My 8-year-old son, Eli, recently tried to Google himself. We’d been looking up facts, and he liked the idea of finding himself out there in the ether. When nothing about him came up, he was disappointed. I was relieved. I don’t hide the pieces I write from him, but I don’t really want him to think of himself as a Google hit magnet, either. It’s one thing to know your mother writes about you sometimes; it’s another to revel in your own notoriety, however small.
Eli’s aborted search prompted me to think about a question that has poked at me periodically since I started writing this column two years ago: What are the ground rules for writing about your kids, especially on the Internet, with its freewheeling meanness and permanent archive? Will my kids be embarrassed by these pieces at a certain point? Will a bully or (perhaps less plausibly) a college admissions office one day use the foibles I’ve revealed against them? Or will the kids just decide they’d have preferred to speak for themselves? Is there a point at which any good parent should stop?
When I write about my kids, I’m not only thinking as their mother. I’m also thinking as a professional writer. Those two identities don’t always align—they just don’t. I like to think that when there’s tension, I err on the side of protecting my kids’ interests, steering clear of any material that’s too embarrassing or private. But I don’t trust myself to be the arbiter. My husband vets my pieces when our kids appear in them, and he objects when he thinks I’m exposing one of their faults. (He hacked away at this piece about our younger son’s nail-biting habit and now reminds me of this news flash: The nails are in recovery.) Ruth Marcus, who occasionally writes about her daughters in her op-ed column for the Washington Post, has the same rule. “It really matters what your husband thinks,” she says. “It’s much more important to your life, happiness, and marriage to make those cuts.”
Some writers believe their kids are fair game only when they’re small. Steve Almond blogged about his daughter Josie for Babble until she was a year and a half and then stopped. “The blog medium has a certain kind of immediacy, and a reciprocal surrendering of privacy, that we don’t want in our lives forever—and that Josie may not want, either,” he explained. Maybe it’s better to confine yourself to events kids can’t remember themselves—their “prehistory,” as Michael Lewis, author of the hilarious Slate column “Dad Again,” puts it. He planned from the start to write only about the first few sleepless, chaotic months after each of his kids was born. Lewis says he reserves the right to break his rule if the material is irresistible, and since his oldest daughter was 7 when his third child was born, he sort of did. But it all seemed harmless enough, and Lewis says (with comedic honesty) that writing about his kids gave him a great incentive to be a better father, because he was watching closely.
But should we all close our laptops once our kids learn to talk? As a reader, I would hate to give up the pleasures of the late Marjorie Williams’ writing about her elementary-school-age children, for example, or Sandra Tsing Loh endlessly fretting over her kids’ schooling in the Atlantic. But as kids grow, so does the potential for embarrassment and violations of their privacy. Heather Armstrong, creator of the powerhouse motherhood blog Dooce, lost her day job as a Web designer over her posts (which included making fun of working at a startup). She has since taken heat for the intense intimacy of her writing about her family and for posting pictures of her daughter on her site. She says that while the voice of her blog hasn’t changed, her “boundaries have shifted and shifted” as her daughter moved from babyhood to preschool age. Her daughter’s foibles are less often fodder for her writing, she says, and the real subject is now Armstrong herself. “I look at it as a universal story of coming home with a child for the first time and confronting reality,” she says.
Armstrong’s approach is a common one among parent-scribes: You caricature your kid a bit, picking out his funny or more outrageous habits, but your parenting struggles are the real subject, and you’re the butt of all the jokes. (And your spouse is the font of all wisdom, on the theory that flattery helps.) You mine your kid for material, but you tell yourself that certain categories of behavior are off-limits. That last rule I got from Neal Pollack, the author of Alternadad. His young son Elijah’s bathroom habits are fair game for Pollack’s blog, but his son’s discovery of his sexuality, Pollack says, is not.
Though Pollack has set certain restrictions for himself, he mostly saw my hand-wringing over the ethics of writing about my kids as the result of “the same narcissistic impulse that causes us to write about our families in the first place. Because most people don’t care what we write. This isn’t The Osbournes. It’s not like 50 million people a week are watching.” I imagine he has to see it like that to keep blogging after Gawker went after Elijah last year. Here’s the spat—Pollack wrote about his son’s excellent taste in fine cheese, leading Gawker to ask, “When is it okay to hate a 4-year-old?” I’m not sure I could have handled it. For me, this is the problem with the argument that our online musings about our kids don’t really matter. We make them the potential victims of ruthless (if funny) harangues—harangues that, thanks to the bottomless Internet, might be around for a long, long time. Pollack says about his Gawker fight, “At the time it happened, I didn’t have the financial option to stop. So instead I had to stage a self-righteous snit.” Honest, and also a little heartbreaking.
In the moment, especially if they’re young, kids tend to like the attention of being their parents’ writing subject, according to the writers I talked to. “They, of course, love it. They love it too much,” Michael Lewis says of his daughters. Eli and Simon may be heading in that direction, too. But are our kids pleased because they think we want them to feel that way? Or because they don’t know how bothered they’ll feel later?
I asked Rosa Brooks, who contributes to Slate’s “XX Factor,” to weigh in on this. Her mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, sometimes wrote about Brooks and her brother as stock “my children” characters in a column for Time magazine. When she became a teenager, Brooks remembers feeling mixed about her mother’s articles. “I was proud of her and slightly tickled to be included, and also of course as an adolescent wildly irritated.” She doesn’t feel scarred, though, and now she sometimes writes about her own kids in her column for the Los Angeles Times. For now, her ground rules are to never mention her young kids by name or allow any pictures of them to be published. When they get older, Brooks has promised herself that she’ll hand veto power over to them.
Which isn’t to say that a kid’s judgment should stand in for his parents’. In April, my colleague Bonnie Goldstein wrote lovingly and also revealingly for Slate about her son Nate’s trials trying to make it on his own after dropping out of college for a time. He’s 19, so his consent means a lot more than my 8-year-old’s. Nate said yes to the piece before his mother submitted it. He has no regrets. But his reasoning took me aback: He told me he couldn’t really imagine a piece of writing that could violate his privacy. Is that adolescence talking, or will he change his mind someday?
In my paranoid moments, I worry that by writing about our kids, we’re encouraging them to loosen or lose their own boundaries. Then someday, they’ll hurtle toward the vortex that produced the awful, self-destructive oversharing of former Gawker editor Emily Gould, as she related at such length in the New York Times Magazine recently.
I’d like to think, like many of the writers I talked to, that the small revelations I offer about my kids are harmless. But what if they’re not? A few weeks ago, after writing about my 5-year-old son’s frustrated search for his pre-soccer snacks, I got an e-mail from reader Marc Naimark. “I was just about to post the following to the Fray,” he wrote. “Fortunately Emily uses her maiden name. Otherwise she is being cruel level 9 on a scale of 10 to her kid. Stuff on the internet lasts forever, and I’m not sure that 16-year-old Simon is going to be pleased for his friends to learn that he used to scream bloody murder about not finding his friggin’ veggie sticks.” This gave me pause. Maybe I need new ground rules. Or maybe at some point it will be time to stop. Except not just yet. Last night, I was talking with Eli about his misadventures at recess and thought, ah, good topic.