Husband: “So, that whole thing, earlier this week? That made you a little crazy, didn’t it?”
Me: “Yeah. Kinda.”
Husband: “Why? Why did it bother you so much?”
I tell stories for a living. Mostly, I tell my own stories, the stories of my motherhood, and reflections on same. I do it because I love to do it. I do it because it has become, in some ways, almost like breathing: automatic, unavoidable, necessary. I do it because I believe in it: making public the lived experience of motherhood is, I think, crucial to empowering mothers, because it allows us to share, out in the open, where everyone can see, what motherhood is really like, once we’ve stripped away the glossy magazine covers and the laundry detergent commercials and the longstanding cultural insistence that family be private, that mothering be private, that we just hush, and not talk about how hard and how terrifying and how utterly, confoundingly, gloriously complicated this whole experience is.
I also do it because I’m vain, and because I crave approval.
Someone (actually, more than one someone) commented on the post of the other day that if I’m committed to telling my stories publicly, to mothering publicly, then I should just accept that I will face criticism and judgment. Moreover – some commenters added, here and elsewhere – since I am semi-well-known for what I do (I never know how to talk about this semi-sort-of-little-bit well-knownness. Being well known in any capacity on the Internet is, I think, kind of like being well-known in Korea for that one karaoke video that you “acted” in that one time: meaningless to anybody outside of a micro-specialized niche of aficionados, and so very probably meaningless in any broader socio-cultural context. Which is to say, nothing to brag about) it is disingenuous and/or hypocritical for me to claim to be bothered by criticism or judgment or whatever slings and arrows get hurled my way. I blog because I’m shameless, right? And I’ve earned some recognition for being shameless, right? So what’s the problem?
The problem is that I’m not shameless. I sometimes wish that I were: Socrates described himself as shameless, and argued that any true philosopher is by definition shameless, because the true philosopher loves wisdom/truth above all else, and certainly above any concern for social approval. If you’re going to interrogate social mores to the fullest extent possible, you need to be above them, at least intellectually. Shame (understood classically) is what we feel when we cower under some disapproving social gaze. It is not – contrary to what someone asserted in comments the other day – what we feel when we know that we’ve done something wrong (although we might feel shame under those circumstances); it is not necessarily associated with guilt. One can believe whole-heartedly that one is entirely in the right with a given action or behaviour, but still feel shamed by the disapproving reaction of some portion of one’s community. We can feel shame for living in poverty, for loving a member of the same sex, for breastfeeding publicly, if any measure of social disapproval is directed at those things. It doesn’t mean that we feel guilty for those things, that we feel in any way blameworthy – it means that social approval matters to us, and that social disapproval stings.
I am vulnerable to being hurt by social disapproval. It doesn’t matter whether that disapproval comes from one person, or a hundred, or a thousand, or more. I’m vulnerable to it. I fell vulnerable to it earlier this week. (All please note: what follows is not an invitation to direct further opprobrium against anyone who expressed such disapproval. These are my feelings, I am owning them and trying to make sense of them, nothing else.)
As it goes, the shame that I experienced earlier this week had – at least at first – little to do with my writing or my public persona. I felt shamed (note the distinction here: I did not feel ashamed of myself – I felt that I had been shamed, effectively, by the exercise of social disapproval toward some action on my part) for an action that I took in real life, that took place in the arena of lived space as opposed to written space. I did something and was observed and my actions were held up (in a misleading manner, which, as everyone knows by now, bothered me to no end) for interrogation and judged. Which, if that interrogation and judgment had occurred in some private space, or had remained unknown to me, might have been no big deal, but it occurred in a public space and was made known to me and so I felt – in a way that was different from how I would feel, have felt, about being judged for my writing or my online persona (I usually take that in stride. I’ve had lots of practice) – shamed. My real-life self had been observed doing some real-life thing and that real-life self was judged, publicly, and so that real-life self felt shamed.
My online self, my written self, was, of course, not completely detached from this experience. I made public my act, by Tweeting about it. I fully intended to blog about it. I had most of that post already scripted in my head. I was a little bit in love with it, to be frank: it was going to sort through all of my complicated feelings and ambivalences and reflections about what had transpired. I was going to tell the story as I wanted to tell it. It was not going to be a story about whether nursing another woman’s child was the right or wrong thing to do – there was no doubt in my mind that there was nothing wrong with it, even though I knew that it was not something that everybody would do, and even though I knew that some people, even people that I love and respect, would find it off-putting – it was going to be a story about what the experience was like, and about my complicated feelings surrounding it (for example, that it was an act that was both intimate and not intimate, that it felt both ordinary and extraordinary, that I initially felt a little afraid to do it, etc). But I was not able to tell that story, because sometime in the late hours of Monday I heard word that I had already been judged for my actions and I made the mistake of seeking out that judgment and reading it for myself and becoming upset by it and the rest, as they say, is history.
Part of my upset, in other words, was that I felt robbed of my story. It had become someone else’s story, told in a different way and with different and misleading details and I no longer had any control over it. It took on a life of its own and my feelings about it changed and I felt that, in addition to having been shamed, I had been robbed of my experience and my ability to define the terms of expressing and sharing that experience. I don’t necessarily have any rights to those things, but still: the deprivation of them hurt. Had I written about the experience myself and received shaming comments (by which I do not mean comments that expressed disagreement, but which attached moral judgment to that disagreement, i.e. it is wrong to do that, you were wrong to do that, women who do that are disgusting, etc.) I could have addressed them directly, on my own terms (or, yes, deleted them). I could have incorporated them into the larger story – which was not, as I originally imagined it, about mothers being shamed, but about trust and intimacy and support and community in motherhood, and also, maybe, about eros in motherhood (not in the sexual sense, but, rather, the classical sense. What of our profound physical and emotional connections to our children? How are these disrupted or affirmed by something like nursing another child?) – and controlled the impact of that shaming upon, and its place within, the story that I was telling.
That, obviously, was not to be. And so the story became something else entirely, and I struggled with and against the experience of feeling shamed and with and against the feeling of having lost control of my story, and it made me, yes, a little crazy. A little crazy and a lot exhausted. But beyond that crazy there was reflection, and reflection is good, right? I know now that I’m not as thick-skinned as I thought; I know, too, that I am – rightly or wrongly – possessive of my stories – told or untold – in a way that is much more intense than I understood. I learned more than I wanted to of the personal experience of shame, and I know that I have no desire to revisit it. But I am a writer and a woman who remains committed to sharing, publicly, the experience of her motherhood and of her life, generally, and so I know that critique is inevitable and judgment is inevitable and, probably, some further experience of shame is inevitable. The first I will embrace, as best I can; the second I will tolerate, as best I can. The third, I hope to continue to fight, however weakly, however awkwardly, however ineffectually, because although criticism is good, and judgment to some extent inevitable, shaming – when it is directed at any action or behaviour that is (and I realize that these are fluid concepts) well-intentioned and/or harmless and/or necessary and/or none of anyone else’s damn business regardless of how public the action is or how well-known the actor is (Salma Hayek, call me!) – is neither of those things. And the only way that I know how to fight that kind of shame is by continuing to tell my stories as if shaming didn’t matter. As if I was, in fact, shameless, in the best sense of that word.
That, and I’m going to make sure that the next time I go traipsing down the Internet rabbit hole in pursuit of stories being told about me? That I just don’t.