:: You can choose to write nothing about your kids, which is a fine choice, or you can write about your kids with utter kindness, respect, and gratitude. And even then, you must be careful.
I have a deadline looming for my monthly column about motherhood, and I hit a roadblock. I realized that the only way around this roadblock was to handle the issues that have arisen lately about writing, writing about one’s kids, and especially writing about one’s disabled kids. For example, the Washington Post recently ran a piece in which a “mommy blogger” (which has become a horribly derogatory term, by the way, don’t use it), ruminates on writing about her daughter. I disagree with her assessments and conclusions, but I also think that if that piece had been written by a man, the world would have cut her a lot more slack.
In response to the WaPo piece, author John Scalzi wrote a blog post describing his own adventures in mommy blogging, except it’s not called mommy blogging when a man does it, it’s just called “blogging.” He talks about how his wife, and then later his daughter, had veto power over the posts he’s been writing for 20 years about his daughter growing up. Fine. Good.
In case you’re new to me and my work, I write a column called “Mom, Interrupted” for the magazine Catapult, about being a disabled mom with disabled kids. I’m working on a book on a similar subject. I have bipolar disorder and other neuroatypicalities. My kids are also neuroatypical, in ways that are similar to me and to how I was as a kid. I write about how being me—being disabled—makes me a better mom for them. And I write about how glad I am to be their mom.
Here’s my take on how to write about your kids without being awful, especially if your kids are disabled.
(1) If you aren’t sure if you can write about your kids without being awful, don’t write about your kids. You are not required to write about your kids on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media, or for magazines or in books. You don’t have to do it. And if you can’t do it ethically, with respect and love, then don’t. Period. Write about your pets, or an adult who can defend themself, or literally anything else. Just not your kids.
(2) Don’t put pictures of your kids’ faces on the internet. This is a big one for me. “Privacy” settings mean nothing to me; I don’t put my kids’ faces on the internet. Occasionally, in a photo, you might catch a kid in a 3/4 view or with a face partially obscured, but 95% of the time, you see them from behind, or with a hood on, or otherwise fully obscured. You do not see my kids faces on the internet, anywhere, ever, period.
(3) Don’t use your kids’ names. This is another big one for me. Google is forever, at least until the apocalypse comes. I do not want my kid to be Google-able by name. Picture Edna Mode from the INCREDIBLES, finger in the air: “NO NAMES.” Ever. Period.
(4) When possible, be vague. No school uniform details. No SCHOOL details (jeez). No details at all, if you can help it. Protect your kids’ day-to-day privacy as much as you can. I know this might seem counterintuitive because you’re also writing about their lives, but 2, 3, and 4 are here to keep your kids SAFE. Please, please, please: Keep your kids safe. What always strikes me as odd is that the same parents who lose their minds about their kids creating social media profiles without permission post photographs that include their kids’ names, ages, school info, and photographs all over their own social media profiles. WTH? With parents like you, your kids don’t need their own social media profiles to get themselves into trouble.
(5) When telling stories about your kids, be sure that you’re telling the story because it’s about YOU. This one is an issue of boundaries, and it gets to the heart of why people write about their kids in the first place. I try hard to avoid being judgmental, but I’m also very protective of children (like most humans, I think), especially disabled children who have normate parents. And too often, when parents are writing about their kids, the stories the parents tell feel like appropriation of someone else’s story. Rather than writing a story about themself, in which their kid happens to be a marvelous character, in these instances the author writes a story that belongs to the author’s child. Ask yourself: Am I writing to figure out more about me and my life? If the answer is no, then maybe don’t write the essay.
(5) But if it’s about you, be sure you’re not just complaining—especially if your kids are disabled. Too often, parent bloggers and essayists use their platforms to write a particular woe-is-me genre about how hard it is to be a parent. That’s fine, I guess, when your kid is a normate. In that case, the worst that can happen is that your kid will grow up to hate you for bitching about them on the internet. When your kid is disabled, though, and you complain about how hard it is to parent them, you are feeding into the already bloated notion that disabled people are a drag on society. I mean, look—not even their own parents want to take care of them. These “disabled kid complaint” narratives create sympathy for normate parents of disabled kids while further stigmatizing disabled people themselves. Don’t write these narratives. Just. Don’t. Do. It. If you need to vent about how hard your parenting week has been, I get it. I really do. Just do it in private.
(6) If your child is disabled, do not “be their voice.” The “parental voice” is a common trope in parenting blogs for parents of kids who are autistic and/or nonverbal. It is INFURIATING. (Some) parents of disabled children insist that because they “speak” for their children that they understand what it is to be disabled. These are actual words that they write. In public. In groups. And then they receive pats on the back from others who agree with them. I’m pointing out this screwball opinion because it is very important that you understand that the only person who can speak for a disabled person is the disabled person. If you don’t believe that in your heart, then you should not be writing about your disabled kid. You probably also have a problem with boundaries.
(7) If your child is disabled, and you want to write about their disabled-ness, be a disabled parent. The fact is, I would never have attempted to write about my kids’ experiences with their disabilities if I hadn’t had very similar experiences when I was a kid. The whole point of the essays I write is to talk about the ways that my similar experiences help me parent them better. My kids’ disabilities aren’t strange or alien to me. There are no puzzles that need solving. To me, my kids make perfect sense. Now, the rest of the world can really suck sometimes, for all of us. That’s the point. My kids don’t need to bend. The world does. If you’re a normate parent and you want to write about your disabled kids, you have a tough hill to climb—that is the truth. It can be done though. Some have done it. But it is hard. And even if you are a disabled parent, you can still make mistakes. Being disabled doesn’t make you immune to Numbers 5 and 6, for example. So you must still be careful.
(8) When you write about your kids, write only about the times they have inspired you most. Don’t lay out your kids worst moments for the world to consume. Don’t do that to them. Honestly. This goes back to Number 5—if you need to vent about your kids, pick up the phone and call a friend. If you’re writing an essay, you write about your kids at their very best. Now, I realize that your kids at their best to you might not be them at their best to everyone. That’s okay. Your love and admiration for them will shine through in your writing. That’s the best you can do. (Unless you can’t, in which case see Number 1: Don’t write about your kids.)
(9) Put safeties in place. Scalzi was onto something when he had his wife read his blog posts, and later, his daughter. I have my husband read my essays. My kids are still too young to do much more than be thrilled and to want to please me, but when they’re older they’ll be part of the decision-making, too. They’ll all have a veto. I know I’m not perfect. I want my family around me, reading what I’ve written, making sure that I’m treating them with kindness, respect, and gratitude.
Want to read more of my writing about mental health and disability? You can buy LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION (Raven Books, 2017) now.
I owe thanks to Kelly J. Baker for helping me talk through this issues when I was still wrestling with them. Thank you, babe. Go buy Kelly’s books.