The controversy in writing about your children

This article in The Atlantic by Phoebe Maltz Bovy, “The ethical implications of parents writing about their children” is incredibly unforgiving of mother writers and bloggers. She sets the benchmark very low for the test of appropriateness with writing and it’s anything that may embarrass your children when they’re older. My god, I think the topic is way more nuanced than this writer is letting it be in her article.

Still, anyone looking to question the ethics of parental overshare faces a tough audience. The ubiquity of confessional writing has spilled over into confessions that implicate not so much the author as the author’s still-underage offspring. Readers are meant to celebrate confessional parenting-writing for its courage, perhaps also because it is a rare creative (sometimes lucrative) outlet for women who identify primarily as mothers. Yet these parents’ “courage” involves telling stories not theirs to tell. Confessional writing is about risk. An author telling of her own troubles risks her own reputation and relationships. But an author doing the same about her kid risks primarily his, not hers.

This is a particularly troublesome topic at the moment because of some high profile writing by mothers about their children with disabilities. People with disabilities already pay a high price for prejudice, can they afford to pay any more when their mothers write about their disabilities in very unflattering terms? However, mothers and carers also pay a high price for caring work that is grossly undervalued in society and poorly supported, can they not write about that penalty?

In reply to Maltz Bovy’s article I would say yes, this confessional writing about mothering is controversial for good reason (it’s a quagmire for all confessional writing), and yes, there are unequal lines of power in the relationship between parent and child, and yes, mistakes are sometimes made. But I have thoughts on both the blurriness of the line between what is my story, as a mother, and what is my children’s story and also some thoughts on the brutal hostility that is shown to mothers who dare to write about their experiences (and yes, I think in part that this is a gender issue).

Here, in my own article, “Complaining about motherhood”:

When mothers do complain about their children, particularly in public, they often pull punches in a ‘cereal all over the floor, those loveable rascals’ kind of way. Motherhood is so tightly scripted that even when someone appears to ad-lib they are very often reading rehearsed lines. Complaining about my children feels a lot like complaining about my job. The tantrums, the squabbling, the whining and the interruptions – these are the monotonous meetings, the jammed printers and the difficult bosses I may complain about to colleagues over drinks. But that’s not necessarily how the complaints will be received. The line between your story, as a mother, and your children’s is thin. Who owns this tale of woe and its right to be told? Unloading is liberating but troubling for a parent, all at once. Mothering is a role that will dominate my life for at least twenty years and there is plenty to say about that preoccupation but it is almost impossible to write about without treading on the privacy and powerlessness of my children.

Here in my post, “Too sexy for breastfeeding”:

There is something else worth considering about Furry Girl’s criticisms of Young, and that is the way in which she can’t distinguish between mothers and mothering. Yes, Young’s daughter can’t give permission for being included in her mother’s artwork, neither can mine give permission for my writing. But who owns Young’s experience of motherhood? Who own’s mine? Where do Young’s and my experiences of early motherhood and our desire to explore these all-consuming aspects of our lives end, and our children’s ownership of them begin? Can Young, who describes her devotion to her baby daughter so lovingly, not be trusted to know? Does being sexual as women (or even sexually objectified unintentionally) spill dangerously over into our responsibilities as mothers? Does it prevent us from good mothering? Because incidentally, I also attract readers here from time to time looking for something apart from feminist discussion, who are instead seeking ‘sexy breastfeeding’ stories and images. (And what a crushing bore they must find it all, once here).

There are boundaries, of course, but they need not impose the complete separation of mother from self.

Here with my post, “Reluctant blog material”:

There is something to be suspicious about whenever people jump on a bandwagon against a practice almost entirely pursued by women, which parent blogging overwhelmingly is. Feminism has a rich history in the liberation of making the personal political – of destigmatising ordinary but shamed aspects of womens’ lives, and the solidarity which can come out of sharing one’s own story with other women only to find theirs are touchingly similar. Indeed, much of my interest in writing a feminist motherhood blog arose from this idea. And yet, to be honest, like some others I’m still rather ambivalent about the decision to blog about my daughter.

