Should we write about our kids? For me, the answer is yes. But in a piece entitled, “Why I Decided To Stop Writing About My Children” in the New York Times, Elizabeth Bastos writes about how she came to the conclusion that she should no longer write about her children (let me throw it out there that the title was kind of a spoiler).
“There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw,” she wrote. “I’ve written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy. A few months ago I stopped.”
She stopped writing because her father phoned her after she’d written a fairly intimate piece dealing with her son’s puberty. Her father told her that the piece infringed his grandson’s privacy, which made her stop and think. She decided to stop writing about her children, and to keep the experience off the record.
I write about my kids, but I don’t do it without some ground rules for myself. Here are some steps I take before I write these days:
1. If it’s about my kids, and they’re old enough to understand? ASK THEM FIRST. And always, always, always try to be kind.
I once went to a prom in a dress picked out by my mother. It wasn’t what I would have picked, necessarily, but I didn’t care too much what I wore—a theme that has remained consistent throughout my life. I cared more about the person I was going with and the experience I was going to have. The dress was incidental.
Well, apparently, my prom date hated my dress. He didn’t tell me that to my face, though. He grew up to become a well-known writer and wrote a (well-written) short story about a prom date wearing a horrifyingly ugly dress—a dress that, as I read it, sounded a lot like mine.
Look, my name wasn’t mentioned, and if I didn’t write about it now, you’d never know—but it was not the nicest thing a person could have done.
The excuse “everything is copy” invented by Nora Ephron might be good for writers to turn out material—but it isn’t always compatible with being a good person, or equally importantly in this case, a good parent. Being a parent in and of itself is usually a good safeguard against writing something that would bother your child, because hopefully you are someone who takes your child’s feelings into account on a regular basis. But sometimes, things fall through the cracks.
If I want to write a piece concerning anything that has happened to my older sons, I talk to them about it first. They have veto power: If they don’t want me to write something, I don’t. I do not use their names (different from my last name). Similarly, I make an active and deliberate effort, when writing about my younger children, to put myself in their shoes Googling my name in 10 years: Would they be embarrassed at what I wrote? Would they want their middle school classmates to read it?
No matter what I write, I take a step back before writing and say, “This would make great copy—but would it make me a great parent?” It’s all about balance—and for me, I’ve come to the conclusion that striving to become the latter is more important than the former.
2. Make sure the pieces are less about your kids, and more about you.
Recently, I saw a “summer letters home competition”—post the funniest letters home from your kids to win a prize. Now, I can assure you that I have more than a few potential entries that would definitely be finalists, if not winners, in this contest. But those letters were not written to the world at large: They were written to me. Those words are not mine to share.
What I can share is how I felt when I got those letters, and how I feel about them being away, and how I feel about them being back. Of course, this STILL entails being sensitive to the more sensitive kids—pre-teens and teens especially may not want you mentioning a certain detail about their experience as a side-note to your own. Their lives, their say.
3. Write to save things—for them, and for you.
Bastos concluded that instead of writing about her children, she should write about timeless things like the sea, or the stars. I don’t know—I don’t think I am going to describe the sea with the timelessness of Herman Melville any time soon. I am not a Wordsworth or Keats. Instead, I am myself. It’s all I’ve ever known, and it is someone I am happy to be. To paraphrase/bastardize Walt Whitman, I have given birth to multitudes.
No one else will ever be me, or have these kids. And for me, good writing about a moment in my time as their mother—a moment in their lives, or in mine—is an attempt to catch the ephemeral and hold it for a second longer, before its bright spark dies out in the pretzel-covered, semi-smelly mess that is my memory. I want to use words to more deeply savor this beautiful chaos.
Words are a photo album of feelings and of love. And I need to write them down, because I look at these small and not-so-small faces, and think, “This is the dream that vanishes.”