Andrew Solomon has painstakingly and intelligently put together an extraordinary book, entitled Far From the Tree - Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Published in 2012, this endearing, profound book introduces us to the eternal struggles of parenthood, as viewed from families with uniquely challenging circumstances, and it offers insight and hope for all of us who live side-by-side with such families.
The author spent a decade interviewing families, more than 300 of them, his interest stemming from his relationship with his own parents and the struggles they experienced because of his being a gay man. What he set out do, which is an ambitious task, was to explore how parents adapt to rearing children who differ profoundly from themselves. He chose ten types of family experiences, with the intention to "explore the spectrum of difference, to show that raising a child of extraordinary abilities is in some ways like raising a child of reduced capacities, to show that a child's traumatic origin (rape) or traumatic acts (crime) can have surprising parallels to the condition of his mind (autistic, schizophrenic, prodigious) or of his body (dwarfism, deafness)."
He introduces us to his idea that individuals have two different types of identity: vertical identities and horizontal identities. Vertical identities relate to those things we inherit from our parents and that we, by default, have in common, such as ethnicity and language. Horizontal identities are those things that children acquire through genetic mutation, health conditions, or simply unique personalities that they don't share in common with their parents. His book focuses on relationships in which the child's horizontal identities are very different from their parents, and are extraordinarily challenging for parents to understand and cope with.
It's a big book, with over 600 pages, which I'm finding very gratifying to read. It's brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh. It's plunged me into worlds I haven't known personally, given me view into parenting struggles I can only imagine. By reading only one chapter at a time, you could say I'm savoring it, and I'm not done yet!
Now, you may be wondering - "great, but what the heck does this have to do with the NICU, Trish?" Good question. The truth is, many families in the NICU will someday be faced with the reality that their children will have horizontal identities that are hard for parents. Whether because of prematurity, down syndrome (which has it's own entire chapter in this book), or complex health complications and physical disability (which also has it's own chapter), many NICU parents will find themselves in the very same shoes that the families in the book are wearing.
I find his thought process refreshing and I find his style of writing comfortably challenging, with words every now and again that I have to stop and look up. It feels like being a part of an fascinatingconversation with an extremely smart and interesting person who is passionate about his work and who has an incredible capacity for empathy.
So, for those of you interested in a unique look at parenting struggles, for those of you willing to take on a heavy book filled with empathy, intelligence, and surprises, give this book a try. I know I'm thoroughly enjoying it, and I hope you will to.
One important point: I would not recommend this book as a gift to any parent currently going through the NICU, for it will likely trigger even greater anxiety over what their future holds for them. But for many people, whether living as families of intense parenting struggles or not, the insight and lessons shared are very valuable.