When do your child's stories stop being yours?
In the beginning they are one and the same. You can go out into the world and share anything -- cute moments, anguished ones -- because it's not really their life yet, or their memories. You are part of each other, enmeshed, indivisible.
Somewhere along the line, though, your paths are supposed to diverge. It is fine to be telling tales of your 4-year-old's "love", not so much your teenager's, and downright creepy when it's your adult child you're talking about.
Dara Lynn-Weiss lost track of that line, when she wrote a piece for Vogue about the strict diet she imposed on her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, and posed with the now-slim child in designer duds for all to see on page 122 of the April shape issue. Jennifer Coburn lost track of it, too, when she wrote in Salon yesterday of the way her 14-year-old daughter Katie received a breakup text from her first boyfriend.
They are only the two most recent examples of an old dilemma writ newly large in an online world. Ayelet Waldman was one of the first to tackle it, when she wrote about loving her husband more than her children; Amy Chua was among the most recent, when The Wall Street Journal published her essay about trying to squash her daughter's independent streak. These were the modern inheritors of an age old question: does your child's privacy trump your need for guidance? If your kids are most of what you think about, can they be most of what you talk about? Now we can add to that the ability to reach thousands, even millions, in a medium accessible forever. Mix in the new culture of sharing, and you have a parenting mess for a new millenium.
To be sure, there is a value in all the sharing. The fact that advice is a few keystrokes away has transformed parenting, creating true communities and making so many of us feel less unmoored. In part that is because it gives parents a place to talk about the things that also weighed on earlier generations -- things we did not talk about enough once upon a time. Perhaps you shared with your doctor, your partner, your family and close friend back then, but that meant your circle of comfort and wisdom was limited to what those few had to offer. Now you can reach out to the larger world.
But should you?
Both Coburn and Weiss' pieces have caused firestorms. Much of the criticism has been about what the two mothers described doing -- Coburn got far too involved in the end of her daughter's romance, describing herself as "devastated" even though Katie "seemed unscathed by it;" Weiss described a year of counting her daughter's calories, and refusing to feed the child when she was hungry, admitting to sometimes "humiliating" Bea in public when she asked for something like cake.
But most of the anger was not at what the mothers did, so much as their decision to write about it so publicly. "Teenage daughter having a hard time in her personal life?" Gawker asked. "Write an essay about it for the entire internet to read! It's Parenting 101."
That, too, is part of the new paradigm. It has become a ritual of sorts, predictable even as it takes us by surprise each time. Parent writes something personal. Damage may or may not be done by the revelation itself. Then so much more damage is done by the resulting outrage.
Back in the olden days, back when it was children exposing the failures and flaws of their parents and less the other way around (think Mommy Dearest, or Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, or Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss ) readers said "how could you!", then bought the book, or not, and then moved on. In the new world, Bea and Katie's grandchildren will be able to Google their names and find articles like this one.
I struggle personally with the line between helpful introspective sharing of my own parenting, and blatant invasion of my children's privacy. It is a line that's blurred by how much I truly believe in the wisdom of crowds and the fact that when strangers let me into the crevices of their parenting life I often learn more about my own. So I want to return the kindness.
I admit that my own line is also blurred by the reality that the internet is a seductive place, and the more time you spend the more you lose track of how far down the path you have gone. In an article in The Stir yesterday, titled "Mommy Blogging Should Have an Age Limit," April Preveteaux wrote of her 6-year-old's adorable topic suggestions for Mom's online columns. "Clearly she doesn't get the concept of parenting blogs and how the more controversial the topic, the better. I mean, babies being cute will NOT cut it."
Yes, I realize I am writing this from Ground Zero of Confessional Parenting. Which either makes me complicit in the spiral, or gives me a good vantage point on where the temptations are and the lines should be. Probably a little of both.
In my own life I do not write about my children without their permission -- if they appear in an essay they get to read it before I send it to an editor. They also have veto power. (They are now 17 and 21, and this has been the rule for at least 10 years.) They rarely ask me to change things, but that is probably because I edit myself fairly strictly in the first place. That means I can't give you examples of what I would never write about, so you have to trust me that there is much that never makes it to the page.
We struggle with this on the HuffPost Parents page as a whole, too. I'm not sure we have figured out exactly the right balance yet, but I can certainly tell you we are trying. And we would love your input on how much disclosure is too much when parents write about children.
I honestly believe that both Coburn and Weiss were trying to share, not expose, when they wrote their essays. I also think each went too far. Now Weiss has a book contract, and the working title is "The Heavy". As New York Times writer Catherine St. Louis wrote on my Facebook page yesterday, " I can't wait to read this child's memoir in her 20's entitled "The Skinny" about her mother. Hope that book sells gobs."
Weiss' daughter got a similar offer from Gawker: "Katie, you sound remarkably well-balanced, considering. If you'd like to write an essay about your mother's f***d up love life, we're happy to publish it."