Remember Tonya Harding? She had a promising career as a figure skater in the early 1990s. But things took a serious left turn in 1994, when her ex-husband and bodyguard attacked Tonya’s competition, skater Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya Harding claimed to not know about the plot to sabotage Kerrigan, but plead guilty to withholding information. Her reputation was forever tarnished. She went from Olympic hopeful to notorious criminal in one fell smack. When people think of Tonya Harding now, they might think of skating, but they’re more likely to think of Nancy Kerrigan getting socked in the kneecaps.
Or that sex tape of Tonya and her (ex)husband supposedly celebrating their wedding night, which Penthouse published in the same year.
Tonya segued from skating to boxing, a career where her purported “fighting spirit” was seen as an asset. And now, Tonya Harding has just announced that she is pregnant. Will her infamy haunt her as a mom? This question looms large for Tonya Harding. But it looms a little for the rest of us, too. In this age of indelible history, when everything we’ve ever done is just a google away, blank slates are a lot harder to come by. Foolish youth follows us around long after our behavior has mellowed. You hear a lot about the way past questionable choices could affect careers. But what about the personal fallout? Mothers, in particular, are expected to maintain a certain decorum. But before we were mothers, we were women. And before that, we were girls…who might not have always made the most well-considered choices. What happens when you can no longer hide the wild, embarrassing acts of your past?
Most of us have not shamed ourselves on quite the Tonya Harding scale. But in certain circles, the shame bar is set pretty low. A drunken photo from Spring Break in college, an ill-advised junior high school hairstyle, an ex boyfriend who takes a particularly unflattering photograph—who knows what will get the gossip mill running? As Facebook has expanded its reach, friend lists have become This is Your Life. The PTA mingles with your grade school buddies, who mingle with the vaguely scuzzy guys you met at the bar near your first post-college apartment, who may or may not have been involved in illegal activities. Many of us have past lives, though they’re not all equally controversial. Now that it’s no longer easy to keep things separate, how does the overflow from one life to another affect us?
When stories pop up about celebrities’ sordid pasts—Angelina Jolie’s naked photos, everybody’s sex tape—does it change how we see them as mothers? In some cases, I’d say yes. Or at least it’s a struggle not to. The headlines announcing Tonya Harding’s pregnancy are peppered with words like “infamous” and “disgraced”. But maybe it’s not quite the same for women you actually know, who have proven themselves with day to day character choices and not just press pieces. I hope that Tonya Harding has found herself a community where the person she is today and the mother she will become can be seen independently of the things she did before. For Tonya’s sake, and especially for her kid’s. But what I really hope, for the rest of us, is that the long term result of these open source personal histories is not just endless fodder for criticism, but a greater understanding that each of us is a complex person with layers and flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. Maybe the more goofs we see, the less each minor transgression will throw us.