Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sharing Lives: What Stories Are Ours to Tell?

“How joyful to be together, alone as when we first were joined in our little house by the river long ago, except that now we know each other, as we did not then; and now instead of two stories fumbling to meet, we belong to one story that the two, joining, made. And now we touch each other with the tenderness of mortals, who know themselves...” -Wendell Berry 
Wooded path

I am a mother because I have a daughter. I am a wife because I have a husband. I am a teacher because I have students. I am a sister because I have a sister and a brother. 

Our interactions with other people make us who we are. We get our identity by navigating a series of relationships that intertwine and fade and pick up again and start anew throughout our lives. We can remake ourselves through reinvigorating our relationships to others, and we can destroy ourselves by breaking down our bonds. Sometimes intertwining our paths with the wrong people can break us down; sometimes diverging from them can build us back up. 

A path is not made by a single set of feet treading over it once. A path is forged by a series of feet that trample it at different times and in different ways. There are times when we walk together and times when we diverge. There are times when we walk alone, but our steps are later retraced by someone else. 

We do not forge paths through lives by ourselves. 

Those paths are our stories. Those paths are at the core of who we are and what we do. They are what we share with those around us and what we leave behind for the world to see. 

That is why I cannot agree with this article in the Atlantic by Phobe Maltz Bovy discussing the ethical problems of parents writing about their children online:
While serious revelations pose a greater threat to a child's reputation, humiliating stories may be more likely to destroy a parent-child relationship. A child might sympathize with writing about his illness, but not about that time when he was three and wet the bed. And a story of everyday parenting challenges could still reflect poorly on a child down the line. Between two equivalent candidates, who would hire the one who once begged for $600 jeans?
Bovy pulls no punches in criticizing "mommy bloggers" for putting their children's privacy on the line. She says that someone is guilty of parental overshare if they meet two criteria:
Two criteria must be present: First, the children need to be identifiable. That does not necessarily mean full names. The author's full name is plenty, even if the children have a different (i.e. their father's) last name. Next, there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience.
So, she's talking about me. You know my name, and I blog to a "mass" audience (though "mass" is really a modest number, but this blog is open to the public). I am careful about what I choose to share about my daughter, and I very much do consider how the things I share might impact her as she grows older. I also completely agree that children have a right to not be exploited for profit and fame, as I recently wrote about over the proposed Shawty Lo reality show. I absolutely respect that she is an individual who is going to have to navigate her own life.

But the idea that the stories I share are not mine? (As Bovy puts it, "these parents' 'courage' involves telling stories not theirs to tell.") That's pretty ridiculous.

If I am telling a story about how my daughter's yelling "no-no" at the doctor office made me question how to best handle bodily autonomy in toddlerhood or her experiences with mediated reality, then I am sharing my story, too. Sure, her story is intertwined with mine. I am talking about her, but I am not some external observer taking notes. This is a huge part of my life and my thoughts.

What would a story look like if we could only tell parts that our solely our own? Could I even tell you what I ate for breakfast? Perhaps not. What if I bought it from someone and my breakfast is part of their life? What if I ate it with a friend? What if I thought about how much I missed my husband as I dined. Best to not give out such private details.

Bovy also makes an exemption for fiction, but it seems fairly arbitrary. Stories are stories. All fiction is rooted in truth. All writers write from their own experiences, whether that's an attempt to record them as factually as possible or an attempt to fill in the gaps that reality has left lacking. We write what we live, and we live with other people.

This is not new. Blogs have not fundamentally changed us. As I wrote before, we've always shared our lives; the technology may change the delivery, but not the motivation. We're also judging our children's possible future reactions by outdated norms:
What if our kids find these things we've said about them in five or ten years? Well, we're judging their reactions against outdated norms. Their reactions will be situated in a completely different context. They and all of their friends will have had their pictures posted on Facebook, their first tooth tweeted, their lives documented. Trying to fight that seems to me as pointless as trying to get people to start getting their Christmas card pictures created as individually painted portraits. This is the digital landscape we live within, and we will adapt. We've had a lot of practice. 
We've always shared our lives: Mark Twain's eulogy for his daughter , Sylvia Plath's poem about pregnancy, Audre Lorde's tumultuous relationship with her mother outlined in Zami, Anne Lamott's touching memoir of her early months of single motherhood, the real people Hemingway used as characters for The Sun Also Rises. 

We have no stories that are our own. We only have our own voices. Everything else we share.

Photo: lostajy

Side note: Check out blue milk's great post on this article for some further reflections on how writing about our children is more complicated than simply exploiting them for fame.


  1. No one can tell their story without at least giving a nod to the others in the room. It's a silly assertion she makes.

    However, I believe many people (bloggers and just ranting parents) cross the line between interesting and useful story telling and telling tales out of spite. I am personally offended by all the staged shaming photos of kids (and/or pets) who broke the family rules. I tend to stop reading blogs where the writer, even in jest, refers to their children as "the little brats" or some other less than friendly term of endearment.

    I suppose that means I agree with some of what Bovy says but she is focusing on one corner of the blogging world (sadly that corner gets a great deal of the spotlight...but that's a rant for another day) and ignoring some great writing.

  2. I definitely agree that there's a fine line between telling your intertwining story and stepping over someone else's bounds, and I think the power imbalance we have as parents (or teachers) makes that line even more important when we're talking about our kids (or students). I've seen examples like the ones you're talking about that have definitely crossed that line for me.

    Like you, I agree with some of Bovy's observations, but I think they're essentially true of ALL writing (not just mommy bloggers, and not even just non-fiction). We should always work to show respect for the way our work interacts with its subjects and readers. That's the job of all writers.

  3. What I write in my blog about my children is probably pale in comparison to what they write about my on their Facebook pages. In fact, in one instance in particular, I know it is. Such is life. I talk to my friends about them. They talk to their friends about me.

  4. As well they should, right? I hope that I am always an important enough part of my daughter's stories that she wants to share that with other people. And sometimes, I'm sure, that won't always be in positive ways. Such is life, indeed.

  5. I was wondering if I was the only one who hated dog shaming! Even though the dog has no idea what is going on, they look so sad and embarrassed in those photos! I really can't stand it.

  6. I have never seen dog shaming, and--though my dog gets in trouble a lot--I've never thought to document it and share it. Apparently this is a thing, though?