Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tornado Drill Position

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Anton Shuvalov

Photo by Anton Shuvalov. See more of Anton's work at instagram.com/noproxima/.

Ten minutes after publication

The first email was from a grandmother in Sarasota, who opened politely, but then let it rip. Your daughter will hate you and never speak to you again. Until her email, I didn't know my essay was live. A second email arrived 15 minutes later from a mother of two who skipped the polite part and opened with: You're completely wrong. My stomach seized like a fist.   

I forced myself to a yoga class to steady my nerves. All through the vinyasas, I struggled to focus. My gaze kept shifting. The words from the emails swam in my mind. You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong. They landed in my body like You're bad, you're bad, you're bad.

During shavasana, I lay on the floor stretched out like a corpse and forced my breath to lengthen. My bones sunk into the mat. It was just two women. Strangers. So what if they hated what I wrote? I visualized a sturdy brick bungalow withstanding winds of 65-85 mph; windows rattled and a branch on a well-rooted tree in the backyard snapped, landing by the fence.

One week before publication

I pitched an essay to the parenting section of a national newspaper with a readership in the hundreds of thousands, asserting that it's possible for mothers to continue writing about motherhood even if their kids are old enough to express reservations about appearing in their mothers' work. There must be a middle ground, I argued, between vowing never to write about motherhood again and exploiting our children's social, emotional, and sexual development.

The idea for the essay sparked the day after Christmas when my seven- and nine-year-olds, playing on their new computer, Googled my name and found my dormant blog and various essays I'd published online. I'd previously written about outdated gender norms; how I didn't want to go to brunch on Mother's Day; and the time my kids did a Google search on "butts," which introduced them to the Kardashian family and taught us to put parental controls on our computers. The morning they Googled my name was our first conversation about their appearance in my publications. We discussed their feelings about the writing they found and the boundaries that should guide any of my future publications. We agreed that, going forward, I would not include them in any published writing without a discussion, nor would I submit pictures of them under any circumstances. I would never use their real names, and if I ever used pseudonyms, they would be allowed to pick them.  

I searched online for guidance about how parents balance their writing lives and their children's privacy. Every article—from personal blogs to national news outlets—insisted that, at a certain point, mothers must stop writing about their children. Period. Full stop. Most drew the line at middle school, though a few stopped earlier. The idea that mothers could negotiate the boundary between their experiences as mothers and their children's privacy was unspeakable. Complete blasphemy.

Eight hours after publication

The evening the essay was published, my family and I joined friends for dinner. Early January snow clung to the ground in grayish clumps. An anxiety stomach ache, which started with the first email, had spread through my abdominal cavity as more bona fide hate mail arrived throughout the afternoon. I locked my phone in the glove compartment and ran into my friend's house—a solid, century-old graystone. I nibbled at a cheese plate and imagined my phone glowing orange and incinerating as more irate readers reached out to me. I imagined flames leaping from our minivan.

Ping! A new email on the ride home. A multiparagraph email from a woman (a mother and a writer) who outlined the myriad ways I'd willfully failed my children. She'd read my other essays and deemed them pedestrian. Typical stuff you'd read in a beginner memoir class. In a follow-up email, she urged me to read the comments section on my essay, because everyone hates you.  

 All of the windows blew out of the bungalow.

Thirty-five years before publication

February of my fifth grade year, my social life tanked spectacularly. One gray afternoon, I took my regular seat in the lunchroom, and none of the other girls would look at me. An eerie stillness seized our table, though nearby, middle schoolers jockeyed in the hot lunch line for Salisbury steak. As I pulled a turkey sandwich out of my bag, someone dropped a folded piece of loose-leaf paper over my shoulder. The girls at my table swiveled toward me so they could watch me unwrap the note. We don't like you. No one wants you to sit with us. Ten loopy, cursive signatures adorned the bottom of the page.

The Queen Bee of fifth grade wrote the note and enlisted the cosigners because she thought I'd become too chummy with her beau during history class. A chatty kid, he cracked us all up during lessons on Jamestown. I didn't like him like him, and I had no reason to believe he liked me. But there was no way to appeal the verdict. Queen Bee wanted me out, so I started eating my lunch in the bathroom.  

