My 10 New Ground Rules for Writing in Public about the Kids

Struggling with how much to divulge, Deborah Siegel harnessed the She Writerly hive mind and came up with rules to write and live by—for now.

Last week, over 50 of you responded Friday’s post, “Do We Overshare When We Write about Our Kids?”, and a bunch more when the post was reposted on the homepage at BlogHer ("When the Writer Becomes a Mommy"), prompting a dialogue and debate that we could continue having here for months (and please, seriously, let’s!). Among my favorite comments, however, was this one from Lisa Preston: “There seems to be a contingent that's saying, ‘My experience with motherhood can help other mothers.’ To me, that's quite valid. But it feels selfish, a bit whiny to say, ‘I'm a writer.’ Almost as if we can't help but put them into print. Are we immortalizing them or ourselves?”

At the same time as your comments cumulated, a heated exchange took place at The Wall Street Journal, one in which Erica Jong spoke out against attachment parenting ("Mother Madness") and her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, subsequently wrote about being written about by her mom as a kid ("Growing Up with Ma Jong"). Suffice it to say, talking about how writers who are mothers do it, why they do it, and how their kids feel about how and why they do it, is in.

While I’ve struggled with the narcissism from the get go (see “Through the Maternal Looking Glass”), I share the modus operandi voiced by Jane Roper, now working on a book for St. Martin’s about the first three years of raising her twins: writing about these little people will be an integral part of my raising them. As someone who writes to make sense of the world, and who is an utter novice at raising kids, there is no other parenting principle of which I’m more certain than this. It takes a writerly village, and I’m determined to learn from ours, She Writes, as I begin.

A few quick caveats: The question of how we write about our kids is not, as Barbara Fischkin notes, “a one-size-fits-all question.” Different rules (no rules, perhaps) apply for private writing. These are simply my rules for writing in public. Ok, here we go:

1. I shalt not refer to my children by their given names. (I’m leaning toward “Baby Girl” and “Baby Boy” for now, though I like the way Rita Arens refers, sometimes wryly and sometimes sweetly, to hers as “the little angel”, the way Veronica Arreola calls hers “the kid,” and the way Ilie Ruby dubs them “kiddos”)

2. I shalt not post pictures of their faces. (Many of you did, then felt “sick” when you saw the clip or post later on and resolved not to do it again. I’m taking your cue.)

3. There shalt be topics that are off limits. (I sense I’ll know them when I see them—topics that would obviously embarrass them later. I’ll try to imagine them reading what I’ve written as adults, and try hard to save us all exhorbitant family therapy bills.)

4. I shalt try to write about life from my perspective, not theirs. (Writes the wise Linda Lowen, “I try hard not to write about things that they've told me about their lives; instead, I focus on experiences I share with them.”)

5. Similarly, I shalt not write in a way that assumes I know their inner truths.

6. As soon as they’re old enough to comprehend that mommy is a writer, I shalt read them what I’ve written before I publish, just as I’ve done with my husband and parents. My children shalt have veto power.

7. As shalt my husband. He shalt help me keep my ethics in check and be my second pair of eyes.

8. Since I’m a trained cultural critic/researcher first and only more recently a blogger/essay writer, I shalt often be writing about culture and context, referring to anecdotes about my kids in the service of a larger, cultural point (Judith Warner and Peggy Orenstein are so my writer/mother heroines here).

9. Except when I’m not making a larger cultural point. In those cases, I shalt probably be writing about my kids because I’ve decided to reveal something honest or embarrassing or conflicted about myself.

10. Lastly, stealing a page from wise Erika Schickel, I shalt always regard my children as my beloveds first, material second.

So there we go. My starter set of rules. As Hope Edelman assures me, my rules will change. “I imagine that your thoughts about it will morph and evolve over time as your children grow and start having opinions of their own,” she wrote. Nancy Rappaport calls this “an evolving journey of protection, privacy and our need to write about what we care about most.”

Thank you, She Writers, for your wisdom. I'm off to write a post.


Mother Writer! (the She Writes group)

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Comment by SueAnn Jackson Land on November 18, 2010 at 5:20pm
I have a little bit of a different take on this. A good deal of the content of my book, The Truth About Whales, talks about the suicide of my son, Ben. I didn't change any of our names because the book was to help explain to his friends and his classmates what happened within and without our family as we all recovered from his death. The book was published to take all of the skeletons and secrets out of the closet and expose them to the full tilt sunlight of the day.

I have had many, many arguments with myself that started with, "What if they think you exploited your son's death to gain attention or recognition or... your dance with narcissism will cost your your remaining children... etc." The answer I have for that is if I exploit my son's death, humiliate myself and my kids -- and help a mother make it through the first week after losing a child -- or if a teenager sees what the aftemath on the family is like... I don't think Ben will deck me in Heaven. At least I hope not.

