Do We Overshare When We Write about Our Kids?
Written by
She Writes Fridays
November 2010
Written by
She Writes Fridays
November 2010
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 Growing Up Solo, 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 To and Letting Go of Their Daughters 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? RELATED: Through the Maternal Looking Glass by Deborah Siegel Motherhood Books group Mother Writer group

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  • Maria Foley

    Our home is the one place on earth that is completely safe. There's no need to self-edit, to show ourselves in the best light, to pretend we're somehow "better" than we actually are. We can just be. As a parent, I don't want to mess with the freedom and trust that goes along with that. I write about my children (because they're the smartest, funniest, most adorable kids on earth), but I run every piece by them first. I don't use their names in my blog, and I post photos that don't show their faces. (Fortunately, I'm a terrible photographer, so someone's head is always cut off or out of focus anyway.)

    I feel that we share ownership of our family experiences, and that means we should all be in agreement when it comes to deciding what to do with them. I never actually gave this issue any thought until my first online piece was published. It was the sick feeling I got when I read their names and saw their photo that prompted me to sit down and decide on a policy. I felt like I'd betrayed them in some way — even though they thought it was "cool" at the time.

  • Erika Schickel

    I think stories belong to those who tellthem. Even if the event happened when you weren't around, it is your slant you are giving. If the story is worth telling, then it is because it is revealing something about you.
    My rules have always been:
    1. Make your kids look smarter/better/funnier than yourself.
    2. Imagine your kids reading the story as adults (not as a teenagers, because they'll just automatically hate anything you say).
    3. Always regard your children as your beloveds first, your material second.

  • Jessica Barksdale Inclan

    I wish I wasn't so often darawn to writing about my oldst son, who has a "nom de story" in all that I write. this blog recently appreared on and AOL picked it up and put it on the main page. I was horrified by the sudden and often critical responses I received.

    My sons are okay with what I write, and we've talked about it often--though I do continue to use fake names. I know it's a tiny shield and doesn't often hide what might be hidden. But with their okays, I feel okay about it.


  • Nancy Hinchliff Writing

    I do not write about my children. They are adults and I know they wouldn't like it. I did write a poem and short personal essay at one time about one of them, during a time we had a falling out and were estranged for many years. After that period ended, I told her about both pieces and let her read them. She didn't like that I wrote about her without asking her. If I were ever to write about either one of them again, I would definitely ask them ahead of time and let them read what I was writing.


    I wrote a fictional play, but used a few all-too-true incidents about my grown "suns" that has caused a serious conflict between me and the people I care the most about. I let them read it first, and my daughter-in-law has still not forgiven me. I want to scream, IT'S FICTION! But they recognized the truth and didn't appreciate having their truth "exploited" on stage. I still maintain it was my story to tell. But I certainly didn't want to hurt the people I love.

  • Clarissa Long

    These are great questions and thoughts. What do you guys think about the other way? I am a daughter who writes about her childhood and my relationship with my mother. I have yet to publish anything, but I have showed her what I have written and at first she was extremely upset and furious. She is much more reserved than I am and didn't want such personal stuff out there. While I can definitely understand this and have taken that to heart as I have continued to write, I feel like it is her story but also my story and our story. She is beginning to feel a bit better about it, I think mainly because she is coming to terms with the fact that I will probably be publishing something someday. How do you as mothers feel?

  • Barbara Fischkin

    I have written a great deal about my children including my older son Dan, now 23, who has severe autism. Oddly, I think it is more of a crap shoot to write about them when they are too little to consent - although god knows I have done this too. (Am I going to mommy hell?). When they are little they do not understand that this writing could very well follow them through life.

    As they got older I asked them -- perhaps a bit belatedly -- if it was okay and they replied with a resounding yes. (With sensory support Dan is able to type out his feelings, opinions etc.) I think they were motivated by the need to explain- or have me explain -- to the world what it is really like to live in an autism family. To both help and educate others. My younger son Jack, 20, - now a very well adjusted college hockey player - has lived the life of an autism sibling which is no box of chocolates. I have also written about my kids fictional alter egos in my novels _ I used their real names and my own and my husband's for satire's sake. I love memoir. I love satire. I think there great truth rises from having some fun with the conventions. of writing. I told my sons that, in regard to the novels, they could always say "my nutty mother made that up." Well, much of it I did make up. It was fiction.