Fifteen hours after publication

At 3:00 a.m., I lay awake, my guts roiling. A dozen people hated what I wrote enough to reach out to me personally over email. All of the emails were from women—daughters, mothers, grandmothers—explaining why I was wrong about privacy, writing, and motherhood. Why I should shut the hell up. I left my husband sleeping in our bedroom and retreated to the unheated attic where I buried myself under old comforters and a fleece blanket. The words of the emails swarmed like demons.  

Selfish. Narcissist. Hate. Wrong. Terrible.   

I searched again for articles about motherhood and writing. Throughout my motherhood, I'd read moving essays about guiding older kids through calculus homework, mental health issues, and college applications. Those mothers' words comforted me and shined a light on subjects about which I carried only a foreboding darkness. Those mothers believed it was okay to tell those stories.

I stumbled upon an article about famous so-called "mommy bloggers," who generally decline to talk about the tricky work of writing about their children because it opens them up to furious accusations of exploitation. Those writers know better than I did.  

Winds surged to 111-135 miles per hour, lifting the car in the bungalow's driveway a foot off the ground.

Twenty-four hours after publication

On the walk to my office from the train, I waited at Clark and Adams for the light to change and felt the impulse to grab a stranger's hand. "All I meant was that I believe that it's possible to write about motherhood without hurting my children, who deserve privacy. There must be some space there, right?"  

I kept my hands stuffed in my pockets.

My office building was quiet. I flicked on the hall lights and peered in each doorway for signs of life—someone with whom I could laugh about the terrible things strangers were saying to me. I lay my palms on the flat surface of my desk as my computer hummed to life. This is a normal work day. Everything is okay. Do your work. I put my phone in a drawer.

Surely, there were new outrages to draw the focus away from me. The president clamored for his border wall. Hundreds of TSA screeners had called out sick because they were expected to work without pay during the prolonged government shutdown. Who cared about my 800-word essay?

After an hour of work, I scrolled through my personal email on my phone. Three new messages.  Kaitlyn. Charlotte. Briana. Such beautiful names. 

You suck.  

Your daughter is going to hate U forever and U won't be invited to her wedding.  

If I was UR daughter, I'd kill myself.

My personal email was easy to find. I'd recently included it on my writing website because Roxane Gay urged writers to do so on twitter. How can I give you work if I can't contact you?   

So far, no emails from Ms. Gay.    

A man sent me a direct message on Twitter, explaining that because of the imbalance of power between a kid and a parent, any negotiation around privacy—or anything else—was inherently unfair. That's called abuse, you stupid bitch.  

I locked myself in a bathroom stall. More messages popped up.

If you had any real talent, you would write fiction and not steal material from your children.

I like to write stories too, but because I love my children, I don't publish them.

You mommy bloggers make me sick.

Back at my desk, my phone dinged. A new email. A BuzzFeed reporter. We'd like to interview you about your piece. Delete.

I called the editor who published my piece. "I hope you're not reading the comments," she said. "People are terrible. They were merciless with another writer earlier this week who wrote about why she shares details about her dating life with her children."

The tree next to the bungalow toppled, taking a power line with it. Winds ripped half the roof off and sent it flying down the block.   

Forty years before publication

One spring day when I was five years old, the sky turned a sickly yellow, and after-school cartoons were interrupted by an urgent message from the National Weather Service. A high-pitched siren pealed through our Dallas neighborhood. My mom hustled me and my siblings into a small coat closet off our entryway. It smelled like mothballs and the Pringles my mom handed out to keep us calm. She brought a radio into the closet where a serious voice explained that high winds had the power to destroy whole city blocks.  

"Are we going to die?" I asked.

I remember an ache in my belly—my first memorable anxiety cramp—as I drew my knees into my chest to make more room for my little sister. For years, I panicked and felt sick to my stomach whenever the sky threatened so much as a light drizzle.  

