Do We Overshare When We Write about Our Kids?

Ever since their conception in a petrie dish, Deborah Siegel has felt the urge to write publicly about her children. She’s a writer. They’re her material. She can’t help herself. But is it fair?

The first few times, I did it without thinking. Like most parental musings conducted during that groggy first year, my early blog posts were more about me and the idea of them. But now that my twins are one, no longer blobs but sentient beings who may one day Google themselves and find my words, I’m obsessed with the mother of all writing condundrums: How much about one’s children is it kosher to expose?

“[S]tories belong to those who live them,” writes SWer Ilie Ruby recently in the New York Times ("My Right Not to Tell"). Ruby, the author of The Language of Trees, a novel, adopted her three children from Ethiopia and has opted not to tell her children’s stories—especially in print. “It has taken me some time to realize that explanations as to their origins, their histories, their relationship to each other, and how we ‘got’ them, are not obligatory. When it comes down to it, stories belong to those who live them,” she says.

It’s true. Stories do. But my children are my story too.

And so it is that I’ve come to realize how very much the obligations of a mother and the imperatives of a writer are at odds: the one lives to protect, the other to reveal. We betray our kids when we write about them in ways that may one day embarrass them or invade their privacy. We betray our writerly selves—if we indeed choose to write personally about our lives as parents—when we withhold the very details that authenticate our tale. So what’s a Mother Writer to do?

A few years back, Slate’s Emily Bazelon explored different writers’ ground rules for writing about offspring in an Internet age. Some thought it was okay to write about them until they reached a certain age, and then swore they’d stop. For others, certain topics were off limits—until they became good to resist. For many, the line seemed drawn in the sand, the boundaries continually reformed. There’s no consensus, and the ethics remain unclear.

Before I had kids, this all seemed quite simple. As an essayist, the dilemma of deciding how and what to write about family members is not new to me, just newly inflected. In the past, having decided my living relationships were more important than any particular truth on the page, I shared my writing with those written about before I went to print. In an essay appearing in my anthology Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Gr..., for instance, when I wrote extensively about my mother, my father, and my ex, I gave them conditional veto power. To their credit, all three of them honored my telling, even though it wasn’t all complimentary. Then again, my parents are shrinks. They’re into the great reveal, flattered by the sheer experience of being written about. My kids may not feel that way at all.

Okay, okay, Dr. Freud, let's go there! The reason I’m obsessed with the question of what and how to reveal about people who cannot yet read? Growing up in a two-shrink household (did I mention, as an only child?), I felt over-exposed. Not to the world, but to Mom and Dad. Feelings were a central topic at our dinner table--mine, theirs, the dog's. I grew up oversharing. To this day feel like I’m holding back in my relationships if I don’t completely divulge.

I want my children to have a sense of privacy, boundaries that I respect, and a sense of distance between what is mine and theirs. Yet I remain compelled to write about them. I simply can’t hold back.

Thomas Beller nails it all with a kind of biblical beauty in his essay in Andrea N. Richesin’s anthology What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On T... when he writes: “Who gets to tell the story? Who is allowed to? Who is obliged to? Who wishes not to but cannot help themselves? Who wishes to but cannot bring themselves to do it? Who is lost and spinning around, looking to the heavens, asking, ‘What is the story I should be telling?’ A question for which there is no answer, unless maybe a two-year-old blurts it out.”

My babies are still one. So for now, I’m experimenting. Last week, I posted a picture of my twins—backs turned to the camera—along with this post. It felt good and right and fair. Harder, though, is figuring out how turn their backs to me when that camera is the page.

How do others solve the mother/writer conundrum? What writerly or maternal codes do we hold ourselves to--or break--when we write about our kids?


