As you know, I’m interested in the ways mother writers deal with the ethical issues that arise when they’re writing about their children. I’ve posted about it here and here. And you can read the responses of writers I’ve interviewed here and here.
It’s easier to find essays out there about raising young children, and part of the reason, of course, is that those young children aren’t telling you what you can and can’t say about them. Hell, they probably don’t even know you’re writing about them. But when kids get older, they have opinions about what you can and cannot say/write about them. It gets more complicated. But I love to read the writing of women whose children are older, because, well, I find it interesting—it’s a glimpse into our future.
So I was thrilled to stumble on the newish blog, Momma Loshen, where Momma Loshen writes about the ups and downs of parenting adult children. Momma L. agreed to a few questions about writing about one’s children, so I’d like to welcome her to Mother Words today:
KH: On your blog you say, “In the interest of protecting the feelings of the innocent — my daughters in particular, whose feelings I’m not known to have tried to protect in personal essays I’ve published through the years — I’m using pseudonyms and trying to keep a low profile. Luckily, a low profile is an easy thing to keep on this overpopulated blogosphere.”
I’m interested in hearing more about your decision to blog anonymously. You feel you need to protect your daughters’ privacy, yet you’re drawn to writing about mothering and motherhood. Can you talk a little about this?
ML: My need to protect my daughters’ privacy comes after years of NOT working too hard to protect their privacy — and having them get bothered by that. Actually, it’s only the older one, whom I call Meta on the blog, who was really bothered — when she was a teenager, after I wrote a series of personal essays about her and her younger sister (whom I call Scootes on the blog), Meta told me I was never to write about her ever again as long as I lived. I had thought I was very careful about what I wrote about them — even when they were children, I showed them what I was writing first — but at least in Meta’s adolescence, the only rule she would issue was a zero-tolerance rule.
KH: How is writing about your daughters anonymously different and/or the same as writing about them non-anonymously? Is your purpose for writing different now?
ML: I still showed them the blog, after I had written a couple of posts, and asked them if it was OK for me to continue with it anonymously. Meta also blogs anonymously, and knows it’s possible to protect your identity, but I wasn’t worried about their public identity so much as I was worried about how they would feel reading the stuff I was writing — I mean, THEY know who they are! Meta said it was OK, that I wasn’t writing about her (which would have violated the zero-tolerance rule), I was writing about me in relation to her. A subtle distinction, but I went with it.
After a while, I did let some friends know that I was blogging as Momma Loshen, and some of them have become regular readers. Oddly, Meta is a regular reader, too, and occasionally posts comments on my blog. I don’t know if she’s mentioned it to HER friends. Also oddly, Scootes, who has told me often that she loves the essays I wrote about her because it’s kind of like looking through a photo album of what she was like as she grew up, doesn’t seem to have been reading the blog at all.
My purpose in writing this blog was originally to see if there was a book worth writing about this subject — and then, of course, if I really ended up wanting to write a book on this topic, my plan was to go public with the blog so I could use it as a way to create that all-important “platform” that every author is supposed to have. But I’m not there yet, and I’m not sure what Meta would say if I eventually did want to reveal my identity and, therefore, hers.
KH: When did you begin writing about your children? Why? What kinds of reactions did your daughters have to this when they were younger?
ML: I started freelancing when Meta was born (she just turned 30), and some of my earliest assignments were for parenting magazines, so occasionally I mentioned my kids, even when they were little. I wrote about Meta’s problems with weight when she was 6, and how I put her on a diet — it appeared in a woman’s magazine, along with some photos of her, and I think that was what started her on hating being written about. But if she complained, I didn’t really notice. When she was about 8 I wrote about Meta getting reading glasses to prevent myopia, for a major newspaper, and again there were some photos of her — I thought she sort of liked it, but now I wonder. And when she was about 10 I wrote an article for that same newspaper about getting kids to be less sedentary, and for the first time I insisted to my editor that Meta get a chance to speak her piece in a sidebar that she wrote herself. Meta had a chance to point out my own relative sedentariness, too, and to write, “I guess the point is, when it comes to your children, they should do as you say, not as you do.” Touche!
I wrote about Scootes playing soccer when she was about 8 — also a women’s magazine, also a photo of the team — and she kind of loved it (except for me saying she wasn’t such a great player when she was on a co-ed team). I also wrote about her a lot when I had an occasional newspaper column — getting whistled at when she was 12, wearing clothes that showed her bra straps, playing girls’ basketball, also at about 12 or 13. I’ve written about them a lot, I realize — book clubs I’ve been in with both of them, Meta’s bat mitzvah and what it meant to me, Meta going to an all-girls college, and blah blah. Sometimes I worried about being too much like Joyce Maynard, using their lives for my own purposes, turning my family into material. But I felt that if I always asked them if it was OK, it wouldn’t be so bad. And anyway, most of my professional writing activity had nothing to do with them — these essays were occasional, and they were the fun part.
KH: What advice would you give to parents who are new to writing about their children? Are there things you wish you had done differently?
ML: Based on Meta’s subsequent anger at me, I probably wouldn’t have written at all about her weight. And I probably would have been more careful about being absolutely sure they were OK with whatever I was writing when I wrote it. For a long time I cared only about what made the best essay, and the best essays are the truthful ones, no matter who it hurts. I can still make a case for that — but there’s a good argument to be made for sparing people’s feelings, too. Maybe that’s because I’m 56 years old. In the end, what you end up with is a relationship with your children, not with some anonymous reading public, and that’s the thing that’s essential to preserve — even if it means the essay isn’t as good as it could have been.
You can read more from Momma Loshen here. Thanks, Momma Loshen, for taking the time to answer my questions!
I’m interested in how all of you navigate this issue, as well.