Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
Becoming a parent is for me an exercise in compassion for my parents. As a child I failed to understand how constant children are. I failed to understand how much my parents might have their own interests and desires. They were my parents, and I understood them in relation to me, not in relation to their own needs and desires. Parenting is increasing my appreciation of my own parents.
I'm a parent of a queer and trans variety, and I spend considerable time thinking about parenting. Perhaps, more honestly, I spend considerable time engaging in acts of parenting, and sometimes, if I am up early, or if the small person actually consented to sleep, or if I am driving, I think about parenting: how to do it, what it means, how not to do it, how to do it better, what I am teaching through my parenting. I am imperfect in my parenting, and I try to remember that the goal is not just to "do the best I can" but to be "good enough" for the particular small person I am parenting.
So, having a small window of time when I am neither in school, nor working for one, otherwise know as the winter holiday, I have embarked upon reading about other queer parents, as seen through the eyes of their children. Between Toronto and Montreal I read Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott, leaving Montreal, I started Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter by Alison Wearing, and arriving in New York I saw Fun Home the musical, based on the book by Alison Bechdel. There are literally thousands of miles still to go on our vacation - feel free to leave suggestions of what else I should be reading.
I'm struck by the similarities - both Alisons search for clues in their childhood memories that their fathers were gay. Wearing writes that her father loved making pastry at home, was an intellectual, and sang songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on the street. By this assessment, my father is also gay. Bechdel too describes her father's intellectual bend, a love of opera, and in his case, an intense interest in home restoration. Alysia Abbot and Alison Bechdel are both writing about deceased fathers, which I think gives them a certain amount of license - each of them are now the sole owners of their stories, while Alison Wearing is writing about her father who is still very much alive - although that alone can not account for how poorly crafted Confessions is in comparison to the others. Both Abbot and Bechdel write about their relationships, they use like "we" and "us". Wearing mostly writes about herself, her's is a book about "I" in which her father makes very brief cameos.
To add a final similarity, they are all, roughly speaking contemporaries, and my contemporaries. It makes me wonder if my interest in all three is about my age and life stage, of if there is a broader cultural force at work.
Fun Home was deeply satisfying. My queer self grew up with Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel's comic that ran from 1987 to 2008. By the time I came out, anywhere, it already was. It modeled a world I wanted, centred around friendships, chosen family and a bookstore, it included people of a wide variety of sexual orientations, queers choosing to raise kids, trans people, and all manner of geeks with glasses. Some times I was Mo. Some times I wanted to date her. Some of the women I dated were very Mo-like. With Fun Home, Bechdel turns inwards, and writes explicitly about her own childhood, her closet gay or bisexual dad, her figuring out her own queerness, her mother performing theatre, and the funeral home in which they all live. I loved Fun Home as a book. I also love Fun Home the musical. It's clever, and beautiful, and hard. Seeing medium Alison sing about her first relationship with a woman "I'm changing my major to Joan" is delightful, and yes, pretty much exactly how I remember the heady early days of discovering sex and love. Seeing small Alison sing about seeing a butch delivery person and recognizing both something is desirable, and something that she wants to be, was a relief. When the world is so full of messages that children should romanticize heterosexuality, it feels emancipatory that a small person can sing on stage about something outside of heterosexuality. It's been extended again (for the fifth time) and I understand why. Go see it. It was what I needed in so many ways.
Fairyland is engrossing. While Alysia Abbott does not identify as queer, of gay, she grew-up culturally queer. For her, Fairyland was a magical time in San Francisco, before AIDS, when her childhood was full of happy men. It's a difficult read, in that she writes about hard experiences, including her father's struggles with addiction, and her being left to fend for herself far too often and far too young, but she writes about them beautifully. She acknowledges that her dad was struggling to meet his own needs, as well as hers, and their relationship feels complex and loving. It captures her experiences, and a particular point in time beautifully. It was a pleasure to read.
Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter is an overwritten insult. Clearly someone told Wearing that good writing uses lots of adjectives, and she took that to heart, adding adjectives in all manner of places, whether they are needed or not. It would be far more honest to call her book "Confessions of the child of divorced mother" - her mother being far more present both in her childhood and the book than her father, although "Confessions of a Narcissist" or "A Childhood of Unexamined Privilege" would also work. Wearing opts for a homophobic title, complete with a glib paragraph claiming that she doesn't mean fairy in a homophobic way so it's all fine. Except that her book is full of her own homophobia, and as a person who is not "a fairy" nor a part of fairy culture, it's not her's to use. If you feel compelled to read any of this book, the section titled "How He Saw It" is the one to read - Alison's father is by far the superior writer.
And from here, now, as a parent, what would I write about my childhood relationships with my parents? Earlier this spring, I read Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree which talks about what happens when children become part of a horizontal culture to which the parents do not belong. He began the research behind the book spurred on by his experience as a gay son of straight parents, thinking about their differences and distance. He expanded this to other identities. It helps me think about how my queerness, my Jewishness, my vegetarianism all brought me into cultures that are foreign to my parents, and gives me a greater willingness and ability to contemplate what these cultural differences meant and mean in our relationships.
I parent. I hope to be good enough to the small person I care for. I wonder how he will tell this story.