This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, tells the story of the Walsh-Adams family. Rosie is a doctor. Her husband, Penn, is an aspiring author. They live in an old, sprawling farmhouse in Wisconsin with their five young sons. In the summer months Rosie’s mum rents a small house nearby and helps out with the kids. Life is full and exhausting and chaotic but somehow they get by. Then their youngest, their clever and precocious three year old son Claude decides that he wants to be a girl.
At first it doesn’t seem to matter. It is assumed to be a phase. Claude wears an old dress of Rosie’s around the house. He wants to wear it to preschool but his parents say no, worried about how the other kids would react. Slowly they come to realise that Claude feels stifled by their insistence that he conform to society’s expectations for his gender. They accept the weird in their other sons, and there is plenty of weird in this family as there is hidden in most others, but still they struggle with allowing their littlest boy to grow his hair and wear a dress. This is what he wants. This is all he wants.
What follows is the family’s attempt to accommodate Claude’s obvious and growing need. It is a constant balancing act between allowing their child to be herself and protecting her from the rancour of those who see this sort of behaviour as a perversion. Amongst the children it is difficult but the greatest challenge is dealing with the sometimes vicious reactions of adults.
As Claude grows, changes are made to help her become the girl she feels she is. As happens during any child’s development, a whole new set of problems emerge as she ages. Should Claude’s history be shared with those who don’t know she was once a boy? And then, how should they deal with puberty?
By placing Claude in a big family the author is able to explore the effect of gender dysphoria on siblings. When Claude starts a new school she is accepted as a girl because her classmates are told no different. It was never intended to be hidden but that is what happens How is the truth to be revealed now that she has made good friends? Secrets take their toll on all involved.
Rosie and Penn are doing the best they can for Claude and sometimes this seriously disrupts the lives of their other children. All are developing and learning, trying to fit in and get by. So much of a parent’s efforts on behalf of their children are directed towards giving them the best chances for the future. When it comes to Claude this may include drugs and possible surgery. Timing affects the success of outcomes, but can they be sure that this is what their young child will want later in his or her life?
The writing style is gentle despite the difficult issues being presented. Rosie and Penn do not always get things right, but then what parents do? The hypocrisies of society’s attitude to gender are well evoked, as is the intolerance of a supposedly progressive country. In the middle of it all is a child who longs for acceptance for what she is, something that she struggles to find words to explain.
For me the most shocking aspect of this book was not just the blatant but also the passive aggressive treatment of transgender individuals, even by those who consider themselves liberal, and the high rate of suicide amongst the young that this causes. Gender dysphoria is not going to go away just because it discomforts those who would prefer everyone to conform to their narrow definition of normal. What is needed is better education and acceptance, and not just along lines proscribed by tick box legislation which can sometimes create little more than different sets of boxes for people to be squeezed uncomfortably into.
This is a thought provoking read that I am happy to recommend. It does not offer easy answers, but the questions asked are more profound than acceptance of binary gender change.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.