My son was barely nine when I was assigned to write what my features editor described as "a slice of life" column for our local daily newspaper. "Write about things that typical suburban families can relate to," the editor said.
While I didn't like to think there was anything "typical" about my small family of three, the chance to rehash everyday epiphanies and preserve memories in newsprint initially seemed like a journalistic coup -- the perfect beat for a work-at-home mom. This was back in the day before the blog, so the thought of reaching 16,000 people every week was pretty heady. I'd already published articles and personal essays in several national magazines, but my byline was hardly a household name. A weekly column would change that, at least locally.
Of course, not everyone bothered to read the lifestyles section in which I appeared, and not everyone was keenly interested in the poetics of keeping house. But before long, I had established a small but faithful Sunday readership -- just enough to help me earn the title of "local writer" and reap some recognition in the produce aisles and the post office. Writing about real life -- my real life -- turned out to be a great way to work through some prickly domestic issues I'd been grappling with, plus I got paid to do my thinking on paper. It further proved that, despite all the laundry and the carpooling, I also had an inner life.
But it didn't occur to me, at first, that personal writing made public could be a tad self-indulgent if you got too careless -- or that what you might consider a "cute" family anecdote could mean nothing less than lunchroom hell to your kid. My son, who was in grade school and often the subject of my weekly reflections, was the first to expose the hubris in all of this.
"If you're going to write about me, you better get it right or don't publish it," he exploded after I wrote about the time I discovered a sticky stockpile of empty soda pop cans under his bed. The column, which had mercilessly trashed the housekeeping habits of little boys, also chronicled my terror upon discovering that one of the pop cans hosted a small colony of honey bees. I had also stretched the facts a bit, implying that my son was keeping the bees as pets. This infuriated him. Everyone else thought the piece was hysterical, but my son's pride was wounded, especially after his teacher brought it up in class the following Monday.
Another time, when he was ten, he pointed out that I had misquoted him in a piece that, in my view, was flattering to him. I tried to explain that it's not easy for mothers or writers to quote accurately from memory, unless they diligently record every scrap of conversation in a notebook. But the jig was up. Feeling used, he was rightfully suspicious of my motives.
We came to a critical juncture when my son reached middle school. In a fit of total ignorance, I'd made a passing reference to the fact that he had dressed as Spock from "Star Trek" one Halloween. After the offending paragraph appeared in the paper, I was told that I did not have permission -- or the right -- to write about his personal business. I had no idea that Halloween costumes qualified as personal business, but of course, it wasn't really about the costume.
"I wish you'd quit writing about me," he repeated, fighting tears as he ran upstairs. "I don't want to ruin your job, but that's just how I feel." It was a very brave thing to say, since he knew he had posed a serious dilemma: my small-but-faithful readership had made it clear that the "kid columns" were my best stuff and they wanted more.
I was momentarily caught off guard. Hadn't I been too careful all along?
I was already worried that I'd be dismissed as a wimpy journalist, usually eschewing hot-button topics like homosexuality and presidential politics. It's true that I always tried to render emotionally honest stories -- yet I published what most writers would consider "safe" material, knowing full well that my son had to face the village at school while I hid behind a desk at home. Even from a personal angle, I avoided the sort of brutal honesty I'd been reading in the work of other essayists and newspaper columnists. I routinely read my columns aloud to my husband before sending them to the paper, just to ensure the pieces weren't too revealing, too invasive. But I hadn't done the same with our son.
And so, after our tearful talk at the top of the stairs, I decided to honor my son's request and agreed to a temporary ban on the kid columns. The ban was lifted in high school after my son grew thicker skin and facial hair. But I still avoided forbidden material, tempting though it was, including his budding relationship with a girl at school. (As testament to my prudence, his first car accident was quietly resolved without a single paragraph in the Sunday paper.)
Today, while I am a major fan of literary memoirs written by mothers, I can't help but wonder how the more candid (i.e., brutally frank) material is being tolerated by the authors' children. As much as I admire courageous, confessional writing, I get squeamish when too much is revealed about youngsters who, like my son, might be melting in the spotlight while their moms negotiate story fees and enthrall their readerships. So much depends, I realize, on where the work is published -- and when (or if) the authors' children see it. But the dilemma still haunts me, still nags at my conscience. At least I know this much: if my son was devastated when his bee-infested room was held up as a public example of adolescent chaos, he would have been mortified had I written a column speculating on, say, his sexuality, or other deeply personal issues.
So much of our culture is fueled by celebrity. We all want more than 15 minutes of fame and a terrific agent. But after two decades of professional writing, it occurs to me now that the most important stories are those imprinted on our hearts. And maybe it's just as well to keep some of those stories to ourselves.
Having spent the last 19 years of motherhood trying to teach my son the importance of respecting boundaries, I've finally learned how to respect his. And thanks to my son's willingness to express his own feelings honestly, I have learned how to strike a compromise between my desire for recognition and his need for privacy. Before hitting the send button, I also pause to consider the motivation behind every single piece I publish about him.
A senior in high school last year, my son served as editor-in-chief of his school newspaper. His position generated many riveting dinner-table discussions on what's fit to print and what isn't. I'm also proud to say he's becoming a mighty fine writer himself. So far, he hasn't publicized a single one of my parenting mistakes or humiliating family moments, although, Lord knows, he's got plenty of good material. I owe this kid a huge debt of gratitude.