When I started writing here it was with several purposes, among them was the desire to create something for my daughter to read when she was older. I’m imagining she’ll want to know more about who she was and how she came to be than I could otherwise recall without referring to this blog. Maybe she’ll also want to know who I was back then, too. But as my interests with the blog have developed, I find myself increasingly writing about other facets beyond the personal and I frequently wonder about their compatibility with the journal of a childhood. This is particularly the case when I write about contentious topics, posts which attract new readers from varying sources, readers I don’t have any kind of connection with, and readers who have an axe to grind. These posts, I know, can incite debate if not outright hostility, and they attract trolls too. And all the time, just above or below each contentious post is a cheerful little post about my daughter, with a photo or two of her. I feel like I am rolling over and showing the trolls my soft underbelly. See, right here, that would really hurt. I’ve tried to prepare myself for the inevitable attack when it comes, and I’m trying to be ready to see it for the stupidity that it will be.. but still, soft underbelly, very soft.

And here in my post, “Parenthood takes you to the edge”:

Mummy and Daddy blogs really get a hammering in the reputation stakes of writing, they’re all supposed to be sappy and mindless like parenting itself perhaps, but these two posts prove how much of parenthood is not sappy and mindless at all. Parenthood can feel like flirting with your own disintegration. These two posts tell me a lot about the experience of becoming a parent, about being pushed to the edge and holding it together, and about losing your very identity and forming a new one; stuff that I’ve never seen properly said in a parenting manual. Writing like this is so personal and yet universal all at once. There are many terrific reasons for blogging but the ability to liberate others through your own honesty is worthy indeed.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: crisis, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, media, parenting, relationships

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13 replies

  1. There is something to be suspicious about whenever people jump on a bandwagon against a practice almost entirely pursued by women, which parent blogging overwhelmingly is.

    Indeed. Richard Glover has made a 20-year career of writing newspaper columns full of disarmingly hilarious anecdotes regarding his marriage and parenting mishaps, some of which he also reads out on his radio show, yet I don’t hear him being criticising for over-sharing or potentially embarrassing them.
    It is a fraught area. I used to blog a bit about my kids, and then they asked me to stop it, so I did. The occasional piece about them since I’ve always asked them whether it was OK for me to blog it, and mostly they’ve said no but just a few times they’ve said yes. I’d like to blog about them more, but I have to respect their wishes.

  2. In the ‘too sexy for breastfeeding’ section, I see an inappropriate apostrophe (‘Who own’s mine?’).
    Otherwise, I agree with you.

  3. This reminds me of the abortion controversy – in many people’s concern for the fetus or child, the existence and humanity of the pregnant person or mother disappears completely. And it’s always a zero-sum conflict, somehow the pregnant person or mother can’t be trusted to make decisions that take anyone else into account, despite a lifetime of social conditioning that we always have to put others’ interests above our own.
    So, yes, absolutely a feminist mothering issue. I can’t assume feminists who aren’t mothers will care, mothers who aren’t feminists may not have noticed or questioned the cultural norm, and as for the non-feminist, non-mother mainstream, Maltz Bovy is typical in my experience.
    I’m not convinced mothers writing about their children are a magical special exception to all the cases of people writing about other people they know. As tigtog mentioned, men get much more of a free pass when they write something about others those others don’t like. (“But it’s a fictional character! Maybe inspired by someone I know…” “Why does this character use my exact words?”)

  4. There is something to be suspicious about whenever people jump on a bandwagon against a practice almost entirely pursued by women

    It’s telling that the sentence I copied as I read in order to comment on was also the one which TT picked. It’s a litmus test, ay?!
    Also, what Aqua said.
    I have had the same experience as TT in that my kids are now older and one of them has asked not to be blogged about. A shame, because he cracks me up on a daily basis 😉 (I hope that’s not a violation of the agreement – he didn’t specify comments!)
    As far as “almost entirely pursued by women”, that got me to thinking, and I remember a columnist i the 60s and 70s – I think it might have been Ross Cameron but don’t quote me – who regularly wrote colunmns about his family and his daughter “little Nell”. I don’t remember ever seeing any criticism about it. I do think about that late, great blog, LookyDaddy. He used to post about his daughter’s epilepsy, which makes one wonder whether an unaccomodating employer might find that on Google one day. But unlikely, I think. But I don’t remember anyone chiding him about that. (Not that I’m recommending that!)

