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The Bond That Defines Family

by Amanda Williams

Andrew Solomon is a multi-award winning author and lecturer, whose latest book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity explores the relationships between parents and children in families in which the children present an identity very different from that of the parent. As his website states, “He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, and children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender.” The depth with which he delves into the thoughts and feelings of his subjects makes this book an absolutely fascinating read and garnered it a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Far from the Tree was also chosen as Best Book of 2012 by numerous national book reviews, including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Economist, The Boston Globe, and TIME Magazine. Whether the differences are physical, mental, or behavioral, Solomon shows us that every relationship between parent and child is unique, and raising children with an open and understanding heart, loving them completely as they are, is not only challenging, but rewarding and absolutely necessary.

Andrew Solomon doesn’t just write about complex family issues, but lives and parents within a uniquely complex family structure himself. His husband, John, is the biological father of two children with Tammy and Laura, a lesbian couple they are friend with, and those children, Lucy and Oliver, reside in Minneapolis with their mothers. Andrew has a biological daughter, Blainey, with a close friend from college, Blaine, and she lives with her mother in Texas. John and Andrew also have a son, George, who lives with them and is the biological child of Andrew and Laura, one of the women from the lesbian couple in Minneapolis. As Andrew puts it, “The shorthand is five parents of four children in three states.”

One of the most stunning dynamics of the family is that the parenting is cooperative, with limits. John and Andrew primarily parents George, but receive in put from Laura and Tammy, who George calls Mommy and Mama. Laura and Tammy primarily parent Lucy and Oliver, but John and Andrew, who they call Daddy and Papa, are consulted for advice or suggestions. Blainey is primarily parented by Blaine and Andrew, although she lives only with Blaine. As Andrew puts it, “We’re very clear that each child has two parents who make the parenting decisions — and that we are all interested in what third parties have to say. I’m always glad to hear the advice of the rest of the group even though I make my own decisions about what advice to follow.”

Although their family is unconventional, Solomon finds convention in much of the parenting they provide to their children. “They read many of the books I read when I was little; we work on reading and other basic skills as we did; I tell them stories; we spend lots of time with my father and stepmother, giving them a very strong association with a multi-generational family. We take care about their nutrition, health, and schooling. George is obsessed with cars and trucks; Blainey is very taken with baby dolls. I’d like to think that bringing them up swaddled in our love is in some ways keeping with the most profound part of traditional parenting.”

Of course, along with any uniqueness in a child or children’s family, comes the possibility of teasing. Solomon understands that their situation could lead to their children facing some ridicule, but he says, “We try to give them the tools they will need to rise to the occasion: self-confidence in who they are (which must perforce include who we are) for a start.” He wants them to grow up honestly, even if it does mean facing challenges. “I spent years in the closet, and the experience was very painful, and I’d like them to grow being openly themselves.”

As Solomon acknowledges, the gap between gay or lesbian children and straight parents can be extremely wide. Growing up with parents who are not supportive of who one is at the very core is damaging, particularly within the larger context of a society where homophobia is often commonplace, even within the legal system. It can feel as if there is nowhere to turn, no safe haven where who you are is not only accepted, but appreciated and valued. In the 1960’s and 70’s, when Solomon was growing up, homosexuality was defined as a mental illness and reviled by society at large. It’s not surprising the, that Solomon’s own homosexuality was not readily accepted by his parents, especially his mother. In his book, Far from the Tree, he says he has learned to see his mother’s rejection of his gayness as something of a protective gesture, not only toward him but toward herself as well. Why would any parent want their child to grow up an object of ridicule, hatred, or mocking? Within the context of the time period, she wasn’t able to see that the problem didn’t lie with her son’s homosexuality, but rather, within the homophobia and ignorance of those around him.

He says, “In my own life, I feel my parents always loved me but didn’t always accept me, and I found the deficits in their acceptance very troubling, and conflated them with the lack of love.” Now, with children of his own, Solomon draws on those early feelings of rejection in his own parenting. Not only does he believe children need to be accepted as they are, but also that their personal identities should be celebrated. While his children are still very young, and thus have not proclaimed identities wildly different from his own, he says he is very aware that they are wholly themselves rather than younger copies of himself. With this awareness comes the knowledge that to love them fully means to celebrate them for who they are, and who they will become.

As each child is different and deserving of understanding, so too is every family. Whether it be five parents of four kids in three states, or a single parent doing their best to raise an only child, the bond that defines true family is love.