Ironically, the people I fictionalized for the book were the first ones offended, which I found to be poetic justice
Comment by Susan Katz Miller on November 17, 2010 at 10:21am
I am very, very glad I decided against using my kids' real names and faces for my blog. Teens are turbulent, my blog topic (religion) is sensitive. Mine read anything I write about them, beforehand (important to specify that). My post today was cleared by my 13-year-old-son...
Comment by Deborah Siegel on November 16, 2010 at 6:13am
Marigold, totally coincidence! And definitely, everyone, these are just *my* rules, though I take Jeneva's point to heart, re laying down groundrules in a public forum. Those who know my work (I'm a professional feminist, by training and history!) know that I'm the last one to promote "the idea that a husband and children should have veto power over what a woman writes". But I totally see Jeneva's point--and am thinking about the public nature of articulating one's "rules". A whole 'nother thread could be: our feminist selves, our co-parenting selves...Stay tuned!
Comment by Alex Iwashyna on November 15, 2010 at 7:46pm
These are great ideas. I'm going back to see why people are against posting faces though. I missed the issue there...
Comment by Marigold Kim Sing on November 14, 2010 at 7:55am
Thankyou for this conversation Debrorah. I feared it was my thoughtless blog which had prompted it, but I think that was just a coincidence! I hadn't looked at the possible implications of making my family's business public, and have removed the post now. Interesting that I always feel that the really deep stuff is the most important to write about, and that being open and vulnerable is a gift to others. That our putting an I'm OK face on only keeps us and others trapped in the fearfulness of our apparently separate selves. Thankyou for pointing out the pitfalls to that approach if I include my nearest and dearest in the equation without having their express permission.I can't believe I didn't even think about this at the time of writing but better to feel like a chump now than to have to deal with a horrible mess later!
Comment by Sharon Ciraulo Wolf on November 13, 2010 at 6:12pm
This reminds me of the time I wrote an essay about my then 9-year-old son, about the time he announced that "snakes are lucky" because they are completely independent from the time they are born and don't need their parents for anything. I did let him read the essay , and asked him if it was okay with him if I tried to market it. He said it would be fine with him, but wanted to know if I sold it, if he would get some of the money since it was about him. He wanted a cut of the profit!
Comment by Sunday Koffron Taylor on November 13, 2010 at 2:02pm
These are very good suggestions, I will keep them in mind while I post.
Comment by Susan Bearman on November 13, 2010 at 1:51pm
I didn't post pictures of my kids for a very long time, and when I did, I posted older pictures of them, not current ones. I did not identify them by name for a long time either. When they were old enough, I discussed my writing with them and share it before it is posted or published.

Now, though, I am writing my memoir about my premature twins and running into all kinds of new territory, revealing things they never knew about. It's such an interesting process. I will pay particular attention to Ground Rules #4 and #5 as I move forward. I just launched the Website for this project, where I will share my journal entries of their five-month hospital stay. I do think our story will help other mothers, which is why I'm writing it.

Would love feedback on my site, which is up now. The first blog post will go up on 11/17 to correspond with my twins' birthday.
Comment by Jeneva Burroughs Stone on November 13, 2010 at 11:37am
While I found the post, "Do We Overshare When We Write about Our Kids," to be, certainly, a timely and balanced piece, I have to say I'm really disappointed in this follow-up that lays down 'rules.' I realize that this is entitled "My Rules," but anything with the backing of authority that stipulates rules is likely to be taken by many as such: global rules, not simple advice. Once this stuff propagates, it gives any editor or publisher with a mixed attitude toward writing by women ammunition to reject it, no matter how finely written, no matter what is said. That a woman could be said to be 'unethical' with regard to her subject is yet another flag misogynists can wave--aren't we having enough trouble being reviewed and published?

What I most object to, and that I've seen in other forums, is the idea that a husband and children should have veto power over what a woman writes. As though we women, with our inferior brains, don't have the capacity for reason and judgement on our own? If anything, who decides what in a family is an intensely personal matter and should never be promulgated as a 'rule' others should follow. Again, I know it was "my rules," but the implication is that these were established by committee and published as good advice for others. It's ominous to read that husbands should be able to censor wives.

Women do and should have a lot to say about their children: it's territory ripe for exploration. Why stifle creativity with rules? Why can't a woman own her own experience? Trust her own judgement?
Comment by Liesl Jurock on November 13, 2010 at 11:08am
Thanks for sharing/compiling this. I'm not sure if I agree with your specifics, and I missed the debate, but I do concur that we need to find our own boundaries. Your article inspired me to write about Why I Put Aside the Ethical Dillema of Writing about my Son on my blog ( For me at least, this is not just about capturing memories of our kids or our motherhood journey. It's about being part of a movement to document the reality of motherhood, and redefinite it for our age!


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