  5. Jeez, one fucking wine and my ability to write coherently goes out the window :-/

  6. Bill Cosby made a goodly part of his living telling jokes about his kids – another bloke who seems to have dodged analysis.
    There’s stories my mother has told so often it’s almost certainly reached an audience as large as my blog. The stories are a shared experience, and she’s telling her side of it. I was a complete shit as a child, and my mother deserves to tell the tales of how she helped direct those personality traits into a person who I hope is not a complete shit as an adult – at least not all the time.
    Our lives are made up of our side of the stories, and it’s impossible to talk about your experiences without involving other people. Children are tricky because they can’t consent, and can’t be kept anonymous (unless your whole blog is and stays anonymous), but on the other hand, they also can’t be held accountable later in life for their tantrums at two. As kids get older and feel more responsibility for their actions, they might ask not to be blogged about, and that makes sense to me.
    The embarrassment argument doesn’t make sense to me. because the things I did as a kid were part of growing up and learning to be a decent human being. That didn’t come about without mistakes and some horrific behaviour – there’s no point being embarrassed by those things, they were a necessary part of the learning curve.

  7. The kid asked not to be blogged about after a post about his accident with a scientific experiment explosion, but it’s actually quite a good cautionary tale.

  8. I didn’t really ever have to wrestle with this because my kids were already old enough to have opinions by the time I started my blog and they’ve always had veto rights over what I write. They don’t often say no and I’m sometimes surprised by them expecting me to have posted something when I’d assumed they might not want it done – they’ll ask if anyone has commented.
    I don’t really get the embarrassment thing either, are we all supposed to pretend we sprang from the soil as fully grown adults and that having other people discover you were once a kid is somehow mortifying?

  9. I’m not sure whether it’s all about embarrassment though, is it? I think it is really important to acknowledge that children are people – which is where any comparison with the abortion debate fails dismally, and is I believe counterproductive.
    I think it’s important to acknowledge that the damage done to children by blogging about them identifiably could in some circumstances be unforeseeable by that child (so veto powers don’t necessarily help), and potentially extreme. I’m talking about blogging about children’s mental illnesses and other disabilities or illnesses. Insurance companies are already combing the web for information about people’s health and lifestyles (cf the woman who had a claim denied because she was seen on holiday smiling in Facebook photos; also, personal experience of mine with this issue on which I will not elaborate). I think we are looking at a future in which certain children may be refused jobs, educational opportunities, life insurance, disability insurance, and even in some countries any health insurance, because of what their parents have blogged or otherwise published (yes, I’m including newspaper and magazine articles) about their health and mental state.
    This is not remotely a call to parents to stop blogging about two year old tantrums and what it’s like to be a mother. Just that there is another side to this debate that isn’t all about the kyriarchy trying to keep women silenced.

  10. I agree that it’s not all about the embarrassment – I was just responding to that particular bit of the argument.
    I was also conscious of the fact that I wasn’t addressing the problems with potential persecution on the basis of broad categories kids fit into. They are valid, and it’s relevant in my family. Like other decisions we make for our kids, we have to make the decisions about what is or isn’t ok to publish to the best of our ability – and it’s definitely important to consider the issues you raise. Blogging (and other writing) about kids who fit some profile that may be used to discriminate against them can help change that discrimination, but as you say, it can also make them a target. It’s a tricky thing to navigate, for sure.

  11. Lauredhel – I like your point and I think about that a lot.. for instance, where is my line on this type of writing and children’s non-voluntary participation in it and how it is presented/promoted/viewed and my response to some of Bill Henson’s photography and children’s non-voluntary participation in how that is presented/promoted/viewed? I don’t know.

  12. The issue with how publicly available all kinds of previously private information has become, I think this is a general social problem of the information age we haven’t found a solution for. And I think it’s best to talk about it broadly, all the different ways it can occur, and not just in the context of mothers blogging about their children. I don’t think that accounts for more than a tiny fraction of the problem.

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