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
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