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When Colby College English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan transitioned from male to female a little over ten years ago, she remained married to her wife Deirdre, and the couple continued to raise their two sons.
Boylan’s new memoir “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders“ (excerpt below) not only recounts stories of that last decade, it includes conversations with fellow writers Richard Russo, Edward Albee and Ann Beattie — or as Boylan puts it, “moms, dads and former children.”
“I was always the one who had to teach them how to throw a football anyway.”
The result is an in-depth look at the nature of parenting.
No more Father’s Day
On Sunday, the Boylans will celebrate “Maddy’s Day” — a combination of the words “mommy” and “daddy” — instead of Father’s Day.
Jennifer and Deirdre’s son Zach re-christened the holiday when he was six, to accommodate Jennifer’s transition from male to female.
But less changed for the family than they expected.
“I was always the one who had to teach them how to throw a football anyway,” Deirdre Boylan told Here & Now’s Robin Young, referring to her two boys. “The most fundamental aspects of Jenny haven’t changed…I’m still married to the person I fell in love with.”
The couple is approaching their 25th wedding anniversary.
Reflecting on secrets, worries
“The main difference between the before and after in my life, it’s really not the difference between going from male to female,” Jennifer Boylan said. “It’s the difference between someone who had a pretty powerful secret, to someone who doesn’t really have that many secrets anymore.”
“I don’t think that there’s anything that I could have given them as a man that I haven’t been able to give them as a woman.”
Jennifer Boylan still feels guilt for changing “the contract of our marriage,” but it isn’t something her wife holds against her.
Often, during Boylan’s coming out process, people expressed support for her transition, but concern for her family.
“Here we are, ten years later, and both of our sons are thriving,” Boylan said. “I don’t think that there’s anything that I could have given them as a man that I haven’t been able to give them as a woman. I would argue that what my boys have gotten, as a result of having me as a parent, is much greater than any loss.”
While the Boylans’ story may seem unusual, a majority of American families no longer conform to the nuclear model of stay-at-home mother, bread-winning father and children, Jennifer Boylan said.
“And I would argue, in fact, that this is a good thing,” Boylan said. “We’ve come to accept and embrace and celebrate the great variety — the different ways–there are of being human.”
On a cold February night in 1994, Deedie and I were watching Brideshead Revisited on the television in our little house in Maine. She was absolutely pregnant, her hands at rest on the vast Matterhorn of her belly. Snow was coming down outside, and our dinner dishes—now mostly empty—were sitting on the coffee table before us. I was a man then. I had made leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary. On the side there had been new potatoes tossed with olive oil and kosher salt and fresh mint.
It is fair to say we had no idea what the world before us might contain. We had seen plenty of our friends transform into parents by this time, and to be honest we hadn’t been thrilled by most of the metamorphoses. Not only was it clear that our former companions were a lot more interested in their squirming offspring than they were in Deedie and me—their friends of many years—but they seemed like they’d transformed into people less interesting than the ones we’d first befriended. Our friends—radicals and satirists, the kind of people you could have over for a martini and a model rocket launch—now seemed bland, exhausted, and unforgivably self-involved.
As we lost one set of lifelong friends after another to the state of parenthood, we joked that they were like the townspeople we frequently saw in science fiction movies, the ones whose minds are taken over by the aliens, who counsel their dwindling still-human friends by saying, Don’t fight it. They’re smarter than we are. It’s good.
Deedie and I were determined that we would be different kinds of parents. I think we imagined that having children would be a little bit like having Labrador retrievers. Sure, we’d train them, teach them to read and drive a car and fetch, but we’d still be unmistakably ourselves—artists, Democrats, rocketeers. After all, we hadn’t embarked upon this adventure in order to become strangers. We had embarked upon it as an act of love.
As the snow drifted down outside that night, we were watching the scene in Brideshead in which young Charles Ryder first goes over to the rooms of the eccentric Sebastian Flyte. Middle-class Charles has never seen anything in his life like Sebastian or his friends. But I was in search of love in those days, Charles says, and I went full of curiosity and the faint unrecognized apprehension that here at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that great city.
“Uh-oh,” said Deedie.
On the screen before us, Charles looked at a large bowl of plover’s eggs gathered in a bowl at the center of an ornate table.
“What’s ‘uh-oh’?” I said. I picked up the remote and hit the pause button.
“I think,” said Deedie, “my water just broke.”
I still remember the silence in the house that followed these words. Our dog Lucy, half golden retriever, half beagle, raised her head bitterly and gave us a hard look. Outside, the snow was still drifting down quietly.
What possible response can any man give to the woman he loves in the wake of such a phrase?
“Okay,” I said. “I guess we should go to the hospital then.”
My eyes fell to the screen, and to our paused movie, where Charles Ryder’s hand was frozen, inches from the bowl of plover’s eggs.
Deedie took my hand. “Is it really happening?” she said. “Is this how it begins?”
I put my arms around her and kissed my love upon on the cheek. Sure, I wanted to say. It begins like this.
But this was not the truth. Whatever was happening to us, whatever journey we were on, had begun a long time ago. I first laid eyes on Deedie back in college. She was onstage in a production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. In the play she was dating this other guy who I knew named Boomer Dorsey. Boomer was one of the college’s hot young actors. I’d seen him as Gloucester in Richard III a few weeks earlier, in a production marred only by the fact that the actor playing Richmond had the unfortunate combination of a speech impediment and an accent from deepest Brooklyn, which transformed the word lords into something that sounded like “wawds,” thus:
RICHMOND: Cwy mercy wawds and watchful gentlemen,
That you have tane a tawdy swuggard here!
LORDS: How have you slept, my lord?
RICHMOND: Swept? The sweetest sweep, an faiwest boding dweams!
That evah entered in a dwowsy head,
Have I since yaw departchaw had, my wawds!
The Mamet was a lot better. Boomer—who years later opened up his own pretty damned great Irish bar on the Upper West Side—was playing the part of a blowhard named Danny. But I wasn’t paying any attention to Boomer Dorsey. My eyes were fixed upon this woman playing the part of Deborah. I could see her green eyes sparkle from the third row. Checked the program. Deirdre Finney, she was called. Named for Derdriu, the Irish Queen of Sorrows.
Would you believe in a love at first sight? Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time.
Excerpted from the book STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Reprinted with permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.