    I am getting off topic. The crux of what I want to say is that this is not a one-size-fits-all question. In some families life is lived privately. In others people are comfortable with being public. We are a public family. (Some might say we are a closely knit contingent of egomaniacs). I knew -- even before my kids told me -- that they would be okay with it if I wote about them, ok with the legacy it would leave, with the history it would describe. Today they still seem ok with it. Dan is on a Facebook group for indivduals who type with more skill than they speak. And he has asked some very blunt and poignant questions on it. As for Jack, you should have seen the bang-up college essay he wrote about his brother Dan.

    My husband, a former journalist, has been trying his hand at fiction. He's really gotten good at it over the years but after I read his first attempt I had to tell him it was ok if all of his women characters did NOT have black hair. Now I think many, if not all, are blondes. You get what you ask for.

  • Cindy La Ferle

    I am glad other writers keep asking this question. As a local/regional newspaper columnist who spent nearly 14 years writing about my family (including my only child), I think it's essential to talk openly with your kids and their father about your intentions. It's also important to examine your motives for every piece you write that mentions your kids.

    My son went through a phase in middle school where even the most charming pieces I wrote about him were a deep source of embarrassment. He felt exploited and exposed -- and he told me so. (Sometimes, he was right.) Later, the ban was lifted when my son grew thicker skin and stopped caring about my newspaper columns. But I was always very careful to protect and respect his privacy. His friends and his teachers at school often commented about my writings, so my son was not able to escape them totally, even if he didn't read them.

    That said, I loved Anne Lamott's writings about Sam, her only son. I wrote a piece about Anne and Sam that was picked up by a syndicate a while back. In the piece, I wondered how Sam Lamott grew up, how his mother's writings impacted his life, or if they did. I got an e-mail from a reader who said she knew that Sam wasn't doing well -- but it was unclear as to whether it was the result of being featured so prominently in his mother's work.

    More than anything, we need to keep asking the tough questions. ...

  • Amy Gesenhues

    as a columnist, i often question how much to share when writing about my parent-kiddo experiences. recently i wrote a column about my daughter's first crush (she's in first grade and could not stop talking about a certain little boy in her class who, "was the funniest boy EVER!").

    the column drew a criticism from a reader that got under my skin more so than any previous comments i have received during the 2 years i've been writing the column. after obsessing about the comment, i realized that what bothered me was that the commenter had not only judged my words but my daughter. since then, i've backed off topics about my kids. for now. i'm sure, when i'm struggling to meet deadline, one of them will end up back on the page.

    i went to an author reading this year with sue monk kidd and her daughter (they co-wrote a book called traveling with pomegranates). i asked her daughter about what it was like to be an adult and look back on the pieces her mom had written about her when she was younger. she said she loved everything her mom wrote about her. of course, i don't know if her mom every called her out on her first crush.

  • Amy Hartl Sherman

    For what it's worth, this question came up to Erma Bombeck's three children when I attended an Erma Writer's Workshop last spring. Her kids, who are now adults, were asked if they had any repercussions from Erma's columns which often included stories about them. One of her sons pointed out that they were too young to even read them and only an occasional teacher would mention a column. They really had no interest in her writings. They just knew her as their mom and knew when not to disturb her while she was working. Her son said, "Don't worry about it, go ahead and write about your children!" I believe they had more issue with her fame as time went on than with her columns about them. [Just thought I'd share that.]

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Ilie, your Motherlode really got me thinking! So interesting to read your expansion on it here. Tania, as always, you write so beautifully in response. Thank you for sharing your core with us -- love this: "I feel most at home in my writing when I go to the funky, feral core. And it usually means there’s a few other individuals down there with me." Yessss.

  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    Deborah, a heart wrencher of a topic—I love how Nancy Rappaport (below) put it:

    It is “an evoloving journey of protection, privacy and our need to write about what we care about most.”

