On the Ethics of Writing About Your Children
Four Non-Fiction Writers Discuss How to Navigate Writing Parenthood
The following roundtable discussion appears in Creative Nonfiction Issue #60, Childhood.
In “This Be The Verse,” Philip Larkin writes:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
These metronomic lines are funny, but for moms and dads, they’re also haunting. If the average parent does the kind of unintended damage Larkin suggests with his F-bomb, then what about the average nonfiction-writing parent? We essayists and memoirists often take as subjects our children—and for good reason. Having them reconstructs us. As Elizabeth Stone says, “Making the decision to have a child . . . is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” If you’re a writer, it’s hard to endure such a life shift without processing it through language. Our children create in us entirely new identities, which are rattling and sometimes, if we’re lucky, redeeming. How can we not write about this?
In a hotel room in Flagstaff, Arizona, during an hour’s downtime at the NonfictioNow Conference in October 2015, four parent-writers gathered to discuss the sticky questions of writing about their kids. Why do we do it—or not? How can we avoid the literary equivalent of the Facebook over-share? How can we mitigate the fucked-up-ness of our kids’ lives while still doing what we feel charged to do as writers: making sense of this strange and beautiful human experience?
–Heather Kirn Lanier and Joe Oestreich
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Joe Oestreich: What do we owe our children when we write about them? What do we risk?
Michelle Herman: The danger, especially when the kids are young, is seeing them only as a part of us. We expose ourselves so willingly. We’re so hard on ourselves. The risk of writing about your children is not treating them with the respect you’d give your parents or other family members. In fact, we owe our children more than we owe anyone else, in the way that, in real life, we’re more responsible to and for our children. They expect us to take care of them. We are required to have their best interests in mind for their whole lives, and that’s not necessarily true about anyone else.
Heather Kirn Lanier: When I write about my four-year-old, Fiona, I’m writing about a person with disabilities, so I’m sometimes revealing medical information. And because I’m writing about the disabled identity from the parent’s perspective, I risk alienating readers who might be upset with the way I’m portraying the life of a person with a disability, a person who also happens to live in a body that has a lot of limits. I think I write a lot more about Fiona than I would if she didn’t have her diagnosis, and it’s for a really clear reason. For many parents who get prenatal diagnoses like Fiona’s—Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome—the doctors encourage them to abort. Doctors have a really outdated and warped understanding of what the condition can entail. So for me, the benefits of representing my daughter’s beautiful life far outweigh the damage I might cause.
Amy Monticello: Your characterization of Fiona is important because it brings a personality to what is otherwise just a physicality. She isn’t simply a representative of Wolf-Hirschhorn; she’s representative of the joy of having a child with her own personality, whatever it may be. Anytime we’re writing somebody else’s story, we’re taking a pretty big risk. Maybe it’s because I’ve written frequently about being a teenager, about those vulnerable years when shame is a major driving force in life. But when I write about my daughter, Benna, I’m worried I’ll write something that might come back to hurt her at a time when she’ll feel vulnerable.
MH: Now that my daughter, Grace, is an adult, I write about only the most general ideas she has shared with me. I would never write about her love life, for example. I’ve thought a lot about how amazing it is that she isn’t angry or distraught about all the stuff I revealed about her from the time she was an infant until she was about eight or so, when I was writing very frankly about her. It may be the nature of being a writer’s child, but she knows of nothing else except being written about. When she was younger, she told me she was glad I had written it, because when people asked her why she saw a therapist, for instance, she could say, “Oh, just read my mom’s book.”
JO: But did it feel problematic, Michelle, when somebody asked Grace about her life and her answer was, “Read my mom’s book,” instead of, “Let me tell you my story”?
MH: Well, she was 11 or so when The Middle of Everything came out, and to her, it was a relief not having to explain why, say, she was seeing a therapist. Today, of course, she would never say, “Read my mom’s book.” But I can’t imagine ever writing a piece of nonfiction that Grace didn’t figure in in some way.
JO: I’m totally different. For some reason, I don’t write about my children that much. I’m trying to think now about why that is.
JH: Might it be, I don’t know, your gender, perhaps?
JO: It could be. And I can think of two other reasons. One, I’m in my kids’ faces all the time, probably more than is healthy. I’m like, “Let’s play! Let’s do stuff.” So when it comes time to write, I’m too exhausted to write back into the parenting again. I need to write away from the parenting. The other reason is just my own fear. The comedian David Cross has this bit where he makes fun of parents who share all the minutiae of their kids’ lives. His joke is like, “Hey, I gotta tell you a story about my kid. He ate this grape in the cutest way.” I’m so scared of being the parent who says, “Let me tell you about the cute way my kid ate a grape.”
MH: My husband once said to me, “I just realized why you started to write nonfiction. It’s so you have an excuse to brag about your daughter and nobody will make fun of you for it—because it’s literature.” That’s what you’re talking about, Joe. It’s literature. It’s not like posting on Facebook about your kids.
AM: I hope it’s not too awful to bring up, Michelle, but when your father was dying, I remember Lee K. Abbott telling you via Facebook to “watch everything.” That seems specifically like something a writer would say to another writer. And I try to approach parenting with that sort of philosophy. I try to pay attention. And to pay attention to the way I’m paying attention.
