Bye Bye, Baby
As children get older, they need more privacy—especially if their parents are writers. That’s why you won’t read much about my kids anymore.
Valentine’s Day is upon us. Single people feel pressured to be coupled, and coupled people feel pressured to be perfect. Not even children are exempt from the V-Day pressure—not when parents obsess over making valentine cupcakes for the class, or worry about whether their kids are sufficiently popular to get a fistful of candy-heart tributes from their classmates. Feh. That’s why this Valentine’s Day, as a symbol of my love, I’m giving my kids the greatest gift of all: I’m not going to write about them anymore.
I’ve been writing a Jewish parenting column for over a decade, initially at The Forward and then at Tablet. At first I loved it. When you have a baby, everything is new. I wrote lyrical twaddle about the smell of baby Josie’s head, and how everything was a schehechiyanu moment. I pontificated about crappy baby-shower gifts and stupid Hanukkah presents. I also wrote dippy pieces for secular parenting magazines, generally following the mandatory format of gosh-this-parenting-thing-is-hard-and-full-of-effluvia-and-ew-I-have-Cheerios-in-my-hair-and-the-house-is-a-sty and then my baby smiled her delicious gummy smile and nothing else mattered. I wrote controversial things, too, about how breastfeeding isn’t necessarily best and why I have trouble talking to my kids about Israel. Those were fun.
When I wrote about my babies, I was really writing about myself. But as my kids got older, I got less and less comfortable sharing stories about them. As they developed self-consciousness, self-control, anxieties, passions, and their own ethical struggles, I started to feel their stories weren’t mine to tell. Currently my kids are little hams who love that I write about them, but that’s going to change. Josie got very upset only once about something I published, when I let The Forward use a drawing she made without asking her permission. When she saw it in the paper, she started to sob. “That’s not my best work! I don’t want people to see that!” But now that she’s 10, shouldn’t she get to own her stories about puberty, crushes, fears, and rebellions? Maxine, now 7, hasn’t gotten upset about anything I’ve written. She knows I’ve talked about her sensory and motor issues, for instance. But I don’t want her ever to feel that I’m minimizing, maximizing, or mocking her challenges in public. And as she progresses in school, her work is her business, not yours, dear reader.
In some ways, not writing about the deep, dark stuff—as opposed to the smell-of-the-baby’s-head stuff—is a cop-out. Honest, specific stories about the difficulty of raising older kids are invaluable: about how having children is hard on marriage, or how sometimes you want to hit, or the pure terror and resentment of being responsible for other people’s lives. I want to read those stories. I just don’t want to write them. If you’re trying to say something universal, you really do have to offer particulars. And you often have to sacrifice your children’s privacy.
I’m hardly the first writer to struggle with balancing truth-telling and family protectiveness, specificity and children’s rights not to be mere grist. So, I talked to a bunch of essayists about what we write about when we write about parenting … and what we don’t. (FYI: These interviews have been condensed.)
You only know what I’ve written about; you don’t know what I haven’t written about. I’ve made mistakes, but not the ones people think I’ve made. My son wasn’t upset about the gay thing I wrote about him, but he was upset that I made a casual reference about how long he breastfed. It never occurred to me that that would be a problem, but he got teased about it at school. I pointed out that probably those kids who were teasing him were still nursing.
My teenage son asked me not to write about him at all, so I don’t. With the other kids, I ask permission. I’m mindful … but I’m a Jew, so my children will be in therapy anyway. I figure I’m doing the therapists of the world a favor.
Parenting is a cavalcade of mistakes. It’s what we do.
Lev is 6. He knows I write about him and he’s happy about it. But I write fiction, and even my essays are partially fiction in that I exaggerate stuff. It’s not a one-to-one communication of things. When I do a piece about my son being elected president of Israel and he doesn’t molest women—he’s just as smart as Moshe Katsav and he doesn’t grab women’s boobs!—it’s not as if I expose something secret or intimate.
Anything I write about my son uses loving energy; he’s almost a gateway to talk about that love. Whatever nasty joke I play in a story, the fact that I love my family will come through.
There was a long time between my last collection of stories and this one—10 years. That time mostly has to do with the fact that I became a parent. One thing I discovered in my previous collections is that I wrote a lot of stories that came from a child’s perspective. But the moment my son was born I found myself unable to write from a child’s perspective anymore. Suddenly I started writing from the father’s side. The moment you can think like a child lasts as long as you don’t have one. The moment you have a child, you cannot be in a position where you don’t feel responsible.
With his golem still missing, Judah Loew becomes acquainted with that most New York of moods: agitation