Through the Maternal Looking Glass
by Deborah Siegel

Motherhood Books group

Mother Writer group

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Comment by Kristen Caven on November 18, 2015 at 7:58am

Great topic, great post, and great discussion. In college and afterwards I felt very self-conscious about my mother's published perspective of me and my brothers. It was all positive, mind you, and her book The Winning Family was a tacit brag about what great kids we turned out to be with such high self-esteem. Meanwhile, I was the questioning one, the curmudgeon, the sarcastic cartoonist who poked holes in things, the comedian. I plotted to write my own book someday, and set the record straight with satire, showing the many imperfections of what I secretly called "The Whining Family."

Well, here I am writing about my own son's imperfections in my blog about ADHD, Life in the Fast Brain, and he never seems to mind; in fact he feels proud (especially of the name I chose for him), and even did a guest post

And my mom and I have become full writing partners. In her books, I now shape her storytelling about psychological topics, seeing the power of these stories in helping others. And I can't wait to see what stories "Enzo" has about me. (Thank God, I mean mom, for my high self-esteem.)

Comment by Carol Apple on July 1, 2012 at 5:31am

I use code names for my kids when I write for the public and tend to stick to the part of their stories that intersect with mine. When they are young that includes everything, but now that they are older teens, I do not go into detail about their private lives. Of course, they are some of the people I know most intimately and the substance of their lives is rich in writing material. This may be one reason I shift to fiction for some stories. 

Comment by Mollie Pearce McKibbon on June 30, 2012 at 11:06am

When my children were small, I was writing a humourous column for a local paper.  I wrote about family happenings but I didn't include names (except for my dogs - no problem there).  My children didn't have any problem with it and actually thought it was funny.  I never wrote about anything that I thought would actually embarrass them or reveal anything I knew was too personal (eg. boy/girl problems).  They are all writers themselves, so I guess I could be on the receiving end one day as well.  That is a good deterent.

Comment by Bethany Saltman on June 28, 2012 at 9:52am

This is something I have wondered about a lot, as a columnist for a regional magazine where I write about my daughter, but more specifically my experience of being her mother, every month ( I have talked with people about this, those who read my very frank column, and I am so often happily surprised when I hear that in fact, they think of my reflections as a gift to my daughter. And that as much as I struggle, I do so with so much love she will undoubtedly feel it.

As she gets older, though, it is important to keep certain areas of her personal life off limits. Totally! In fact, since she started kindergarten, I abbreviated her name, to at least make her feel like she has some privacy, even though everyone at her school and in our town knows she's A.

It's a good discussion!

Comment by Tasha Keeble on November 10, 2010 at 8:51pm
Well, as the mother of two teenagers, both of whom at one point or another, attended school where I taught, I don't often run into difficulty in this area because they let me know. Whenever I refer to folks in my writing, I ask them to read what I wrote to try to make sure I don't sacrifice our relationship to my need to tell a story. It's tricky, bur I think if it were easy, we wouldn't be writing with much honesty.
Comment by Darah Zeledon aka Warrior Mom on November 10, 2010 at 6:51am
I used to struggle with the same issue. However, I've come to peace of mind by viewing my entries as a living testament to all the joys, struggles and adventures we experience together as a family. I have never convicted my children of anything outrageous or that one would consider abnormal behavior-wise, but rather have used their behavior--good or not-so-good--to address issues that resonate with the parenting community at-large. Thus, I have nothing to hide from them--for now--and would like them to read this "online journal" with an open mind and heart when older. Perhaps as they mature and enter into puberty and more "sensitive" issues such as teen mood swings, romance, sex, body changes, etc. emerge, I will be more selective in choosing my topics and how I approach them.
Comment by Tami Lynn Kent on November 9, 2010 at 3:58pm
Just to be clear, my post was added from my own personal reflection to this topic with out reading Sian's post, and after posting I read her own very wise words that deserve acknowledgment. I agree that it isn't whining but rather truth. And in writing, RESPECT is the key--as with so much of life...
Comment by Lanita Andrews on November 9, 2010 at 3:20pm
Sian - as someone who grew up in a home full of addiction and all the dysfunction that accompanies it, I get that instinctive urge to label your feelings as "whiny brat" mode, but I think your points are more than valid, and have not been addressed thus far in the conversation. I was mortified for you at the thought of your mom writing about your first period. It is a monumental moment for a girl, filled with complex and contradictory emotions. I remember feeling just as overwhelmed at the onset of mine as I did when I lost my virginity many years later. It is a huge deal. It would seem like common sense to me that it would be an off-limit topic, but then I don't think there really is such a thing as common sense.

