Earlier this year, Elizabeth Bastos published a thoughtful op-ed about why she stopped writing about her kids. The precipitating moment was a phone call from her father suggesting that she should not be sharing the details of her son’s puberty online.
There are fascinating questions to parse out here; issues of consent, of representation, of whether and what to share online. But Bastos’ exit from blogging, and the argument she makes about parent blogging more broadly, makes me wonder if we’re not throwing out the baby with the bath photo.
Bastos admits that in its early days, her blog was a “live journal” when she “felt overwhelmed by washing out sippy cups, lurking at the edges of the mommy wars, and co-sleeping and diapering.” Her blog was a place to sort out her issues, but she has written it, she fears, at the expense of her children’s privacy. Now, she writes about “things that are bigger than me.” But can’t a parenting blog be bigger than the parent and the child? Shouldn’t it?
Students enrolled in first-year writing courses across the country are receiving feedback on the first drafts of their first college essays, in many cases personal narratives. Many of these students, well-practiced at writing reasonably clean prose with vivid detail, will be surprised to find the common shorthand, “So what?” somewhere alongside their first few paragraphs.
The death of a close family member. The inspiration of a hard-working parent. The failure and eventual success stemming from a new challenge. All of these could be the opening of inspiring and engaging personal narratives. But those narratives will not be valuable to others until those first-year students shift from merely telling their own stories to using their stories as vehicles for making some larger point.
Our “mommy blogging” community should take a page from first-year writing textbooks. The main problem is not that we share deeply personal material, or that the material features our children (though those are questions worth studying). The much larger problem is that, in limiting our focus to ourselves and our day-to-day lives – ignoring that larger “So what?” – our stories have less reach, our voices are less powerful, and we miss an opportunity to join much larger conversations.
What might mommy bloggers do to overcome this problem? The first thing we might do is shun the title “mommy blogger,” which reduces our narratives to simple household dramas. The issues so many of us are exploring address a much wider audience, not just of parents but of all humans interested in what we should collectively value about child rearing. Abandoning this term might also free us to imagine subjects not immediately related to our own families.
Next, we should consider our children’s anonymity not just from a privacy perspective, but a storytelling perspective. What if the stories we told and the photos we shared were open enough to allow others to imagine themselves in them? Could a story about a child’s birthday be more meaningful if it was a reflection on a celebration that others could relate to and see themselves in?
A story about a child’s birthday with 10 cake smashing photos is not likely to be of interest to anyone except that child’s grandparents. But a story that uses a description of your child’s recent cake smash to open up larger questions about staging baby photos or the ever-more-expensive expectations for children’s birthdays? That’s a much more interesting blog post about an issue much larger than any one family.
Can you write a parenting blog without embarrassing your child or compromising his security? Of course, if the blog isn’t about him. My blog is about me but not about me; both me and my child are here mostly just long enough to stretch a canvas for other parents to fill.
So, fellow bloggers, a challenge: Go find some of your most self-indulgent prose punctuated with adorable baby photo after adorable baby photo. What is it about? What else might it be about, what greater purpose might it serve, if you took out those photos?
Share that “So What?” passage with us here in the comments, and we can work together to make our writing have greater impact.