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'Far From the Tree': Parenting Children Who Are Different

Nov. 30, 2012 | Caroline Miller

Andrew Solomon's new book, Far From the Tree, about parents of children who are dramatically different from them—or, perhaps more to the point, different from what the average parent hopes for or expects in children—is being reviewed, annotated, discussed and dissected all over. Book reviewers have applauded it for offering a candid and often surprising look at parents' struggles to accept and passion to protect children with "differences" ranging from autism to Down syndrome to dwarfism; kids who are gay or deaf or prodigies or killers.

The aggregation of these various (and arguably radically different) challenges to parenting is provocative, and critics have found it very affecting. Dwight Garner, the often-acerbic New York Times book critic, calls it "knotty, gargantuan and lion-hearted."

But to me, what's especially interesting are responses and recollections from parents for whom the emotional landscape Solomon is exploring is intimately, sometimes painfully, familiar.

Slate offers an intense essay by Cristina Nehring, a writer and single mother of a girl with Down syndrome who seconds some of Solomon's conclusions: "Hard love is in no way inferior to easy love," she cites, and "Diversity is what unites us all." But she takes issue with others, including the idea that the prospect of a limited future leads to "chronic sadness" in parents of children with Down syndrome. "I find it leads to "chronic carpe diem"—a chronic desire to seize the day and wring the best possible from every moment—and from myself."

It bothers Nehring that Solomon echoes the notion that while autism is mysterious, Down syndrome is not. "Autists are prodigies, introverts, misunderstood; people with Down syndrome are just dumb and dull," she writes. "And yet, Eurydice has always been mysterious to me." And she adds about her daughter, "The joy Eurydice takes in each detail of life is the most infectious quality I've ever known."

In a sometimes painfully honest piece in the National Journal, Ron Fournier, a veteran Associated Press reporter, offers a very different take on his relationship with his autistic son Tyler. Fournier's journey starts with his frustration and disappointment that Tyler is terrible at sports—which had been his only real model for father-son bonding—and his admission that he was upset at Tyler's typically Asperger's behaviors. "I was not just embarrassed about Tyler's manners; I was embarrassed about being embarrassed." He was also upset when the psychologist who diagnosed Tyler at 12 said that he was also depressed. He was sad and socially isolated, and "mortified about his failure to live up to my expectations," Fournier writes guiltily. What's sweet and funny about this piece is the role that two presidents—George W. Bush and Bill Clinton—play in teaching this former White House reporter how to be a better father to a son who has fallen, or maybe just landed, "far from the tree."

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