JO: I’m just generally a terrible chronicler of my children. I pretty much have a camera in my pocket at all times, and yet I almost never think to take a picture, let alone post it to Facebook. I’m trying so hard to be present. And the minute I take a picture of the moment, I somehow feel less present in the moment. I wish I had the pictures. I want there to be pictures. I just don’t want to take them.
HKL: Why does parenting require extra presence? You write about other parts of your life, Joe. Is it that parenting is so hard, so difficult to maintain being in the moment, that you have to force yourself to buckle down and be there?
JO: You know the maxim that says “It’s difficult to write about a place until you’ve moved away from it”? I think being the father of young kids is a place like that for me. Maybe when I’m not in the middle of raising young children, I’ll be able to write about what it was like to raise young children.
AM: Somebody asked Liz Scheid, who wrote The Shape of Blue, how she balances time between mothering and writing, and she said, “I’m always writing when I’m mothering and always mothering when I am writing.” For her, there are no boundaries between the two, but you’ve kept very distinct boundaries.
HKL: Maybe it’s refreshing that your parenting and your writing life are separate. That seems cool. I’m a little jealous, honestly. Two separate spheres of existence. We don’t need to fix you.
JO: But just for the sake of efficiency, it would be nice to combine them: to be fathering while I’m writing and writing when I’m fathering.
AM: I’m interested in this idea of how the parent and child stories are intertwined. When our kids are young, it’s hard to parse whose narrative it is: ours or theirs? But as they become older, they start splitting off from us and developing their own narratives. So it makes sense to me that writing about them when they’re younger would feel more natural than writing about them when they’re older and capable of taking ownership of their own stories.
MH: It mimics the process of individuation. When they’re babies, it seems as if there’s no difference between us and them, so their stories are our stories.
HKL: One of the accusations lodged against people who write about their kids with disabilities is that the parent isn’t differentiating his or her life from that of the child: the child’s suffering becomes the parent’s suffering. And when you have a kid who may be dependent on you for her whole life, I do think there’s a danger that you might conflate your life with hers for way longer than somebody who has a typically developing child. I’m hoping to separate Fiona and me as much as possible so that I will become more incapable of telling her story as she becomes more capable of telling it.
MH: It’s a really interesting point about separation. I can think of plenty of mothers—I’m sorry, Joe, but I mainly see this in mothers; that’s why I made that crack about gender—but when I see mothers writing about their teenaged and adult children in a completely revealing way, I get this creepy feeling that the mothers haven’t separated the way they’re supposed to.
AM: Benna is 21 months old, so right now it’s more about how her story has changed my story. This is not to say that she doesn’t have a story; it’s that what I could write about her right now wouldn’t make the most exciting literature.
MH: You could write about her eating a grape.
AM: A few moments before this talk, I showed Heather a video of Benna not napping. No. It was actually a video of the monitor of her not napping. So I’m really bad about the grape. But because Benna’s story is still pretty simple, it’s my perspective that has shifted so much in parenthood. I don’t really even write about Benna as much as I write about how I see the world differently because of her. She has depersonalized my writing from the very me-centric work I did before her. The identity shifts she has prompted in me have made me much more interested in other people’s experiences and needs and lacks. So at the moment, Benna’s story is there to put pressure on my story.
JO: As Nora Ephron famously said, “Everything is copy.” Once we start looking at our kids as material, does that change how we relate to them?
HKL: It changes the way I relate to parenting. It makes parenting way more fun, because doing the tedious stuff—whether it’s helping a technician hook my daughter’s brain up to a computer for an EEG or just offering spoonful after spoonful after spoonful of food—everything becomes the potential for art, and making art is what I really want to do. So writing about my daughter has made me a much happier parent and a much happier writer.
AM: Having Benna in my life has given me much more joy to contemplate. Even if it’s just small moments of absurdity or humor. Everything used to be hard. Now I know what’s hard and what is absolutely not hard. My daughter has been very instructive on that level. When I read my work now, there’s levity there that wasn’t present before. She allows me to hit those major notes that were inaccessible to me before.
HKL: I remember when I was pregnant, Joe, and you said—I’ll never forget it—you said, “Let me tell you what somebody told me: ‘Parenting gives you less time to write, but a deeper place to write from.’”
JO: That was me quoting the writer Pam Durban, who was quoting one of her friends.
HKL: That’s the smartest thing anyone has ever said. I’m a way better writer now that I’m a mother. I can say that for sure. I’m less self-absorbed. Small things are small things. And the things that really matter, I have my pulse on them a little bit more. Becoming a parent, your life gets more serious, but there’s something about really knowing what’s actually serious that makes everything else pretty hilarious and pretty ridiculous.
MH: For me, becoming a mother made it easier to write because the writing no longer seemed like a matter of life and death. Because pregnancy was a matter of life and death. There was this tiny little creature I was responsible for. There’s the whole “writing from the deeper place” thing, and that’s really true. But for me, motherhood took the pressure off the writing, which is much more of a pleasure now than it ever was before the age of 38, when I had a child. Now writing is this thing I do. And I love doing it. But I’ve lightened up about it.
