:
[S]urely a woman cannot be defined solely as a person who has borne children, or who has a menstrual cycle, or who has nursed a child….I’ve met women who were born without a uterus; I’ve men women who have exactly zero interest in babies or children, or, for that matter, Brad Pitt. All of these women, however, are unmistakably women, and were anyone to suggest otherwise it would seem ridiculous.
And so I hope that if there is room in the wide spectrum of women’s experience for all of these different lives, surely there is room in it — somewhere — for me.
Through it all, Boylan reflects on her roles as a parent in relation to which gender she was and how it would all affect her boys’ lives. Now that she was a woman, for instance, did that mean that the boys would grow up without a father figure? What would that do to them, even though she was still just as present in their lives as she was before she transitioned? And if that wasn’t a problem,then what makes a father a father and a mother a mother? She carries these explorations even further in her interviews, discussing absent fathers with Richard Russo and questioning the label of “parent” altogether with Edward Albee (who refers to the couple who adopted him as “those people”). Whether or not you’re a parent, this well-crafted memoir will certainly give you plenty to think about.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders was released in April 2013 by The Crown Publishing Group, an imprint of Random House.