Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Transamerica

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It took me one month to get pregnant.

It took me 38 1/2 weeks (gestation), 5 hours (labor), and 37 minutes (pushing) to become a mother.

My route to parenthood, that is, was just about as quick and direct as it gets.

But whether a child lands in your arms as a wet and squalling newborn, or arrives on your doorstep with baggage both literal and emotional, once you become a parent, you need to learn how to be a parent. And that, we all discover eventually, can be a matter of continual reinvention and recommitment.

In Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) we witness the complicated road to parenthood taken by a woman named Bree (Felicity Huffman, in a remarkable departure from her role on Desperate Housewives), who learns how to parent while driving her new-found son from New York to Los Angeles after she bails him out of jail.

Bree isn't expecting to become a parent. When she gets the call from her son (who is looking for his dad), she's one week away from the gender reassignment surgery that will complete her transition from male to female. The call makes her realize that a brief and awkward college relationship ("It was tragically lesbian" she confides to her therapist) must have borne fruit. She hangs up on her son, thinking she'll wire him some money, maybe visit after her surgery, when she's "settled" into her new gender. A child just doesn't fit into her quiet, straight-laced life.

Welcome to parenthood, Bree: it messes with your plans. Her therapist insists that Bree respond to her son. Pretending to be a social worker "from the Church of the Potential Father," as she jokes wryly, Bree flies to New York and discovers that Toby is a drug-using, trick-turning, apartment-squatting teen. Uncertain about claiming him--still feeling that she has a choice--she keeps her true relationship to him a secret.

Some of us make the choice to become parents quite consciously; some of us come to the role less thoughtfully, even less willingly. Bree is good at studying (she spent ten years in college) but weaker at follow-through (she never earned a degree), so she and Toby make some educational stops along their journey. She needs to figure out when and how to stop "living stealth" (as she describes her under-the-radar life) and how to start living as a woman who is also, surprisingly, a father.

Their first stop is Toby's childhood home, in Arkansas, where Bree learns Toby's mother committed suicide and his stepfather abused him. The nearest thing to a parent here is the neighbor who envelops him in a hug while chiding him for leaving, "Oh, I could wring your neck like a chicken!"

In Texas, they stay with a woman hosting a gender pride party, and Bree finds herself describing the other guests to Toby as "ersatz." "Phony," she clarifies, and forges on awkwardly, aware of her hypocrisy, "Something pretending to be something it's not."

Like most of us, she's less in control of how her child sees her than she'd like. Toby discovers accidentally that Bree is transsexual, but the revelation is just a bump in the road. They've been forging a relationship in the car, talking across the miles while they meet up with other misfits and unclaimed folks, like the kooky "level-4 vegan" who sees Bree's transsexuality as a "radically evolved state of being." Seeing through others' eyes lets them see each other more clearly.

But when circumstances deposit them on Bree's parents' doorstep, she has to 'fess up that her parents aren't, as she's insisted to anyone who asked, dead, and then has to reveal that she is a parent, too.

Bree's homecoming isn't, at first, much better than Toby's earlier in the film. Her mom, Elizabeth, slams the door in her face and then, reconsidering, pulls her in quickly so the neighbors won't see. She grabs at Bree's crotch to reassure herself that "he's still a boy," then weeps and runs off when Bree counters by putting Elizabeth's hand to her chest. But Elizabeth melts at the news that Toby is her grandson, and claiming this boy helps her to start recognizing Bree as her child, too.

The rough start in Phoenix turns out to be a false start. One of the film's many comedic scenes (a family dinner out) is followed by one of its most painful. Having corrected strangers along the journey who assumed Bree was his mom, Toby now denies her as his father. He disappears, and Bree is left weeping in her mother's arms.

The road trip abandoned, Bree flies home alone. L.A. doesn't look like the place for a happy ending. She's in pain from her operation and disconsolate at Toby's disappearance. He's acting in a porn flick, and the behind-the-scenes glimpse of his job is the most awkward in a film built on awkward moments. But when he knocks on her door to see if she really had her surgery, they sit down alone together, as they did for miles on the road, and start a companionable conversation. Their relationship isn't simple, but they're finally home, and they're starting to look like a family.


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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I loved this movie. Yay, Caroline!
I loved this movie. Felicity Huffman was indeed remarkable as the highly confused parent to this neglected teenage boy. As if parenting weren't hard enough, add to it the complications presented in the film, and it's amazing they're able to forge any kind of relationship at all. As always, Caroline gives us an excellent take on this painful and funny movie.
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