Nearly 5 years and a pair of young adult fantasy novels later, Jennifer Finney Boylan makes a triumphant return to the subject of gender. Having previously written about her own transition in She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and having revisited her childhood home (and memories) in I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, she takes a step back this time and reflects on her role in nurturing the next generation.
Anybody who has ever given it even a moment’s passing thought knows that it is not easy to step outside the so-called ‘norm’ and embrace a gender identity or expression that lies beyond the traditional gender binary. There’s a world full of fear and prejudice out there, and the sad truth is we all too often have to accept the loss of friends and family in order to find peace and happiness within ourselves.
When there are children involved, however, the situation gets even more complex. Fortunately, Stuck in the Middle with You does a wonderful job of exploring the role that gender (and gender change) plays in parenting, and demonstrates that the health and happiness of one’s self and one’s children can coexist peacefully. That’s not to say it’s all fluff and laughter – there are some deep thoughts and some painful tears involved, but time, love, and caring heal most wounds.
As a second-time parent, going though the infant/toddler stage all over again, I was really struck by her doubts and fears regarding what secrets her boys might be hiding. I do wish we could have heard more from her children, and learned more about their rough edges. Maybe it’s a matter of being blinded by love, or just being protective of her family, but Boylan does paint an almost too-perfect picture of her children. Even the best-behaved children will lash out in establishing their individuality and challenging authority. Glossing over those episodes creates more of a problem than it solves, especially with readers who are coping with adolescent rebellion, and who are looking for comfort that it’s not their fault.
Overall, however, it’s comforting to know that our children can take after us, and can learn from us, without actually becoming us. Like Boylan, nothing could ever make me love my children less, but I would give almost anything for them not to have to face the emotional and psychological pain I dealt with in my own youth.
At first I wasn’t sure what to think of the ‘Time Out’ Conversations that take place between chapters. It felt like she was trying to force the issue a bit, to really drive home the point that this was a story about parenting first, and gender second. Before long, however, I began to see how their placement enhanced the story, adding a new perspective to things. The more we heard from other parents, the more it becomes clear that so many parenting experiences are universal, and not unique to any gender.
What’s more, she doesn’t play it safe or censor the discussions. Alternately touching, amusing, inspiring, and even confrontational, they provide those rough edges that were missing from the stories of Boylan’s own children. Furthermore, she takes the bold step of concluding the book with an interview of her partner and herself, conducted by novelist Anna Quindlen. Jennifer and Deirdre talk about stereotypes and secrets, about Maddy versus Daddy, and even answer a few difficult questions. It is Boylan, of course, who gets in the last word, but not before her partner has a chance to pull all the threads together in a family portrait that’s not much different from any other.
While not as ground-breaking as her first two novels, Stuck in the Middle with You is a welcome addition to the shelves upon shelves of parenting books out there, and one that offers a unique perspective for all genders.
[Reviewed by Sally]