By Grace Manger
This Is How It Always Is, a novel by author Laurie Frankel that is based on her own family, takes the reader across a decade in time and as far away as a remote village in Thailand to tell the story of a transgender child* and her family’s efforts to accept, protect, and celebrate her.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the storyline that most intrigued me before picking up this book—it was the title. At first, the title read as a nonsensical jumble of the plainest words in the English language: this is how it always is. As a writer myself, I know that titles can add so much to the work as a whole, which is exactly why I was so excited to dive in and find out what Laurie Frankel meant by proclaiming that “this is how it always is.”
The book centers on a large family of seven living in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s Penn (an author), Rosie (a physician), and their five children: Roo, Ben, twins Rigel and Orion, and their youngest, Poppy. When Poppy was born (which is when this story begins), doctors originally determined her to be male, and her parents gave her the name Claude. The novel first takes us through the early years of Poppy’s life, portraying her as intelligent and emotionally mature beyond her years. Then, a series of events unfold through the pages that bring us to the novel’s first turning point: Poppy proclaims that she is a girl, and her whole family scrambles to understand as best they can. Soon, they end up moving the whole family from the conservative Midwest to progressive Seattle in an attempt to give Poppy a fresh start and—hopefully—find a more progressive community. There, they wrestle with the same myriad of questions every parent of a trans kid knows all too well: Should they tell anyone that Poppy is transgender? Will they care? Ultimately deciding that their child’s genitals are no one’s business, Rosie and Penn decide to keep the information in the family.
One of the things I loved most about the novel is that readers have a front row seat to observe the characters learning lessons through their own journeys—lessons that readers can easily extract from the page and use in their own lives. In fact, the title that I so desperately wanted to uncover the meaning of turned out to be a lesson learned over and over again throughout the novel: whenever Rosie and Penn found themselves forced to make a decision on behalf of Poppy—Should they let her wear a dress to school? Should they let her change her name and pronouns? Should they move to a more liberal city?—they reminded themselves that, as parents, they are constantly navigating difficult decisions and can’t always know whether they’re making the right one or not. In a pivotal scene between Rosie and Penn about making decisions about their child’s future, Penn concludes:
“As parents, we make a thousand decisions a year with life-altering impact whose implications our kids couldn’t possibly get their heads around. That’s our job. That’s what parenting is. We decided to move across the country via some insane calculus that concluded Poppy being safer outweighed Roo being crankier because Ben might be happier and Orion and Rigel were a wash. We had no idea if it would work. We had no idea if it was the best thing. We researched. We thought about it. We discussed. And we made the best guess we could with the information we had on behalf of our children whose lives we thus changed indelibly forever.”
In parenthood, this is how it always is: you do what you think is best for your child, what you think will help them be happy and whole, and then support them if things go awry. Yes, having a trans kid can feel painfully scary and unfamiliar—but so is being a parent to any kid, even though some specific challenges may look different. “This is how it always is” is meant to remind parents of trans kids everywhere to keep unconditional love and compassion at the forefront of their journey.
It’s important to note that the book does not shy away from difficult conversations and painful topics, including the trauma of being outed, transphobic language, and vivid descriptions of violence against trans people. For that reason, I am hesitant to recommend this book to trans people themselves as it may trigger past trauma. However, I also think that embarking on a journey alongside Poppy’s parents could be really educational for other parents of trans kids out there! Rosie and Penn cycle through such a long list of emotions—everything from fear, to grief, to anxiety, to celebration—yet their fierce love for their child remains clear. Bearing witness to their intensely complicated process is an intimate and profound experience for us as readers, but one that is probably best saved for those who have the most to learn from these twists and turns: parents themselves.
Parenting a trans kid often brings a steep learning curve—suddenly you need to learn everything you can about something you’ve maybe never thought about before, all while making sure your child is safe and happy. This Is How It Always Is would be an excellent addition to these parents’ toolkits, as it unapologetically shows the triumphs and screw-ups that can happen along the way, and reminds parents everywhere to keep communication open and love at the forefront of everything you do.
*Additional commentary on the character of Poppy & identity that includes spoilers*
While much of this book is a beautiful demonstration of what it means to be a part of a family, and how to fight like hell for your kid’s happiness, that doesn’t mean Rosie and Penn don’t stumble along the way. Their major flaw for the majority of the story is thinking of their child’s identity on a strict binary, where Poppy is on one end and Claude is on the other, and her choosing one over the other will be true for the rest of her life. By the end of the story, though, I found Poppy’s identity to be very much in flux, and seeming to be heading towards a non-binary identity more than anything else. For example, when asked if she is a boy or a girl, Poppy responds with a simple “No.” Rosie and Penn, too, begin to imagine a “middle way” for Poppy, imagining a future where their 10-year-old doesn’t have to decide between medically transitioning to be Poppy or being painfully unhappy as a boy. Rather, they start to imagine a world that can “learn to love a person with a beard who goes by ‘she’ and wears a skirt” (Frankel 237). I was somewhat surprised to see all other reviews and articles about the book referring to Poppy as a trans girl, as the story’s ending is so unclear regarding Poppy’s gender identity. Perhaps the story’s ending is a lesson, too; about being comfortable with uncertainty, and allowing children time and space to walk their own path and come to their own conclusions about their own gender identity.
Grace Manger manages all content and development here at My Kid Is Gay. A graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. In her spare time, she can be found reading feminist theory, writing letters, and doing handstands around the world. Follow her on Twitter @gracemanger