Transgender children have been much in the headlines after President Trump rescinded Title IX protections for trans students February 22. That would be enough to make Laurie Frankel’s new novel, about parents raising a trans daughter, relevant and timely. This Is How It Always Is would, however, be an exceptional book about parenting, family, and identity at any time.
Frankel is herself the mother of a trans daughter, which gives her writing a solid authenticity, even though she tells us in the afterward that this is not a memoir about her child. “She’s the only one who can tell her story,” Frankel says. And while novelists prefer their own parenting lives to be “as plot-free as possible, they want their books to be “perilous, unpredictable, full of near misses and heartbreak and disasters narrowly averted.”
Frankel delivers. The parents at the center of her book, Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, are hoping their fifth child will break their string of four boys—only to find out she does, but not in the way they expected. At three years old, their presumed boy Claude tells them, “I want to be a little girl.”
Rosie and Penn take Claude’s (now Poppy’s) declaration in stride. “Was it any stranger, really,” his parents reflect, than one of her brothers “licking the spine of every book in the house to prove he could taste the difference between fiction and nonfiction? It was not.” The parents themselves defy traditional gender roles, with Penn, a writer, staying home with the kids while Rosie works as a doctor.
Frankel reveals a downside to this blithe attitude, however, raising the question: Can a family be so accepting and supportive of their trans child that they fail to prepare them for life in the real world? When Poppy’s kindergarten turns out to be less than welcoming, the parents decide to move across the country, in hopes that Poppy can make a fresh start as the girl they know she is. All goes well until, as Poppy approaches puberty, her trans identity is revealed at school, and the family must figure out how best to help her navigate her future.
Frankel shows us the questions that can occupy parents of trans kids—not only big ones like where will the child be safe, or whether they should start hormone blockers, but everyday ones like whether other families are inviting the child over for playdates out of curiosity, not friendship. And she creates thought-provoking moments like when the transitioning Poppy learns of workplace sexism and asks, “When I get a job … will I get paid more, like a boy, or less, like a girl?”
Although Frankel raises these issues, she avoids pedantry and relates the specifics of raising a trans child to challenges many parents face. To what extent should they make decisions they think are best for their children, versus letting the children make them on their own? How do they balance the needs of siblings? How do they handle the stress that kids put on their own relationship? Her sharp, humorous observations of family life will resonate with anyone who has tried, as Rosie and Penn do, to balance family, careers, and relationship.
A few parts of the book stretch credibility. Poppy is precocious almost to the point of disbelief; the social worker-therapist who is advising Rosie is almost a caricature in his cheerful eccentricity. Part of the family’s journey, too, treads dangerously close to the “White people turning to Asia for enlightenment” trope, although the country in question, Thailand, does have a history of being somewhat more trans-friendly than many others. Practical considerations may thus justify its part in the story. Frankel perhaps overstates Thailand’s trans-friendliness, though—compare Natnicha Chuwiruch’s June 2016 Associated Press story, “What It’s Really Like to be Transgender in Thailand,” which discusses some of the ongoing hurdles.
Overall, however, this is a delightful yet thoughtful read with spot-on insights not only about raising a trans child, but about gender, parenting, and human interaction generally speaking. The Walsh-Adams have a relatable quirkiness—and Frankel is to be commended for making them, as Penn says, “a weird family” from the start, not a picture-perfect one into which transgender Poppy is the only thing making them stand out.
The most important takeaway from the novel, though, is a sense of the agency we each have in creating our own life stories. The bedtime story that Penn creates for their children, which acts as a play within a play, weaves Poppy into a fairy tale that gives her existence context and meaning. While the tale—as with Frankel’s book as a whole—will not fit every family with a trans child, it is not meant to do so. As Penn reminds Poppy, this is her story, not just to pass on, but “to make up as well.” Frankel has harnessed her prodigious storytelling powers to give other parents—and other trans children—a basis for understanding and evolving their own stories.
The book, Frankel says in the afterward, is “an exercise in wish fulfillment.” Novelists “imagine the world we hope for and endeavor … to bring that world into being. I wish for my child, for all our children, a world where they can be who they are and become their most loved, blessed, appreciated selves.” Read her book. Then go work for that world.
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