It was a Thursday evening and I was folding laundry when my phone made its familiar email “alert” ping. Halfway through wrestling with a fitted sheet, I looked over to make sure it wasn’t anything super important, before getting back to the massive pile of clean clothes in front of me.
Then I did a double take.
“Reporting Plagiarism” was the title of the email, and I couldn’t help but set down the sheets and sigh before I opened the message. As a writer, it’s not that unusual for me to be alerted by either my editors or my readers that someone has stolen my work, but I’d be lying if I said that the frustration of people stealing not only my livelihood, but also my own words and emotions, wasn’t starting to get to me.
Sitting there that evening, already full of frustration from yet another tough day of single parenting — and with a fitted sheet that seemed hell bent on getting the best of me in my hands — I opened the email.
It was written by a stranger. Someone who wanted to alert me that a person they knew on Facebook was posting parts of my articles as their own status updates.
“It made me so upset,” the email read, “to see so many comments about her words bringing people to tears, when these were not her words.”
The emailer went on to explain more:
“She has literally copy and pasted your blog, but changed the details to make it seem as though she wrote it herself. Something about the fact that she put words in her daughter’s mouth and used her (and your essay) to gain attention, sympathy, and admiration made me feel the need to say something.”
There were also screenshots attached that revealed “the thief’s” name — and to my surprise, I already knew it. I recognized it from a plagiarism complaint I’d received months before, and I instantly recognized “her words” taken directly from my article, “What I Told My Daughter When She Asked Why She Doesn’t Have A Daddy.”
And then something in me snapped.
Sadly, I’m used to this stuff; the plagiarism, the cutthroat world of writing, and the loss of income that can often accompany it.
But this was different. This wasn’t just an elusive name attached to an article that belonged to me; a faceless group of letters that would require my time, and my attorney’s time, only to end with the article disappearing, and my anger being shelved for the next time someone would steal from me.
No, this was a real person; a mother, with a daughter.
And yet this was also the face of a thief.
Stewing with anger as I looked through her page, I actually needed to set my phone down and walk away for a few minutes to get my bearings straight. But when I picked it back up, I decided to do the one thing that I’d never been able to do with any of the other people who had stolen my work.
I messaged her directly.
April, take my post down immediately before I have my attorney serve you with a cease and desist. I’ve screenshotted where you are using my words as your own, and as you know, plagiarism is a felony.
I hit send. And then I waited.
I waited for hours, until the next day arrived, and with it, a message from her.
“I’m sorry,” it started. “I’m not aware of copying anything. I will take it down. I don’t know who you are or what you are talking about but I took it down. I didn’t mean to upset you. Sorry.”
Which is great, except that she didn’t take it down, and clearly, she knew who I was.
“April, let’s be realistic here.” I typed back. “You copied, nearly word for word, my article that ran on Scary Mommy and Yahoo. There is no possible way that you didn’t know you were copying something.”
She apologized again and said that she was just trying to explain things to her daughter, but she still didn’t take the post down.
Trying to be the bigger person here, I followed up with another response.
“You are MORE than welcome to use [my words to] help your daughter, but not publishing them online as if they were your own words,” I typed back.
“I’ve learned a lot from you,” replied April, which I felt was a bit sarcastic for a thief, especially one who hours later, still hadn’t removed her plagiarizing post.
“April,” I finally wrote. “I’ve given you time to take my post down, and apparently you do not care that you are committing a crime.”
I went on to tell her that in these few hours, I’d been thinking a lot about this situation, and I was going to be featuring her in a story about how competitive motherhood is these days, and why it’s left us in a position where some moms are feeling the need to portray a life that isn’t their own; which was true, but I was also hoping it might push her into taking the post down.
She assured me that this was just a onetime thing, and seemed not to care that she’d been in the wrong. In turn, I responded with a couple screenshots of other posts she had put up, along with the information for the other people she had stolen them from.
With no way out, she broke, and finally admitted that she was just trying to make her life seem more interesting. She admitted that I was right and she was wrong, and this time, I wanted to believe her.
And honestly, right or wrong didn’t even matter to me anymore, because now here I was, facing the bigger picture, and talking not just to a “thief” but to a woman who was struggling; a mom who just needed a little bit of time in the spotlight. Because the daily grind of trying to be everything and everyone — and then weighing who you are and what you can do against other people — well, it had just gotten to be a bit much for her.
We’ve all been there.
“I appreciate the apology,” I finally typed back. “I’m telling you the truth though, life is more satisfying when you are living your own life. Are the likes and comments really all that flattering when at the end of the day you know it’s all a lie? And just being a mom makes you special. Your daughter is special without the need for the added flair. Enjoy her, celebrate her, and do the same for your life. Teach her to find the beauty in her own life, because if her mother doesn’t think her own life is enough, she will grow up feeling the same way. She deserves to have her awesome mom understand that she is worthy of being awesome in her own right.”
And then, woman to woman, mom to mom, April told me how, because of a bad past relationship, she still struggles with her self-worth.
“You are not alone,” I told her. “I promise you that. If you actually go and read my blog, a lot of it is about finding self-worth, and learning to be accepted by others. My husband was abusive as hell. He then gave my infant son a black eye and disappeared. I recently found him living across town with a new wife and new kids. Life sucks sometimes but the self-worth you are looking for, it has to come from you. No one else is going to help you accept you, but you.”
And I meant it, because April is really just a small fraction of what we as women and mothers are facing on a daily basis. We’re glued to shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives, and set unrealistic expectations of what an interesting life looks like in the process.
We can’t compete with that.
Yet so many of us try, and when we fail (as we inevitably will without an unlimited budget, full-time nanny, and personal chef), we lose sight of our self-worth, and the value in our own lives.
And it’s sad. It’s really, really sad, when I as a writer want nothing more than to unite us as mothers, so we can rejoice together in our failures, because we tried.
Instead, I find my work has made someone feel as though their own words wouldn’t have been enough.
But that’s just the thing: We are all enough. We are all trying, and as moms, that is often the best that we can do.
April did eventually remove the posts, but never did post the retraction that I asked her to. And you know what? I guess I’m OK with it. I’m not here to kick anyone while they’re down, and if anything, I’d like to think that my words did a little bit to help her back up.
I’ll never be OK with someone stealing my work, and I will continue to have my lawyer take care of the people who do, but as for me, I’m going to focus on what I started out to do when I began my career.
To remind us that we are all just trying, together.
There is no “perfect” in parenthood, there is only “trying,” and that — rich or poor, black or white — is the one thing that we can all relate to.More On