Knowing something about my work on ethics and atypical sex anatomies in children, several people have recommended Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (2012). Each of the chapters is devoted to children with a condition or what might be described as a feature of identity that sets them apart from their parents. There is no chapter that focuses on children with intersex or DSD, but Solomon’s narrative can offer some important insight for parents of children with atypical sex anatomies.
Solomon is knowledgeable about intersex. In developing his project, Solomon writes in the introduction, he “talked to parents of intersex children who couldn’t decide in which gender to raise them.” It will be clear to readers familiar with the critical literature on atypical sex anatomies how Solomon’s analysis has been shaped by work such as Erik Parens’ collection, Surgically Shaping Children. It is unfortunate, however, that Solomon’s characterization of the challenge of intersex focuses on sex assignment. Solomon’s comment not only reinforces a misconception about what atypical sex is, but also fails to convey to his readers how varied (and indeed dissimilar) the different expressions of atypical sex are. And perhaps this is why Solomon didn’t include such a chapter: There are so many differences among the conditions and conventional treatments for DSD that devoting a single chapter to one condition—like congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which affects both genetically male and female children, but at birth results in atypical sex anatomies only in females—could not present a neat representation of the condition in a child and the challenges that parents of children with intersex face.
It would be a daunting task to capture in a single chapter such differences in experience. But perhaps what sets parents of children with atypical sex anatomy apart from those Solomon features is the fact that these parents have been given to understand that their child’s difference is “correctible” (in the case of normalizing surgery) or that it can be effectively concealed—from others and sometimes, from the child him or herself. Parents of children who are deaf might not appear to have a lot in common with parents of children who are schizophrenic, or who identify as transgender. What these parents have in common, as Solomon gently and movingly guides his readers to understand, is that they must come to terms with a condition they have no power to alter in their child.
Unlike the parents of children Solomon features who must learn to adjust to their child’s differences, to modify their expectations both of their children and of themselves, parents of children with atypical sex have most often seen their task as good and caring and responsible parents to consent to or pursue interventions they believe will spare their children the pain associated with not “being normal.”
Physicians have counseled parents of children with DSD to accept surgical normalization and to conceal their medical history from them in an effort to prevent children from assuming “identities” (intersex? queer? gay?), at odds with their parents’ expectations. This last point may be at the crux of what is challenging about atypical sex anatomies in children, namely the question of who the children are or will be.
We cannot decide who our children are, and this insight may be the most important one may we take from the stories Solomon tells in Far from the Tree. But we can, as Alice Dreger put it in Psychology Today essay, “start getting used to the fact that your children will change you as much as you change them.”