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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.

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Josie and Maxie, January 2012. (Marjorie Ingall)

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.)

Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, has perhaps taken more heat than any writerly mother on the planet. Here’s what she told me:

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.

Etgar Keret, who writes essays for Tablet and makes movies and writes fiction in Israel, had this to say:

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.

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Eileen P. says:

Marjorie,

I have enjoyed reading your columns since you were with the Forward. It doesn’t really matter to me what you write about, you are a talented journalist and I look forward to whatever you have to say in the future.

Therry and St. Jerome says:

God bless you, Ms. Ingalls. My mother once offered me a bag full of hair I had handed her forty years before when a stylist cut off my waist length hair for a Goldie Hawn shag.
That was oversharing. Your children will bless you for your reticence. and I will continue to click on anything that has your name on it, a wise and funny writer who has a lot to say that I want to read.

A wise decision, a lovely column. My teens vet my columns when they are mentioned. I have never used their names, or recognizable images, in my blog. Though I now must rethink that protective stance as I prepare to publish a book about our interfaith family, next year. When and if we breach that wall of privacy, they understand that it will be for an important cause, and not done lightly.

This is a very brave stance. It’s hard for writers not to write about what they know best and is most authentic for them; many authors have mined their personal relationships to the detriment of those relationships. I will continue to enjoy your writing, whatever you write about. Anybody that had me — deliberately childless me — turning immediately to the “East Village Mamele” when my Forward arrived, is a genius.

I thought you were brave when you wrote about your family and I’ll think you brave when you don’t. “Continue Reading” is what the auto-prompt said at the bottom of page one of this article, and it is what I intend to do, no matter what the subject. Bring it on.

Wise and thoughtful decision, Marjorie.

Ann arbor says:

Thank god!

How will I keep up with my first cousins, once-removed?

Marjorie, this is a wonderful article and a great turn of events for you. When my (ex)husband told me he did not want to read about our family in The Jerusalem Post, I was forced to look inwards. It was a blessing. My column “Out There” became In Here. I wrote about my father’s death, my grandmother’s quilt, Friday night dancing school, my unemployment, my flu, whatever. It broadened my scope. Now I read bloggers at http://www.timesofisrael.com writing about their kids and I’m free to do fictions. Mazal Tov!

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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.