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Challenge of the “Different” Child

by Vicki Cabot

The retelling of the story of the Israelites’ passage out of Egypt is deepened with the understanding that each of us inhabits our own Egypt, our own mitzrayim, or narrows, and struggles to free ourselves from the morass of deficits, doubts and disappointments that entangle us. So two recent books are particularly meaningful this season, with their tales of valiant struggle and their messages of hope and resilience.
“I started this book to forgive my parents,” writes Andrew Solomon in his extraordinary study of difference in children, “and ended it by becoming a parent myself.” Such an ending is nothing short of a triumphal validation of Solomon’s gradual understanding of the profound and utter joy of parenting, despite its potential for equally profound and utter despair. Bookending his remarkable Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity with chapters titled “Son” and “Father,” Solomon uses the amazingly readable 700 or so pages in between to look at children whose identity typifies difference — deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, transsexualism, among others — and the ways in which their families, and society, perceive and respond to them. He constructs a matrix of vertical identities — attributes or values passed down from parents or cultural norms — and horizontal identities — inherent or acquired traits not acquired from parents — and maps his stories of more than 300 families, interviewed over a course of 10 years, on the framework.
Solomon, a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University and the special adviser on LGBT affairs at Yale University, was moved to explore difference from his own identity as a gay man, and from his experiences growing up in a home and at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. He writes perceptively, as son and now parent, of the wondrous miracle of birth and the incipient optimism it engenders, and how parents’ hopes can be dashed when the child they bear does not match their imagined picture.
Solomon suggests that dealing with such realities can make parenting all the more valiant, as the everyday practicalities of having an atypical child reveal unexpected meaning. It comes, he says, as parents reach a level of acceptance of their child’s horizontal identity and cast off the weight of expectation. Then, he says, “they (fall) in love with someone they didn’t yet know enough to want.”

(To read the rest of the article, please visit the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix website.)