The Kiddy Pool: Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far From the Tree’

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I started reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree after seeing the author discuss his work on The Colbert Report. Solomon is an eloquent and compelling interviewee, and I found his concept compelling: that sometimes in parenting or in being parented we feel like we are among strangers in a strange land. Solomon points out that while we take pride in differentiating ourselves from our own parents, we feel hurt and rejected when our own children try to distinguish themselves from us. It can, at times, feel like children who deviate from familial norms are critiquing the families’ values, rather than simply being themselves. Allowing our children that space to be who they are (without personal effrontery) and recognizing how much we cannot control are central themes in Solomon’s lengthy tome.

On his text’s first page, Solomon challenges the word choice “reproduction,” arguing instead that raising children is an act of “production,” and we are usually unsure just what we’re making. He writes:

Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.

Solomon emphasizes case studies of “exceptional” children whose extreme characteristics place them well-outside the social mainstream. His chapter titles include “Deafness,” “Dwarfism,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” “Schizophrenia,” “Disability,” “Prodigies,” “Rape,” “Crime,” and “Transgender.” Many of these topics straddle the line between “illness” and “identity,” depending on one’s perspective as well as one’s resources. Yet in the families he interviewed, Solomon found profound joy where he expected to discover incredible sadness. The challenge, it seems, is learning to love our children for who they are, for who they are meant to be, and not as vessels or torchbearers for our own dreams and desires.

Solomon’s interviews are bookended by his own experiences as a child (learning to read and write with dyslexia, coming to terms with his homosexuality in a context that sought a “cure”) and his own revelations as a parent. There may be many exceptional things about Solomon’s own life in parenting and being parented, but his book resonates with all parents, whether our children are ordinary or exceptional. All of us face the challenge of accepting (or failing to accept) that our children are not really ours, not our possessions or our prizes, not our second chances or our affirmations of a life well-lived.

It’s a lesson I remember every time I look into my older daughter’s face; I wonder when she will get tired of hearing how much she looks like me, how much she is like me. And it’s true in many senses that she’s not far from her mother’s tree. We understand one another, but she’s not me, and she’s not really mine. I must teach her to live out the missions God intended for her, and while rearing her may be part of my own missions, she is not my handiwork but His.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    i have had this on hold at the library for ages. i cannot wait to read it. thanks for writing about it!


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