    I’m really on both sides of the fence. I was thinking about how I grew up feeling psychically connected to my father—artist, punner extraordinaire, piano player—and had that proverbial typewriter with sheet of paper on a scratched up, painted on banged up wooden table rimmed with church pews for our family of five…I can’t remember feeling robbed, but I did have to go through every girl’s “hero’s journey” to realize my voice mattered, might muster its own spark worthy to shout out next to Dad’s, etc., and now, still immersed in an orbit of art (my father’s wife has become my photography accomplice…which means my children now love to take photos, are the subjects of some photos, etc, so we are all woven together in a playgarden of ideas and inspiration).

    But you are asking about words—I try to keep it focused on me, and use the generic “my son” or “ my daughter” and keep it to humor and what is relevant to the failures in my own psyche or parenting, or partnership skills when the kids come into my tellings about them. Maybe I’m under the spell of the “age of memoir” here, or I just lucked into being born during this maelstrom, but I feel most at home in my writing when I go to the funky, feral core. And it usually means there’s a few other individuals down there with me.

    Prayer, I think is good…like, if there’s a doubt a line has been crossed, I’ll sleep on it or run it by my husband. My oldest child is 9; I doubt I’ll be able to write openly about the vertigo I’m experiencing vicariously watching my girl approach adolesecence. So maybe you write it down for yourself for a good 20 years. Maybe it becomes a novel, narrated by a boy child. I don’t know yet. But, at any rate, I think it matters to keep talking to oneself (writing the feral material down) until it finds its home form without alienating one’s loved ones.

  • Ilie Ruby

    Deborah, great post. I've been sitting on my hands here...
    I just wrote another post on ParentDish about what it was like for my kids when they came home, and we faced all of the staring and questions. I did use a vignette about my daughter in a restaurant. What I tried to do was to keep relating the piece to larger themes and my own experience and reaction, ie. discussing how I am changing in my own reactions to this as I evolve as a parent and as I grow in my understanding of my families' place in the world. Because we are a transracial family, and none of us "match", even my kiddos, we are thrust into the spotlight quite a bit. However, and this relates to what you said about feeling overexposed as a child, I, too, share that feeling. I understand intimately the feeling of being robbed of one's privacy. That's really what it boils down to. Again, our situation is a bit different because we adopted older children from Africa -- they already came with stories of their own -- those stories are not mine and I will not tell them. And I never want them to feel like I shared something when they were little and too young (or unaware) to say, "no, don't, not that." I have to be their voice now because they are too little to speak for themselves.

    Their stories of what came could be a series of feature films but that will be for them to write, explore, or keep silent about, as I wrote in the Motherlode piece. Right now, I try to keep things focused on myself and my own experience, and relate it to larger themes. I think it's different for every parent. I don't know how I'd feel as the mother of a biological child. I can't speak to that. But I imagine I'd feel much the same way.

    Thanks again for exploring this topic further.


  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    These comments are SO helpful, SWers. I am learning tons and tons from you!! Please, continue. I am taking good notes and will be back again on this topic, I suspect :)

  • Patricia A. McGoldrick

    So glad you shared this topic, Deborah! Everyone's comments are so helpful too for any parent writing about their children--no easy answers, it seems.
    As children grow into adulthood, there is a tendency to look back and to mull over how we coped or dealt with issues as parents.
    It is a long time away for you but you have a lot of feedback on this one!

  • Hope Edelman

    Well said, Patricia.
    I forgot to mention--I heard Mary Karr interviewed on NPR a few months ago and she was talking about how her son doesn't want to read her books, how he'd rather hear her stories--about him and not about him--from her directly rather than read the version that's shaped for a book. My daughter says she doesn't want to read the books I've written since she was born, and I completely respect that. If she changes her mind in the future, we'll have copies on the shelf. And if she doesn't, she can ask me or her father for the oral versions any time.

  • Patricia Woodside

    I agree that their stories are your stories too...sometimes. If it's a story that you didn't live but was told to you--something that happened at school, with their friends, etc.--that's not your story. It's theirs. But family stories belong to every member of the family who was involved, each with a different point of view.

