[content note: brief mention of child abuse]
I see a lot of criticism of mommyblogging as being disrespectful of children’s privacy. (Here’s a pretty typical article.) I think I have a unique perspective on this, because I am one of the small handful of people who are currently adults who have firsthand personal experience with being written about as children.
My mother was the editor of our local parenting magazine. Every doctor’s and dentist’s office in the tricounty area had a copy. And every month, my mother wrote an editor’s note, which was almost always about me and my sister.
It was awesome.
We were famous! I have fond memories of getting my mom’s magazine each month and turning to the pages that were all about me. I remember bringing one of my mother’s columns in for show-and-tell and the other children were extremely impressed that my life was the subject of a whole story in a real magazine, like I was the Backstreet Boys or something.
And as an adult… my childhood is really well-documented compared to most people’s childhoods. It’s really cool that there is an essay about every month of my sister’s and my life, spanning nearly a decade. I’ve occasionally read them and been reminded of things that happened in my childhood that I don’t remember (“oh yeah! I used to lie on my stomach on the swingset and pretend I was flying! That was really fun.”)
It’s true that my opinion is probably somewhat biased by the fact that no one bullied me about it. On the other hand, people definitely knew that my mom wrote articles about me, and I was bullied a lot, but I was not bullied on that specific topic. Children, in general, don’t bother to read parenting magazines, so they never found out unless I told them. And everyone I told thought it was nifty! I actually think that is probably a really common response to “and also tens of thousands of strangers are reading articles about me”.
My mother did not use best practices for mommyblogging, in my opinion. For instance, I had no ability to veto columns, which I think is a good practice which I intend to adopt once I have children and want to write about them. But in spite of this, I don’t feel like it was a violation of my privacy. I think that was mostly because my mother made reasonable decisions about what she wrote about. She didn’t talk about my embarrassing medical problems, or my horrible grades, or her feelings of frustration and anger towards me (although those no doubt existed), or the time she caught me jerking off. She wrote about my involvement in theater, my interest in books, my happy relationship with my sister, and my vegetarianism. None of those are things a reasonable person would be ashamed of others knowing.
Of course, a lot of mommybloggers behave in a really unconscionable way. You shouldn’t compare your children to mass murderers or write about how you like one child better than others or fantasize about beating your children. If you do, you should definitely do it anonymously and never tell your children, except maybe in an appropriately contextualized way when they’re adults. (“This was a dark time in my life, and of course I love you and would never want to hurt you. I think this sort of impulse is very common among parents and doesn’t necessarily mean they actually want to beat their children.”) But I think that condemning mommyblogging in general is going too far.
Many writers have a natural desire to write about their experiences. When you’re the primary caregiver of children, a lot of your experiences are going to be about children. Being a hardliner about mommyblogging is essentially saying that writers of personal essays should take two decades off if they want to have kids. That is a pretty fucking significant cost, and even more so if they rely on writing as a source of income.
There are also costs for non-writing parents. It’s really natural, when you’re having a new experience, to want to read about other people going through the same experience. Personal essays from other people having a particular experience can be validating, reassuring you that your experience is normal and other people have gone through the same thing. They can help prepare you for the challenges that lie ahead. They can help you put your feelings into words or develop new frameworks for understanding your experiences. It would be sad if these essays existed for physical disability, neurodivergence, founding a startup, being unemployed, dating, having a wedding, writing a book, weightlifting, and running the Boston Marathon, and parenting was the one area of human life excluded. Parenting books talk about diapering, but personal essays talk about projectile poop. Parenting books talk about how people with mental illnesses can be fine parents, but personal essays talk about the guilt and shame when you explain the scars on your arm to your five-year-old. Parenting books promise you that you will have a happy and loving relationship with your teenager, but personal essays talk about the frustration of watching the child you love grow up to become a stranger.
Here are my suggestions for parents who are considering writing about their children:
- Don’t write anything about your kid that you wouldn’t write about your spouse. Embarrassing medical issues? Nope. Feelings of rage and contempt? Nope. Comparisons to serial killers? Honestly, what the fuck is wrong with you, no.
- If the child is old enough to have an opinion, ask for their permission before you publish anything about them. If they can read, let them read articles about themselves before you post them.
- In a lot of nonfiction essays, the anecdotes do not have to, technically speaking, be “true”. Even if you are talking about your feelings when your own child’s projectile poop ruined your nicest dress shirt, you can totally talk about this other parent you know and his dress-shirt incident. Maybe change the dress shirt to nice pants! Maybe he was using cloth diapers when you use disposables! The minor irrelevant details you can change are endless! (This is also an excellent way to steal other people’s anecdotes without them feeling like you’ve invaded their privacy. If you change enough things they might not even realize it’s about them.)