Brain Pickings

Love Over Biology: Jennifer Finney Boylan on What It’s Like to Be a Transgender Parent

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Why there’s much more to the art of raising a human being than the science of chromosomal alignment.

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and along with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice as well as witty wisdom from women who have chosen not to have kids. But what, exactly, does it mean to be a mother? Surely, it can’t be the mere checklist of certain biological givens and processes — for, as Italo Calvino observed nearly forty years ago, “a human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

That — how much biology defines parenthood (hint: barely), how much that act of will and love does (hint: a great deal), and how much our experience of gender shapes it (hint: depends) — is precisely what Jennifer Finney Boylan, who used to be James Finney Boylan, explores in Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (public library).

Boylan began transitioning at the age of 44, while her children were toddlers, and remains with her wife Deirdre — the two had been married for twelve years before James came out as Jennifer and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary — as the two raise their boys in a two-mom family. She writes with equal parts humor and humility:

I was a father for six years, a mother for ten, and for a time in between I was both, or neither, like some parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo. Of course, as parents go, I was a rather feminine father; for that matter I suppose I’m a masculine mother. When I was their father I showed my boys how to make a good tomato sauce, how to fold a napkin, how to iron a dress shirt; as their mother I’ve shown them how to split wood with a maul. Whether this means I’ve had one parenting style or two, I am not entirely certain. I can assure you I am not a perfect parent and will be glad to review the long list of my mistakes. But in dealing with a parent who subverts a lot of expectations about gender, I hope my sons have learned to be more flexible and openhearted than many of their peers with traditionally gendered parents.

I would like to think that this has been a gift to them and not a curse. It is my hope that having a father who became a woman has made my two remarkable boys, in turn, into better men.

Jennifer Finney Boylan

In the anecdote of how her son learned to shave, Boylan finds a beautiful metaphor for her unique dual experience of manhood and womanhood:

Zach learned to shave when he was two years old, by watching me. He says that this is one of his primary memories of me as a man— the morning ritual of the razor and the hot steam from the basin. Zach stood upon a stool so that he could see his face in the bathroom mirror. I used to coat his young, pink cheeks with Gillette Foamy, and then give him a razor with the protective shield still on the blade. As I shaved my face, Zach would shave his. He’d mimic the contortions I’d make with my face in order to keep my skin taut. And he’d shave his own face in the same order I shaved mine — cheeks first, then the neck, then the chin, mustache last.

We stood there before the mirror, the two of us. I wiped the steam away from the top half of the mirror so I could see myself; Zach wiped a smaller hole away for himself at the bottom. Our expressions were so serious as we shaved, as men’s faces always are as they undertake this business, as if we are not shaving, but staring out across the bridge of our intergalactic star destroyers.

Afterward, we’d towel down our faces, removing the residual froth and smacking our smooth cheeks lightly with an air of manly satisfaction. “There,” he’d say. “I’m clean as a whistle!”

Where he got that phrase I can’t tell you.

He didn’t get it from me. That Christmas, Deedie bought Zach his own pretend shaving kit, complete with a plastic razor. When he opened this gift, though, he immediately burst into tears. “What?” said Deedie, discouraged that what had seemed like the perfect gift had gone so wrong.

“I don’t want a baby razor,” Zach wept, looking at me for backup. “I want a real one!”

Twelve years later, when Zach began to shave for real, he did it with an electric razor, one of those contraptions with the “floating heads.” I didn’t show him how to do it, although I tried. But he stopped me as he headed into the bathroom, and said, “Maddy. I got it from here.” A moment later, the door closed, and I sat down in the kitchen and listened to the faint buzzing sound coming through the wall.

I didn’t learn how to shave from my father either. Which turns out, I think, not to be so strange. One of the things about manhood I learned from my father is that it’s a solitary experience, a land of silences and understatements, a place where a lot of important things have to be learned alone. Whereas womanhood, a lot of the time, is a thing you get to share.

Recounting another anecdote, in which young Zach exhibits admirable character, Boylan reflects:

Looking down at my boy, I had a strange, nostalgic feeling — wishing that, when I’d been a guy, I’d had half the character now exhibited by my own near-grown son. It’s common enough, I guess, a thought such as this, demented though it may be. We look to our children as a kind of cosmic mulligan, our own best hope for a second chance. There were plenty of times I had looked at my son Zach as a better version of me, man-wise. He had the same goofy sense of humor, the same habit of wearing his heart right out there on his sleeve where anyone could crush it, the same buoyant hope that somehow love would prevail over all.

If I had failed as a man — and even those people who loved me most would have to admit this, what with the vagina and everything — then maybe Zach was a last chance to get it right. The man that I had once been clearly lived in him, although this time around we seemed to have been spared the melancholic lunacy.

Pair Stuck in the Middle with You, which comes a decade after Boylan’s critically acclaimed first memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, with Dan Savage on redefining marriage and Caitlin Moran on how to be a woman.

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