While my family is always at the forefront of my concious with anything I consider putting on paper, and I think about how having my life in print will affect them, I have to say it never occured to me that by writing about them, I may loose their faith in me as a confidant. This may only be because my girls are young, and what I've written about them is for the most part anecdotal, but I'm glad that you pointed it out, because it's something I will take very seriously. Keeping that bridge of communication open in the tween-teen years is difficult enough, and the last thing any mother would want to do is compromise it. So thank you so much for your comment.
Comment by Tami Lynn Kent on November 9, 2010 at 2:42pm
I've written about being pregnant with my children, the gender lines we encounter together, the mystical aspects of body/birth/mothering, and maintaining the feminine realm for my sons (three boys). When done with respect (and an open dialogue with our children as they grow), writing from the center of our creative lives as mothers and vibrant women repairs the division between work and home so that once again a creative thread defines the wholeness of life for ourselves and ultimately for our children who will carry on:)
Comment by Siân Porter on November 9, 2010 at 2:24pm
I’ve just read all the comments here with my hands shaking and my stomach churning the entire time as this topic is quite a sore spot for me. It’s not something I’ve ever written about but I just feel compelled right now because with the almost-exception of Clarissa Long who commented here as a daughter writing about her mother, there’s been no comment from any offspring written about by their mother. I have trouble writing/discussing this without feeling like I’m regressing into a whiny brat but I would stress to any mother writing about their children, please please please seek permission from anyone into their ‘tweenage’ years or older and take any feedback they give you seriously, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal!

When my mother was just finding her feet as a poet she wrote a poem about me getting my first period. Anyone who knew my mother instantly knew who she was referring to as I am an only child, the lack of my actual name was irrelevant. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and showed an extreme discomfort about her using what felt like a deeply personal topic. She never asked my permission, ignored my grumbling and it remained part of a set of early pieces shown to friends, writers groups, anyone she could get feedback from. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but when you’re that age everything’s a big deal, right? Problem was, I got so paranoid about anything else of that nature ending up in her work that I started to become more secretive and got used to bottling a lot of things up. It seemed to do the trick as her work soon shifted to a more autobiographical focus. Who knows, it probably would have no matter what I did – youth in rebellion can actually be quite a dull topic anyway. But it meant that when I was bullied and then sexually assaulted (which left some permanent mutilation), I felt I had to deal with it alone in order to retain my privacy (mixed and matched with shame). It made me a little bit crazy and probably drove a bit of a wedge between us without my mother even being aware of the real problem. To this day the thought of discussing even the slightest details about my relationships or sexuality with my writer mother just fills me with a profound panic and I’m sure that’s not healthy.

In addition, on the idea of whom a story ‘belongs to’, I think it’s important to remain considerate of how even autobiographical work will affect children, even if other people’s permission isn’t necessarily a factor - I say this because a few years ago I also had the unusual experience of suddenly finding out that I had two dead older half-siblings that I never knew about, a fact that was revealed a matter of weeks before the entire horrific story of their death was enacted on national UK radio as a tragedy for the listening public. That story was entirely my mother’s to tell, and while I was *immensely* proud of her achievement as the writer, that work also became an endless source of anger for me considering how many random people had been involved in the production over a five year run-up period while I had been oblivious to events that then completely shattered many negative/self-destructive assumptions I had held about my mother and my own origins since childhood.

Hmm, yup, whiny brat mode achieved… but seriously, I think if you aren’t going to offer the courtesy of shrouding everything in a nice safe veil of fictional work, then every writing parent should try to be as open with loved ones as possible about what personal experiences are going to end up on the page in advance.


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