Fifty hours after publication

My husband screened my emails—deleting the pure hate and reading the thoughtful ones aloud. Several people reached out to say simply, "You might want to rethink this." Those coolheaded social media users will never know how much I value their way of offering their opinion. Had I not been huddled, knit hands covering my head in the tornado drill position, I would have engaged in conversation. One guy wrote that his mother had violated his privacy in her writing and that he had trouble trusting people as a result. No name calling. No shame dump. A cautionary tale that I'm grateful he shared. I would like to buy some Crane's stationary and send each respectful responder a handwritten note assuring them that I am most certainly rethinking everything.

Sixty hours after publication

We arrived at a minor league hockey game an hour early. As we watched the arena fill with fans, I turned to my husband periodically to ask how many people he thought were there.

"One thousand. Two?"

"So this many people hate me."

"I think it's a lot more."

When the puck dropped and the match began, more than half of the seats were filled. My guess was six thousand.

"This many people?"

He stuck his thumb in the air and jabbed it upward. More.   

Thirty-five years before publication

Queen Bee's social influence extended beyond fifth grade. On the weekends, she enlisted some sixth grade girls to prank call me.

"Can I speak to Christie?"

"This is she."

"Tell her that no one likes her. Tell her she has no friends."

From my kitchen window, I stared into the suburban darkness, afraid I would see them—a horde of middle schoolers with pitchforks and Bonnie Bell lip gloss. I never cried at school, but my stomach hurt for weeks.

By May it was clear that social recovery was beyond my reach, so my parents transferred me to the Catholic school across town for the following year.   

Ninety-six hours after publication

I believed the storm had passed, but a friend texted as I was putting my kids to bed. Saw your essay in the paper.  

My hometown newspaper, with a circulation of 400,000, had reprinted the essay in full. Now people in my own community could hate me. 

My husband stopped scrubbing my emails just in time for me to see a message from someone informing me there was a Reddit thread titled Christie Tate is a Creepy Cunt, which linked to a jokey blog post I'd written in 2012. I'd posted a screenshot of a text to my husband: I'm at Costco getting my Zoloft script. Need anything? I titled the post, "My husband doesn't know I'm posting our texts," although it was clear from the post that my husband was in the know. It appeared on my mostly dormant blog, which hosted less than ten unique visitors a year. The post had been intended as lighthearted commentary on the absurdity of modern parenting and an attempt to normalize mental health matters.

I sent the Reddit link to a friend with the scared-face emoji. I'm dying for you, she wrote back. I changed the settings on my blog to private so no one could see it except me.

After the kids were asleep, my husband left town for a business trip. "It's going to be fine," he said.  

"Tell that to my stomach," I said. I set the house alarm as soon as he stepped on the porch to wait for his Uber. I checked the front and backdoors twice. I was a five-year-old in the coat closet, a fifth grader eating lunch in the bathroom, a forty-five-year-old people-pleaser living her worst nightmare. 

I crawled into bed with all the lights on and pulled the covers up to my chin. When the house creaked, my breath stopped. They're here 

I called my parents in Dallas, sobbing, for the first time in years. "Turn it over to your higher power," my dad said, laying out the familiar wisdom from his twelve-step program. "What people think of you is none of your business."

One week after publication

It had been 168 hours since publication, time enough for rage to cool. My phone rang. A New York number. A producer at a national morning show wanted to send a camera crew to my house to interview me about my essay. "We'd also like to get some background footage of your kids, doing homework or walking down the street. We won't show their faces." I declined. 

Ten days after publication

"Capitalize on the moment! All press is good press," a friend urged. "Remember the essay by that woman who said she loved her husband more than her kids? People hated her guts, but she got a book deal." But I was still huddled under my desk, arms over my head—no position to monetize anything.  

Many women, friends and fellow writers, commented on the misogynist nature of the feedback.  

Would anyone ever write these messages to a man? 

People don't want mothers to do anything except mother.  

Mothers never get the benefit of the doubt.   

Another friend suggested a meditation: Send everyone who reached out to me light, love, and peace.  

Two weeks after publication

I told my sponsor from my own twelve-step program that my stomach still spasmed every time I got an email from a stranger. She asked me to consider why I gave strangers on the internet so much power.

"There were so many of them. They were so angry."

"Do you believe in what you wrote?"

"Yes, though I could have been clearer."