    Having said that, I believe we have to err on the side of caution when it comes to sharing about our children, in this day and age. First, they are entitled to some modicum of privacy. Second, we owe them protection that means we don't spill their names, photos, etc. like Caridad said. Third, never forget that the Internet lives forever. What we think is cute or funny today, they might consider extremely embarrassing in the future. Finally, if the focal point of the story is them, and not us, we should pass and allow them to tell their story in their words.

  • Nancy Rappaport

    I wrote In Her Wake about my mother's suicide and my three kids were certainly in it. I was much more protective of my immediate family (kids and husband) then my mother (dead now forty four years) and
    my Dad and siblings. Somehow I had a hierarchy of protection. That said in what part of the memoir my daughter had a "Carrie" movie moment when she is in the gym and is so embarrassed. My daughter went into her advisory program and one other student said that they had heard about my memoir and proceeded to read a passage about my daughter shaving her legs.
    So our kids are generous and I try to leave it open that they can discuss the awkward moments. With my son who is now in college, he did not want his girlfriend to read my memoir and I appreciated that he could ask her for privacy .
    So it is an evolving journey of protection, privacy and our need to write about what we care about most.

  • Hope Edelman

    Thanks for this thoughtful and important posting, Deborah. I imagine that your thoughts about it will morph and evolve over time as your children grow and start having opinions of their own. It's so important for stories of parenting to be told, yet at the same time--as with all types of memoir--many of us are very conscious of having to balance this with the privacy of family members.

    Writing about kids is a relevant topic in our house, especially this year. My last book was a family memoir that took place when my older daughter was three and before my younger one was born. It's about taking her to Mayan healers in Belize to get rid of her aggressive imaginary friend and how the experience reframed my thoughts about faith. But it's also pretty honest about the ambivalence I felt at the time toward motherhood and marriage. I started writing it when she was five, and she thought it was really cool that her name would be in a book. I got the contract when she was nine, and by then she wasn't so sure she wanted the story told, so we re-negotiated and together altered some of the facts, which didn't affect the story at all but helped her feel I wasn't writing about her so directly. She was 11 when the book came out, and by then she was not happy about it at all, mostly because she was worried about what her friends would think. I worked very closely with her school to make sure we had a plan in case anyone said anything to her--they didn't, except for the teachers who kept checking in with her to ask, "How are you doing? How are you feeling today?" to her great annoyance. I made sure that her last name didn't appear in any press materials or interviews, and that in local publications I wouldn't say where she went to school or even what grade she was in. Any photos of her that were used for promotion were from back when she was three, and she looks almost completely different now. As far as I know, nothing negative ever came back to her--but she's asked me not to write about her again.

    At 13 now, she does understand that the book is about my inner journey more than the outer one--which she couldn't understand at 11--and she's seen some of the heat I've taken for my choices and beliefs and feels protective toward me about that. I imagine we'll be discussing and renegotiating further as she gets older.

    One promise I made her was that I wouldn't write about anything happening in real time, only in retrospect. A Modern Love column I wrote a few weeks ago took place when she was in 6th grade, and I took a tip from Laura Munson (also a SheWrites member) who'd written a beautiful column about a drive she took with her daughter in which she never mentioned her daughter's name. The editor noticed that I didn't name my daughter, but he was fine with that choice. And my daughter was okay with it, too. Again, though, and as some other posters have mentioned, I only write essays in which I learn something important about myself or the world at the end, so that the family story is there in service to something larger--not to reveal or expose or justify my choices. I only write family stories that I feel will illuminate or will help other families. Keeping that focus helps me feel like I'm staying on the right side of ethics and doing right by my kids.

    It's an ongoing sticky matter in our house, but one that we find a way to live with. I'm a mother and a writer, such a dual identity I can't really separate the two at this point, and I've been writing about parent-child relationships since long before my kids were born. It's what I do, what I'm asked to write about, and how I help support the family, so there's a very practical element to this that both my husband and my daughter understand and respect. But it's also important to me to respect their privacy--and to conceal my daughter's identity; my husband so far has been fine with nearly everything I've written and is given veto power over anything--so we discuss this a lot. Still, I feel I really want to give them a break, so I'm anticipating (hoping) my next book will be something else entirely. I started a novel earlier in the year set in a canyon similar to the one we live in, and my daughter has been my environmental consultant about the native plants. It's a role she seems to like much better than that of subject.

