In the first pages of Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, Jennifer Finney Boylan, transgender mother of two, sits in the bleachers at her son’s fencing match, making chit-chat with a stranger named Grenadine, who is unaware of Boylan’s past. After revealing that her husband is serving in Iraq and she more or less hopes he dies there, Grenadine eyes the wedding ring on Boylan’s finger. “What about you?” she asks. “Where’s yours?”
Considering whether to share her history—that she used to be a man, became a woman 10 years ago, and her marriage to a woman has lasted 25 years—Boylan reveals a paradox: “People looking at my wife, Deedie, and me—two women, not lesbians, legally married to each other—would say we were insane ... a threat to traditional American values ... whereas Grenadine and [her husband] were a paragon of all we revere: a heterosexual married couple, a dad serving his country in a war overseas. By almost anyone’s measure, Deedie and I are the dangerous outliers, and Grenadine and her husband Mr. and Mrs. Normal. Even though Deedie and I love each other beyond all understanding, and Grenadine’s fondest hope was that her husband would be murdered by insurgents.”
This episode would be painful and pathetic if Boylan weren’t so hilarious and irreverent. (“More couples would stay together if more husbands became women.”) In a culture riddled with homophobia, not to mention transphobia, a manipulative writer might have mined these themes for more political commentary: there is no such thing as a “normal” American family; in the end, the threatened species may be the typical nuclear American family itself. And while Boylan briefly touches on this sentiment, she is less concerned about her outward appearance than she is about parenting her children.
As Boylan transformed from man to woman, she feared that her gender realignment surgery and new lifestyle might damage her two children, Zach and Sean. Now Boylan was a father for six years and a mother for 10. (And for a time in between, she writes, “a parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo.”) It might be expected that this dramatic transformation would cause disruption in her family, a breakup, or thrust Boylan into a vortex of self-absorption. But as her memoir reveals, there was no divorce, and her kids seamlessly accepted her transition as no big whoop. (When Boylan set about writing this book, her boys had one request: “Use our real names for a change.”)
It’s clear that the quest for feeling “normal” isn’t the focus of this memoir. The most important thing to Boylan is her family, so much so that she goes beyond her own experience and understanding by interviewing friends and colleagues to see what family means to them. These interviews, coupled with the daily rhythms of her family in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, show the reader that while appearances might make a family look “normal,” appearances aren’t what makes a family work. And despite Boylan’s resistance to love as an antidote to conflict, (“The world is full of false hopes, most of them dumber than the hope of being transformed by love”) what Boylan doesn’t view beneath the surface of her own narrative is that she has actually written, and been elevated by, a love story.
Mira Ptacin teaches writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and is the founder of the storytelling collective Freerange Nonfiction