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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)

Shalom Auslander is the author of the memoir Foreskin’s Lament and the new novel Hope: A Tragedy. He contributes frequently to Tablet and to This American Life.

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.

Peggy Orenstein is the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and the best-selling memoir Waiting for Daisy.

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.

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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.

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