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Far From the Tree – Exploring identity with Andrew Solomon

I’ve long maintained there are few things more humbling than parenting. Much of it has to be learned on the job through simple trial and error. And what works for one child often doesn’t work for your next one.

A great new book by Andrew Solomon called “Far From The Tree” delves into the many tricky complexities of parenting on the edges. Extreme parenting, if you will.
I’d like to start with a very popular fable about parenting, cited in “Far From the Tree.”

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your big plans. The Coliseum. The gondolas in Venice. You learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting and after months of anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!? What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland. The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible place. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language.

Yes, it’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never ge around to enjoying the special and lovely things about Holland.

(Adapted from “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley.)

This fable is specifically about parenting a child with a disability. But in a more muted way, it’s also about parenting anyone. Our children are never quite what we expect them to be.

As Andrew Solomon puts it on the opening page of his book, “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.”

Solomon laughed when he told me he hadn’t met anyone who didn’t, at some point, look at their child and think “Where did you come from? Who are you?”

Parents can’t help but expect the apple to fall not far from the tree. But what happens when that apple does fall far from the tree, as Solomon’s book title suggests?

Solomon says most parents tend to prize, value, or encourage those aspects of their children that they can relate to, and tend to undervalue or discourage those aspects they don’t. It’s human nature, I guess.

Solomon points out that sometimes apples fall a couple of orchards away and sometimes they fall on the other side of the world. In those cases, what’s a parent/tree to do?

He offers three general guidelines:
1) Figure out not what is going to make you happy but what might make your child happy.
2) Figure out whether your child’s “qualities” are changeable or immutable, and then don’t try to change things that aren’t changeable.
3) The most fundamental thing is to give your child a sense of wholeness and coherence.

Solomon says one mother told him, “If you’d asked me if I would like to give birth to a lesbian dwarf, I probably wouldn’t have checked that box. But she’s Anna and she’s the cornerstone of our family and I’m so glad that she managed to climb the slope of her life with so much grace.”

Solomon thinks that’s key. To admit that perhaps the child you have is not what you were looking for, but then ask yourself how you can give this child of yours a feeling of coherence and confidence.

In his massive and impressive book, Solomon looks at ten “exceptional” categories of children, including children who are deaf or dwarfs or prodigies, who have autism or schizophrenia, who are conceived in rape or who commit crimes.

The parents who raise these kids grapple with the most extreme versions of issues parents everywhere deal with.
As Solomon puts it, having “exceptional” children tends to exaggerate parental tendencies, so that those who would be bad parents become awful parents and those who would be good parents become extraordinary.

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