Last week, Babble ran a now very controversial essay by a woman who admitted that she struggles to love her young daughter as much as she loves her little boy. Sharing that public admission definitely had some shock value in and of itself, but then the author went further, referring to her own “Sophie’s Choice-type musings” about which of her two children she would find more painful to “lose.” Many readers, myself included, took the combined reference to Holocaust literature and the “loss” of a child to mean that the writer was musing about which of her children she would rather lose to death.
I was so taken aback by what this writer had expressed in that particular paragraph of her essay that I had to read it a couple of times, just to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood. Ultimately, I decided that I hadn’t. And even though the writer ended up adding an addendum to her original essay in which she stated that she was “shocked and ashamed” that readers had taken her to mean that she was suggesting that she might prefer the death of one of her children over the other, it was really too late to take back what she’d written for public consumption.
I am certain that this writer felt that she was simply being brave and honest in publishing a piece that explored a specific taboo of motherhood that – let’s face it – many of us who have more than one child have allowed ourselves to think about at one time or another (well, maybe not the whole cringeworthy “Sophie’s Choice” part, but certainly the rest of it). And yes, she was being honest, brutally honest. Many readers seemed to appreciate her revelatory piece of writing. In fact, if you read the hundreds of comments on the essay, you will find many from women who thank the essayist for saying something out loud that they themselves had previously been afraid to admit.
Sharing and connecting and demystifying motherhood are all worthy and important goals for women who write about their own lives as parents. So I definitely get this essayist’s intent, and as a writer and a mother myself, it’s hard for me to bring myself to criticize. After all, I’ve been doing exactly what she did – writing very openly about my life as a parent – for the past 14 years. Many times, I’ve delved into tough topics that are hard to discuss, drawing on my own family life as material. But even though I share a literary genre with her, the specific things that this writer chose to reveal publicly about her complicated feelings toward her young children truly bothered me. Because of this sense of unease, and despite being aware that I am risking being called a complete hypocrite, I’ve decided to weigh in on this topic. Let me be clear that I am doing so not to pile on to an already crowded conversation around this specific essay and its writer, but because I believe that I have a perspective developed over time that might offer something new to the conversation.
I hope so, anyway.
Like I said, I am a writer by trade and temperament. My publishing specialty for many years has been first-person essays and columns, very often – though not always – related to motherhood. However, as freeing and important as I believe that it is for mothers to be comfortable sharing the hardest parts of this hardest of jobs with one another, and as much as I support the right of women writers to create art that reflects their own truths, I also think that we do, in fact, owe our children some level of protection in what we write about them, and about our relationships with them.
Certainly, every mother who blogs or publishes personal essays is going to draw that line of protection in a different place. Some writers are comfortable using their kids’ real names, while others use psuedonyms. Some bloggers share photos of their children, while others never do. Etc, etc, etc. And of course, I am perfectly well aware that there are some readers who believe that my own writing over the years has been far too confessional. And you know what? These critics of my work aren’t entirely wrong; looking back over more than a decade of published writing, I have to admit that there absolutely are at least two or three essays I have had published that I wish I could retract and remove from the public domain. But see, the thing is, I can’t. Once something is published in The New York Times or an anthology of essays or even here at Babble, there’s no taking it back. It’s out there. Forever.
So yes, I’ve made my own “oversharing” mistakes, but I was lucky in that when I started writing in this genre more than a decade ago, the pressure that now exists for writer-moms to continually up the “shocking confessions” ante wasn’t part of the equation. The specific lapses in judgment I’ve shown in what I’ve chosen to put out there for other people to read have been entirely of my own doing. I wasn’t trying to compete with anyone else’s confessional style of writing in any way; I just screwed up. Period.
Today, however, in an ever-more-crowded genre of first person writing by mothers – be it blogging, essays or memoirs – it’s become more and more difficult to stand out, garner attention for one’s work, and yes, gain those all important pageviews and comments. Since the advent of the “momoir” genre – a significant new wave of women’s writing that coincided in large part with the dawn of Internet access – many if not most of the Big, Bad Mothering Confessions have already been made. As a result, and as I noted in an essay I wrote for Babble a year or two ago, there is now a ratcheting up of “I’m a worse mom than you are” subject matter within the world of online parenting publishing. Everyone seems to be looking for the next big provocative topic that will get all of the other parenting blogs, sites and Twitter feeds buzzing.
I am the first to admit that hearing back from an editor that she’s interested in publishing your essay, or seeing your blog grow in audience and feedback can be pretty exhilarating for those of us who grew up dreaming of becoming published writers. But as the competition for an audience in this writing category has grown more crowded, so has the pressure some women, particularly those just starting out and whose children are still quite young, seem to feel to find that next tantalizing “hook. ” Unfortunately, I think that for some of these newer personal essayists and bloggers today, the challenge of finding buzzworthy content that hasn’t already been explored can lead to pressure to write publicly about things they will one day regret sharing. In the case of the writer-mom in question, the one who admitted her struggle not to prefer one child over another, her shocking confession has certainly garnered her significant attention ..for the moment, at least. But at what cost?
Many commenters on the writer’s essay have already suggested that the author’s currently pre-literate children will one day read what she’s written about her feelings toward each of them, and be hurt or confused by it. While I certainly can’t predict how this writer’s future teenagers will feel about the essay she’s written – although I think I can guess – I am confident in predicting that they will indeed read it. I know this because I’ve lived it, and am living it.
As someone who was arguably on the leading edge of the current wave of confessional, first-person writing by mothers, my children have grown up with me writing about them, and about how I relate to them – first in a regular, local newspaper column, then in magazine essays, and finally online, on parenting sites like Babble and its predecessors. I’ve also been writing about my life as a mom over on my own blog since 2002. (In blogging years, that’s a veritable eternity. ) In other words, my five children have grown up among the very first generation of “the blogged about.”
Given the fact that I did start blogging and publishing essays when my older children were quite young, and continue doing so today, I can reliably report that at some point, today’s blogged-about preschoolers will, in fact, be teenagers with Internet access and library cards, and furthermore, these “blogged about” adolescents absolutely will read what their mothers have published over the years, both online and in print. The pieces of writing that our offspring don’t happen upon all by themselves will be brought to their attention by their friends, their friends’ parents, and their teachers, I promise you. To be very blunt, if you think otherwise, you are deluding yourself.
I totally recognize that I may be coming off as more than a little holier-than-thou with this advice. After all, I already admitted that I myself have, on a few occasions, published pieces of writing related to my life as a parent that I now wish I could take back and make disappear. For the most part, I am very proud of my body of published writing, and so are my kids, and that includes some of the more challenging and controversial things I’ve written. It’s a real pleasure now to see one of my older children discover something I had published in a book or magazine from several years back, and to discuss it with them. However, even those wonderful writer-mom moments can’t erase my own past mistakes as a personal essayist – not for me, and certainly not for my kids, who as younger children never actually consented to me writing about them at all.
The only thing I can say about my past writing indiscretions is that I have definitely learned from them. And maybe, just maybe, via my own confession here to sometimes having over-confessed in years past, some you who are at an earlier stage in your own foray into first-person writing and publishing might also learn from my regrettable errors, rather than repeat them.
So let’s talk about this. What did you think of the essay in question? If you are a writer or a blogger yourself, where do you draw the line when opening up to readers? Am I being a total hypocrite by even suggesting that another mother-who-writes has crossed a line? What’s the most cringeworthy thing you’ve ever read on a blog or in an essay written by a mother? Tell me what you think about all of this in the comments below.
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