Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sharing is caring

Normally, when I write something formal, and often informal as well, I include counterarguments. But when writing that post on parental overshare, I had trouble doing so, because I couldn't quite come up with what the arguments were in favor of the practice. All I could think of was that because the genre is dominated by women (but, as with all traditionally-female topics - see also: food - taken more seriously when the author is a man), it's seen as empowering to women that this option is out there. But otherwise? The argument seemed to be that there's a market for it, and that writers who have stories to tell about their kids are in great supply. Because parental overshare had so long run unopposed, there had hardly been occasion to defend it from any detractors. It wasn't clear to me what, precisely, I was arguing against.

But my post, if it did nothing else, led a bunch of writers and bloggers who share widely about their kids to speak up in defense of what they do. And it's actually been quite interesting to see the reasons they give, reasons I wouldn't have necessarily anticipated. It hasn't led me to believe it's ethically acceptable to write in this way about your own identifiable kid, even if that kid is 17-and-a-half and positively begging you to do so. Nor do I think any criticism of a parent's write to share would likely meet with anything but defensiveness from those most deeply invested (not necessarily financially) in this type of writing; even if I'd somehow anticipated these counterarguments and woven them all concisely into my post, I expect parenting-writers wouldn't have been thrilled. But reading over the response gives me a better sense of where these writers are coming from, and how better to approach the topic if I indeed have reason to approach it in the future.

So, from what I gather, the defense of parental overshare, complete with counter-counterarguments where necessary:

-By writing anonymously/pseudonymously about a difficult topic, you reinforce the idea that this topic can't be discussed in polite company. One of the Atlantic commenters wrote, "How does your argument differ from one that would demand the parents of a rape victim remain silent for no better reason than other people may consider the victim damaged goods in the future?" (Another responded, "It's up to a rape victim - not her parents, not her boyfriend, not her siblings, not her employer, not anyone - to decide whether she wants her story out there," saving me the trouble.)

But what's interesting here is the "remain silent." Is it silence to refrain from writing in the national press about your child? Which is, alas, how some appear to have interpreted what I wrote. Obviously parents have the right - obligation, even! - to seek help for their kids, be it medical, legal, etc., and obviously this means using the child's real name and explaining the details of whichever problem. What I was suggesting wasn't some kind of vow of silence on the part of parents, but rather that parents refrain from publishing private details about their kids. Which leads me to the next counterargument...

-Parents should be able to do everything within their power to advocate for their children. And if that means telling the entire English-speaking world about your child's weight concerns or undiagnosable off-ness, so be it.

Once again, however, I'm left wondering why getting help for your kid would require consciousness-raising on a national scale, in which your child's identity is revealed. I kind of understand why use of real names is thought to be of greater comfort to other families, who will read whichever article/memoir and find it reassuring that a family willing to be identified is talking about the same concern they have. (Somehow seeing one's troubles represented in fiction is no longer sufficient.) But best-case-scenario, this would seem to be sacrificing the one child's right to privacy, such that even if the kid gets whichever help he/she needs for the original problem, there's now a new problem.

-Parenting can be lonely, and stay-at-home parents especially can feel isolated, whether or not their children have special needs. The internet provides a sense of community. Being able to share is a lifeline for parents.

This strikes me as altogether reasonable. But once more, I fail to see why "mommy-blogging" (loosely-defined, and including daddy-blogging) necessitates a) using real/full names, and b) involving the national press/a published memoir. What's wrong with anonymous forums, blogs, or emailing friends? There isn't some kind of stark choice between Luddite isolation and going on a NYT blog to share your kid's troubles.

-Sharing is sharing, and there's no difference between pseudonymous, fictional, and confessional, given that it all points back to the same true story. While this notion is mildly horrifying to a literature grad student trained in being super-clear that a character isn't a real person, even if it's a protagonist who shares a first and last name with the author, I can kind of see this point. Lots of "fiction" is thinly-veiled ranting, and the names behind pseudonyms can get revealed. Similarly, children's stories could go public if an email ends up in the wrong hands, or if a parent inept at or sloppy with privacy settings writes something that gets picked up by one of the big gossip blogs.

But surely there is a difference between a story about a child that could theoretically reach the wrong audience, and one that is presenting itself as objective fact to be shared with a mass audience? Or is this my literature-grad-student bias speaking?

-Children don't have privacy.

This I'd be more inclined to accept from the "reputations" angle, if not the "relationship with parents one" - a child can definitely be humiliated. But is it true that anything said about anybody under 18 is magically struck from their record? Aren't children and adolescents constantly being told that anything they put on Facebook, anything they text, is headed straight to college admissions offices? If your father wrote a memoir about how you were a pot dealer from ages 13-15, this remains on the record forever. It seems clear enough that even if the law doesn't quite know how to protect it, common sense dictates that children do have privacy.

-There is a right to tell one's own life story, which almost by definition includes details of others' lives as well. Everyone has a story. It's snobbish and sexist to deny ordinary moms this right.

-Memoir is Art.

-The perennial 'lighten up!' argument, which by natural law must appear when anyone criticizes anything. So what if you write about your kid throwing a tantrum? There are bigger problems in the world, and the kid will get over it, or go to therapy, no big deal.

And, I believe that covers it. But I am, I suppose, collecting these, so if anyone thinks of others...


Petey said...

The incorrect notion of canine cognition argument. The writer bafflingly doesn't understand that while no one is home, their dog is quite capable of hoping onto the internet and reading what they've writen, resulting in total mortification.

This one is harder to excuse than most, as the New Yorker's hard hitting investigative reporting from 1993 is quite widely known.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Given that this is a dog capable of walking on her hind legs for prolonged intervals, if she does eventually Google herself, I wouldn't be surprised.