Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

In her debut book, This Boy We Made, A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics and Facing the Unknown, Taylor Harris gives voice to the steep learning curve and related anxiety that come with the high-stakes work of parenting. When her young son begins suffering from listlessness, processing delays, and other troubling symptoms, Harris seeks answers however she can. In the process, she builds new parenting skills as she navigates her own emotional terrain, the education system, and the medical establishment.

Many parents will relate to that near-constant sense of grappling with the unknown that comes with raising a baby and toddler through those early years. Why is the baby crying this time? Is this normal? Should we call the doctor? Little by little, parents learn to make the best decisions we can by weighing the information and instincts we have at our disposal. We see what happens with the choices we’ve made. Then we keep choosing, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, and learning and growing along the way.

Watch our conversation below (or scroll down for the transcript) to learn about Harris’s journey as an advocate for her son, and as a chronicler of the experience, as well.

Maya Smart: Well thank you so much for joining me today. I wanted to chat with you about your book, This Boy We Made. What a gorgeous cover is this? Tell me a little bit about the cover art and what you think that it says about the content.

Taylor Harris: The cover is one of my favorite things and I feel like I get to brag on it without sounding some kind of way because I didn’t have a lot to do with it. So Nicole is the artist of the cover and I had sent her, you can see there’s the silhouette of my son. 

And so I sent her a picture of him. He used to love, even when he was two and three, he would jump off these picnic tables and I’d always be like, can can a kid break their shin? I don’t know if this is okay, but he loved it so much that I let him do it. So I sent her a picture of him doing that. But she came up with a lot of it as far as that sort of the colors they almost have this tunnel effect, which I love and I love that he sparkles and that was one of the things, I showed him an ARC early on and he was like, “Ooh, I’m sparkly.”

Maya Smart: Wonderful. I didn't realize that that was an actual silhouette of your son. I assumed it was just an imaginary boy kind of leaping out into the world. So it does definitely have special significance that it's your actual son. So in the book you call him Tophs, am I pronouncing it correctly?

Taylor Harris: Yes, you got it right, and he would be so happy. He’s so kind, but he gets toast like french toast or some people, they listen for it and they’re like, “Oh toes, why is your nickname toes?” But yes, Tophs it is.

Maya Smart: Fantastic. And so tell us a bit about him. He's obviously a central, I don't want to say character, but a central—since he's a real boy—but a central figure in the book. If you were introducing him to someone who's thinking about picking up the book, what would you say about him?

Taylor Harris: Again, something I can say because I didn’t make it up. A former teacher of his, we were texting one day recently and she was like, you know what, Tophs is the best of all of us. And I thought that that was just really sweet and also just hits on this—like when he said “I’m sparkly,” there’s something about him that, even if I wasn’t sure I could always get through to him or understand him, because his speech was delayed early on, but what you get is this sort of vibrancy from him. 

And he really takes it on and handles it and wants to know, “What condition do I have?” Because we do have some smaller diagnoses for him, just not a global one, and he wants to know, “How do I spell it? Can I research it on my Chromebook?” And so that’s been really neat to see as he gets older we can have those conversations.

Maya Smart: For folks who haven't read the book yet, can you explain sort of how he figures? You mentioned some of the small diagnoses but I would say the book, much of it is a journey trying to understand him better and understand these symptoms that he's experiencing over time, starting when he was about 22 months.

Taylor Harris: You know, you can go back to his birth and everything was sort of okay. But at 22 months I feel like his body was just, made us notice.

Maya Smart: At what point did you start writing about it? Of course at the beginning you didn't think of it as a book. Was it journaling? Was it just taking notes about observations? So how did the writing part begin?

Taylor Harris: The funny thing is almost before the 22 months sort of crash, I had a column for McSweeney’s called Big Mom on campus that was mostly humorous. There were some more serious columns that I wrote, but most of it was just sort of making fun and light of motherhood and these ridiculous challenges we face, like when our baby has a blowout in the car and things like that. 

I had some experience writing about motherhood, but again a lot of funny things or I’d write a little bit about anxiety and motherhood and how I think I saw some of my anxiety in my firstborn daughter. But then with Tophs and sort of the seriousness of the story, it did sort of start with some journaling and then I just had help from other writers and editors and other mom friends who were like, “Hey, we don’t want to pressure you, but would you be open to writing about some of your experiences?”

Maya Smart: That's beautiful. As you're experiencing it, once you get into the point where it's a book, you're actively working on a book, you're revisiting reports from doctor's appointments or journal entries or your own memories, how do you then determine, since it's a real story unfolding in your own life, how do you know when it's the end?

Taylor Harris: That is the question. Something that came up quite a bit during the process was like how does this story end? And something I kind of joke about now, the book went out to some people who work in other forms of media, like if they wanted to make it into a movie or a series or something. 