HKL: Yeah, the rejection letters don’t cut nearly as much, and the acceptance letters don’t elevate nearly as much.
JO: After hearing you all talk, maybe I’m ready to start writing about my kids—who are six and four, school age. And these days, in real life, I’m completely obsessed with schools—what makes a good one, where I should send my kids. I can’t stop thinking about schools, and it’s truly unhealthy. But maybe now I finally have the right slant.
HKL: I’m not sure you’d be writing about your kids so much as writing about parenting. Those are two very different things. The issue of schools and neighborhoods—those concerns are parenting concerns. I write a lot about the process of parenting, specifically being a parent to somebody who is very different from the kids most of my peers are parenting.
JO: That’s why this work is important, because the one thing nobody tells you about parenthood is how lonely it can be. You feel isolated. And whether you’re talking about a big diagnosis or just the frustrations of trying to monitor behavior or even—
HKL: —feeling like an ass-hat because you don’t use cloth diapers . . .
JO: Exactly. So the writing helps make connections with other parents. By sharing the experiences, you learn that you’re not doing it alone; you’re doing it in a community. But maybe the downside is the judging that can come with it. As in, “I feel like such a bad mom every time I go to Facebook and see what all the other supermoms are doing,” whether it’s the perfect little Etsy sweater or whatever.
AM: I belong to a private mothers’ group online, and our motto is “World’s Okayist Moms.” The whole point is to talk about how very mediocre we are as mothers. And I will say that the only real meanness that comes in is when somebody screenshots the typical perfect mom post, shares it with the group, and says, “My kid ate Goldfish crackers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner today!” We do it to remind ourselves that our children are clothed and fed and loved, and that it’s sometimes important to be happy just knowing that you’re doing OK at something.
HKL: It can be really beneficial to make the kind of conversation you’re describing, Amy, a public conversation. Because the modern American family is a lonely, lonely place, you know? Three, four people. Often nowhere near the family of origin because of jobs. Making it work alone. That’s why I think public writing about parenting is vital.
AM: My mothers’ group agrees that the conversations we have are really important because they help dispel our culture’s contradictory expectations for parents. It’s like breastfeeding: you need to breastfeed—but not for too long. The standards for American parenting are impossible. And yet not reaching those impossible standards comes with guilt and shame and hiding and secrecy. So I think we need to talk about mediocrity as a necessity in light of the culture in which we parent. We have no freaking support. We don’t have subsidized childcare. Some of us don’t have extended family. And yet we expect parents to tell stories about how wonderful and joyful and perfect and easy parenting is.
JO: One of the things that makes us writers is that we want to control the narrative. So what might it be like if and when our children decide to write about us? How do you think you will take that?
HKL: I hope my children don’t have to write to make sense of the world, because it’s a tough thing to have to do. It’s a tough juggling act. But regardless of whether or not they become writers, they’re still going to be constructing narratives.
MH: And the narratives they construct will be partly about us. Because they’re our kids, they’re going to have to find some way to make sense of the world. Writing is not the only way to do it; there are lots of ways to do it. But none of them are easy lives to have.
HKL: Part of being a human is having a story, so I’ll be encouraging that, I hope.
AM: If Benna doesn’t want to be a writer, that’s fine. But I do hope she’ll find a way to narrate, to make sense, interpret, reflect—because there’s an enormous value, a depth of humanity, that comes from purposefully seeking that experience out. And if you’re doing it with true curiosity and sincerity, I think it can deepen everybody’s relationships. Even when you screw up.
JO: I once wrote something about my family, about my parents. I showed it to my dad, and he said, “I recognize everybody in this piece except for myself.” He didn’t mean that I got him wrong. It’s just that my story was so different from the one he was telling himself. I hope at some point I’ll have the opportunity to get my children’s perspectives—for better or worse—on our lives together.
MH: Just the other day, Grace was telling me about dating. She was doing these amazing disquisitions on why dating sucks, because she had never done it before; in college, nobody dates. But now that she’s out of school, she goes out to dinner with people. And she says it’s so boring. She was explaining why dating is a lousy way to get to know anyone. I said to her—I couldn’t help it; I felt as if I was talking to one of my students—I said, “This would make a great essay. You should write about it.” And she said, “Why on God’s green earth would I ever write an essay? That’s like the least interesting thing I can imagine.”
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Michelle Herman is the author of three collections of personal essays: The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and last year’s Like A Song. Her most recent book is a novel, her third, entitled Devotion. She directs the MFA program at Ohio State.
Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of the nonfiction book, Teaching in the Terrordome, and two award-winning poetry chapbooks, The Story You Tell Yourself and Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Salon, The Sun, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She teaches at Southern Vermont College and blogs about parenting a child with disabilities at www.starinhereye.wordpress.com.
Amy Monticello is the author of the memoir-in-essays Close Quarters. She is a contributing writer for Role Reboot and currently teaches at Suffolk University in Boston.
Joe Oestreich is the author of two books of creative nonfiction: Lines of Scrimmage (co-written with Scott Pleasant) and Hitless Wonder. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.