One month after publication

I couldn't shake the unsettled feeling. I'd absorbed enough hate to believe I should do penance. During my morning commute, I held open the door for every single person exiting the South Shore train—way longer than social custom dictated. I tipped over 20 percent for days. Every gesture, every self-conscious action was part of my defense plan. I'm innocent, I declared silently when I picked random litter off the sidewalk.

It had been 720 hours since publication, and I still wanted to ask women in the line at Walgreens if they would object to me one day writing about my eating disorder and how I told my children about the twelve-step meetings I attend during my lunch hour. Or about my bodily experience of menopause and how it impacts my ability to mother?   

What about my birth story? The story of my body cut open, the panic attack in the operating room, the coarse words I had with the radiologist. Must I keep that to myself or fictionalize it because my kids and their friends could find it online? 

Six weeks after publication

Out of the tornado drill position. Time to assess what's left behind. Time for the emotional reckoning. What was my part?  

I thought first of fifth grade and my ouster from my social circle. Until February of that year, I'd focused solely on friendships with the two most popular girls: Queen Bee and her main lady-in-waiting. I was a shameless social climber in search of social power and security. Thus, I had no allies when Queen Bee turned on me because I'd made no true friends. That's why I got my ass kicked so thoroughly in the lunchroom. It's also why I kind of deserved it.  

It wasn't a crime to be ten years old and longing to fit in at a new school. But I could have chosen friends based on shared interests, like Cyndi Lauper records and ballet lessons. I could have trusted that finding like-hearted pals would be the best way to create a fulfilling social life.  But those were lessons I wouldn't learn until after fifth grade had had its way with me.

And the essay. It wasn't wrong to have an opinion and send it to a national newspaper. It wasn't wrong to put 800-plus words into the world hoping they would be read and discussed. I wanted the attention, the writing credit, the byline, the thrill of the Yes from the editors who'd passed on my previous four pitches. I gambled for attention, and I got it.

Every woman who publishes content online knows that the anonymous snipers could have their hate trained on her in an instant. I'd seen the horrible comments tweeted at Roxane Gay and Chelsea Clinton, and I'd read Lindy West’s account of being harassed privately for her public writing, as well as her appearance.  

I can't say I didn't know about the hate and judgment.

Four months after publication

Maybe I should wait a few years to write this essay. It's still so fresh. My pulse galloped away just this morning when I saw an email from a name I didn't recognize. 

Five months after publication

Every single day I think about Kaitlyn, Charlotte, and Briana. I still send them love, light, and peace. My breath still hitches when I get an email from a stranger.

It took months of distance to give myself permission to shape the experience into words. To own the right to my story—the story of my ordinary heart, scarred from decades-old social and meteorological traumas, navigating a hate storm I never saw coming, that hit before I could assume the tornado drill position.  

But it's also a very modern story about mothers and media, power and privacy, stories and rights. And boundaries. That tricky gray area between black and white, right and wrong, public and private.   

We give mothers such a small plot of land to stand on. Tiny, really. Just enough room for our feet. We're allowed to mother, of course, but only if we do it properly. We should nurse, but not for too long or it's creepy. We should ensure our kids get plenty of sleep, but not let them cry too long or it's cruel. We should work outside our homes, but never miss games, recitals, or field trips. The line we walk is razor thin.  

A more experienced writer would have been clearer about the motherhood stories she intended to claim a space for. A savvier writer would have sidestepped the privacy topic altogether. A more professional writer would have attached to the positive messages coming at her and detached from the hate. A shrewder writer would have parlayed the fury into a business opportunity.  

What about a better mother? What would she have done? Signed up for a fiction workshop so she could learn to write stories about a make-believe woman named Janeen who lives in Toledo and has two kids? Bartered away her right to self-expression because it's easier for strangers to digest a woman's artistic starvation than her desire to stand on a larger plot of land? 

I believe, as I always have, that there is room enough for all the things that matter. Children's privacy. Mothers' creative work. Boundaries. Ethics. Creativity. Negotiation. Stories. There is more room than we've been told we're allowed. That's where I would like to stand. That's where I stood as I wrote this essay.


Christie O. Tate is a writer in Chicago whose work has been published in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and others.


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