Credit Giselle Potter
There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw. 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.
I wish I could say that I deeply reflected on the ethics of writing about my children and heroically pivoted myself out of a concern for my character, but here’s what really happened: My father called.
He called me after reading a blog post I had written about my son’s first signs of puberty. It seems an obvious line-crossing that I wrote about such an intimate detail, but I did. At the time I didn’t pause for a split second; I was more than willing to go there. I had been writing and reading extensively about parenting tweens. I knew people might be mildly shocked, but mostly interested.
We live in a break-the-internet arms race of oversharing. And adolescent sexuality is an emergent, fascinating topic, especially for parents who are figuring out how to address difficult questions with their children. For example: I ate up Peggy Orenstein’s marvelous new book, “Girls & Sex,” with a spoon, shocked and upset the whole way through.
But when my dad said, “Elizabeth, are you pausing to deeply consider what you’re writing about?” I wanted to get defensive. I said, “Uh. I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet, Dad,” I said, “Heir to Plath, Sexton and Sharon Olds. And the photographer Sally Mann, if I’m honest, Dad.”
But he said, “I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about my grandson.”
He was a lion for his grandson. I listened. I heard him. His words went to my heart, my maternal heart, which is in equal parts steel and cornmeal mush. I thanked him honestly for his feedback, got off the phone, and cried into my daughter’s stuffed animals, which are very soft and plush and forgiving.
So began my wrestling with my relationship with the Nora Ephron line, “Everything is copy.” Until now it has been my battle cry and artistic excuse for printing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with very blinkered vision. Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.
When I started blogging, my kids were babes in arms, hardly people; they were creatures, mewling, milk-drunk, with eyes so deeply slate they were alien-denim blue.
I used the blog as a live journal to get me through postpartum depression and “the lost years” for me that were “the magic years” for them, when I felt overwhelmed by washing out sippy cups, lurking at the edges of the mommy wars, and co-sleeping and diapering.
Writing made the joys and the hardship of parenting into stories. Stories I could tell. Stories that I considered as one considers a diorama.
I was always the narrator, the main character, even if I was also the storm-tossed heroine, the hot mess in mom jeans who couldn’t get the overalls on her 2-year-old. Or figure out fourth-grade fractions homework. I was working out my issues. My kids were always satellites to the big round-faced moon of me.
I’ve shamed their eating habits in chat rooms. I have Facebooked the things they’ve said. I have skewered them horribly, but also with great interest and affection, as a collector might do to some butterflies.
I think Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids are luminous and transcendent, while others accuse her of child pornography. The lines between art and privacy are blurry. You have to consider what you are doing carefully. And previously I wasn’t.
Sally Mann and I don’t belong in the same sentence. I’ve been a Baltimore mommy-blogger writing about things like head lice. She is a world-class artist. But she and I have done the same thing: publicly disrobed our children.
My children didn’t give me their permission to tell their stories, or strike poses in a waterfall, naked, gorgeous as all get out, and human, with lives ahead of them, as Sally Mann posed hers. And now that I see that, I don’t want to mar my children’s glory and subvert their beginnings for my so-called art.
If I’m going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material, and for that I’m going to have to look more deeply within myself or entirely outside. For inspiration I have turned to writing about nature. The environment. The sea. Things that are bigger than me. I’ve been reading John Muir. I’ve been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Nature is for all to see. Nurture is between me and my kids, off the record.