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.
The one thing I’m very reluctant to discuss, frankly, is the time I tied my eldest to a stone in the backyard and pretended I was going to sacrifice him to the Lord. He thought I was kidding until I took out the knife, and then he started crying. And I said, “You see? That’s what happens when you give yourself over to organized religion!”
I don’t write enough about my children for anyone to know them—I write about myself sometimes, and my response to having children, to being a father, but I don’t paint any kind of picture of my sons in anything I write.
One irate religious man (it would seem those were mutually exclusive adjectives, but they’re not) said he couldn’t wait for my son to get to be 20 years old and come home as a rabbi. I pointed out that his assumption that such an outcome would upset me, or cause me to hate my child, said more about him as a parent than it did about me.
I run everything by my husband first. If he says it’s too personal, then it is. I’ve actually cut back a lot on writing directly about my daughter now that she’s a little older. Somehow with little kids you feel more of an entitlement, more like they’re an extension of you. I feel less that way now so I’m slowly drawing the veil. I try, when I write about my daughter, to actually be writing about me rather than her, though. So it’s less about her than about motherhood, parenthood, my own girlhood …
I felt I made a terrible, terrible mistake—in terms of my own ethics—in allowing The Today Show to film her. I can never forgive myself for that. It’s not that they did anything bad—they were totally respectful in how they portrayed her—it’s just that I had no control over what they did. I put her portrayal in someone else’s hands and that was just wrong. Even though the result was “cute” and age appropriate, it was wrong. I used her in a way that crossed the line for me. I also largely avoid publishing images of her.
My feeling right now is that I no longer get free right to write about her. Just like how, as a parent, we lose free access to other aspects of our children’s lives—physical and emotional—as they get older, I think we lose this access as well.
Judith Newman, frequent contributor to the New York Times and Vanity Fair, is the author of the memoir You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of an Older (New) Mother.
I keep moving the bar further and further down the road about when I have to stop writing about my kids. This is the one advantage to having children who don’t like to read.
All parenting writers want to be Anne Lamott, but all parenting writers are frightened of being Anne Lamott. She wrote this brilliant, entirely new kind of parenting book, but then she continued to write about her child long after he deserved a private life. It’s comparable to watching Sinatra do “My Way” when he’s already forgotten the lyrics.
In general, though, I tend to fall on the side of “art justifies everything.” Write honestly. And don’t apologize. Don’t pull your punches. The problem is that with the Internet, things last forever. You do worry about your kid Googling himself years later and seeing what you wrote about him.
And finally, the perspective of a former child who was obsessively written about: Christopher Milne, son of A.A. Milne, of Pooh Corner fame. (I did not interview him, what with him being dead.)
I vividly recall how intensely painful it was to me to sit in my study [at boarding school] while my neighbors played the famous-and now cursed-gramophone record [of Milne as a child singing “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”] remorselessly over and over again. Eventually, the joke, if not the record, worn out, they handed it to me, and I took it and broke it into a hundred fragments and scattered them over a distant field.
In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, it seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.
I don’t actually worry about raising mini-Milnes. I write about lots of subjects for lots of publications; my career doesn’t rest on my children’s wee shoulders. But I want my kids to know they’re safe from being fodder. I want them to know they can take my hand without worrying I’ll write about it later. (To quote Christopher Milne’s brother Piglet, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”)
I’ll continue to write for Tablet about parenting culture—trends, news, books, art—without delving much into my own life. If I do share a story about my kids, you can be positive they’ve vetted it. It doesn’t bother me that Tablet’s readers have called me everything from “not very well-informed” to “vapid,” “spoilt,” “shallow,” “knucklehead,” “ignoramus,” and doomed to raise children who will intermarry and who will never be allowed to play with the children of certain Tablet commenters because they eat sausage. But I’m excited to get attacked for entirely new kinds of stories–reported pieces about culture that are sometimes unrelated to parenting at all. I hope you’ll keep reading. I promise not to be boring. And you don’t have to be my valentine.