    And then there's my younger daughter, who was seven when the last book came out and kept asking, "How come you wrote a book about Maya and not about ME?" Oy.

  • Kate O\'Mara

    When my second published piece (Medieval Herbalism) was printed in a journal, I received calls and notes from people I didn't know. It freaked me out because they got in touch with me directly, not through the publisher. I had just had my daughter & my son was almost 2. I decided at that point that I wasn't going to write about them. I have used their first & middle names for characters because I love their names. But if he or she's an old person or a cop in the story, they aren't my children.

  • Julianne McCullagh

    I was Director of Family Life Ministry at my church for several years. Part of that job was writing a column--- which included topics on family life. When I wrote a column that included my kids, I asked their permission--- they were old enough to read-- a few of them were teens-- so that is really a time to be careful. If they didn't want something written about them, I respected that. But, I knew not to get too personal-- I kept it to the funny or sweet. It is a very important question you raise. Writers feel the need to reveal, our subjects didn't necessarily sign up for that. I wrote a memoir piece a few years ago. It won a big prize. But, for the longest time I felt I had betrayed my family, and that silenced my writing for a long time. It is a delicate dance. I haven't quite figured out all the steps yet.

  • Susan Conley

    Hmmm. All such interesting and provocative questions Deborah. I wrote a book about my two boys last year--tracing a time in their lives when they were--four and six--and we lived in Beijing. I wanted to all record all that percocious, existential stuff my boys were saying when they found themselves in a wildly foreign place, where they didn't speak the language. So I wrote chapters about our life in China, partly because writing about my kids helped me understand how their brains worked. And partly because I wanted to celebrate that naive, precious take they had on the world. And partly because I wanted a transcript. Something to show them about their lives in China when they were older and we were back in the States. They liked that I was writing about them. I would read them pages out loud. And then I got blindsided by breast cancer in China and I stopped writing the book. When I picked it up again, I had to figure a way to move forward with the memoir that somehow incorporated the cancer, but that allowed the book to remain foremost a celebration of family. And so I looked at how the boys translated my cancer. There were sad moments. But also hilarious moments. I learned that I had to be honest when I talked to my kids about disease. They are very good lie detectors. And it's all there in a book (Knopf will come out with it in February and it's called The Foremost Good Fortune). Here's the hitch though--there are now chapters I can't read to the boys until they're much much older. Simply because the stuff is sad. Or talks too much about adult things like fear and death. So the boys are excited about this book of mine--they know they're in it and we look at the galley and I find passages I can read to them and they listen and smile with pride. But it's not a simple thing--this writing about our kids--as Deborah nicely lays out for us in her blog. It's nuanced and changing daily. My boys are eight and ten now. And very cool with their mommy writing about them. But what if they change their minds when they are teens? I can't take this memoir about them back then. I can just hope, I suppose, that when they read the book as adults, they feel the respect I had for them as little people and of course all my love. And that they understand how much I wanted to celebrate them.

  • Caridad Pineiro

    I write fiction, but connect with my readers on a personal level because I love finding out about them and they love learning more about me. I occasionally share family stories, but for privacy and security reasons, I try not to share too much and don't provide my child's name, picture, etc. It's harder when your children are an integral part of your stories and it's not fiction. I think you are right to be concerned as to when too much is an invasion of their privacy. I would always err on the side of not putting anything out that there you would feel embarrassed about if it was said about you instead of your children.

  • Marybeth Whalen

    I write about my kids a lot in the realm of what I am learning about myself through parenting them. With that said I do not reveal their names. (This is for their privacy as well as just security.) When I refer to them in my blog if I am referring to them specifically I use their ages as an identifier (ie, "my 13 yo son said..."). When I shared this with a friend who reads my blog she said, "I never even noticed you don't use their names." I felt like that validated the way I am doing it. If I want to protect them even further I say "one of my children." If I wanted to get much more specific, I would ask their permission. It is not my goal to embarrass my kids. But it is my goal to share how I see myself because of how they see me. One good thing is I have 6 children so there are a lot to choose from. It does protect them because they are part of a larger group. :) Not sure what I would do if I had just one or two.