And one of the notes back was, the story is so beautiful, let us know if you get a diagnosis. And I was like, well I sort of feel good about that because it’s not a comment on my writing, I actually can’t just give you a diagnosis. But also was sort of like, yes, I would like to be the first to know if there’s a diagnosis.

Maya Smart You're like, no one wants a diagnosis more than me.

Taylor Harris: But the reader, I always say the reader, if the reader’s going to invest, they deserve some movement, some shift, some change, some coming back to, and so I think of This Boy We Made, yes, there is shift, there’s movement, there’s narrative tension, but also it’s kind of circling around these similar questions and I think it’s inviting the reader to consider them with me. 

And so do I end up with more knowledge at the end of the book? For sure. Different perspective? For sure. But there are some things that hold true I think throughout the book about a mother and her son. And I think for me that was important to come back to, like, you know what, even when you don’t have all the answers there are, there are these truths and they’ve been true forever. And I was okay with that sort of being part of the ending of the book.

Maya Smart: In the book you write about entering a lot of different medical settings and there's a certain vulnerability when you're arriving with your son and you know there's an issue, the issue doesn't have a name, but you write movingly about how you feel about being perceived or judged by people in different settings. Can you talk about that a bit? Just as a black mom entering spaces where your child is being assessed?

Taylor Harris: We all know certain things, right? Or I shouldn’t say we all, but I think there are things we should all know, like the mortality rate of black women giving birth or the review that came out of med schools where people legitimately still believe black people feel less pain and things like that. And so when I walked into these offices, especially if it was a doctor who was filling in, he has some great regular doctors who I’m not talking about here. 

One of the scenes is the doctor filling in saying sort of, “Wait, you know, gave your daughter Tylenol when, how bad was her fever?” And I say something, I don’t know, 101, 102, something not terrible, but I’m a pretty new mom and he is like, “We don’t give Tylenol for fevers like that. And where did you say you live again?” And this is Charlottesville. So I’m like, why does that matter?

And sometimes it can be because I’m like, am I treated a way because I’m a stay-at-home mom? Am I treated a certain way because I’m a woman, a black woman? Because I look young? And it’s hard to know. And so it’s, it’s almost that burden of proof I think that we carry. For me a lot of what I wanted, I think the reader to feel was that burden, that questioning. Yes, some of it is my own sort of the way anxiety works in my body and my mind and I can spiral and think about a question and ruminate. 

The other part is the sort of outside forces acting on you and knowing the history even of Charlottesville and how black people tend to be treated in hospitals and that includes in Charlottesville for sure. So there were rarely easy answers to that, a hundred percent I knew certainly I was being treated differently because of race, but you still can’t ignore it, even if I’m not a hundred percent sure.

Maya Smart: I wanted to end where we started by talking about this leaping, sparkling boy on the cover of your book. What have you told him about book and about the stories within it, and what does he feel about it?

Taylor Harris: The question is what has he told other people? I took him to CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) recently because now we’re in Pennsylvania, so Philly is a little bit closer and we’d been there years ago. So we just kind of went to kind of get reevaluated, see if there’s anything new out there. 

And we met this great black woman who was a geneticist and she was talking to us. She focuses on issues of metabolism and she is just trying to get to the bottom. We’re explaining—how old is he now? Nine. So we’re explaining at least seven years, probably, of test results and things to her. 

And she’s asking these serious, pointed questions and he interrupts her and he is like, “So have you heard of This Boy We Made? It comes out”—at that point, my publication date was January 4th, so he said, “It comes out January 4th, you can order it.” She was so kind, again, this is why having a black doctor can make a difference. She almost feels a little bit like family and she just really boosts him and she’s like, that is great. And then she goes back to asking me questions and he interrupts her again, and he’s referring to me and he’s like, “You know you’re talking to someone famous, right?”

But he’s just so proud and he is so about—you know, I do a lot of worrying. Tophs worries some, not so much about himself I think, but he’s just got this like sixth sense about life. He’s got this other core or layer to him. And I think in the book I mentioned, that’s why I think some people would ask me, is he some locust-eating prophet? He’s this really interesting guy. 

He is really bubbly, he really knows what he wants in life. And right now that is a Lego skate park set and when he wants something, he tells you over and over again. And that’s also sort of how you get to know Tophs, is like, what is toasts obsessing about right now? That’s one of the ways in.

Maya Smart: You've written a beautiful tribute to him and to your relationship and just to the journey of navigating motherhood and all that goes into that with more than one child, actually. But since it's called This Boy We Made, we focused on him today. But a beautiful book and I know many people will benefit from just your candor and vulnerability and willingness to share all these different dimensions of your experience as a mom and as a writer and just as a human navigating life. So thank you.

Taylor Harris: Thanks so much and thanks for reading it.

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