Mommy Blogging For Fun And Profit And Hate Mail

August 25, 2011

A few years ago, I was interviewed by the Globe & Mail about ‘mommy blogging’ and the ethical issues – you know, the usual: child exploitation, child neglect, Jon & Kate Plus 8 Syndrome – that it raises. I was mildly defensive about it, but mostly amused, because, seriously, wasn’t it obvious that most mom bloggers blogged out of love? Wasn’t it obvious that the average mom blogger paid closer attention to her children that she might otherwise – after all, how else would she have all those stories, if she wasn’t fascinated by her kids, and by her own experience of motherhood?

These points of obviousness, however, are not obvious to everyone. Obviously. As the commenters to the original story pointed out, it seemed obvious to them that I was neglectful and exploitative. Was I not blogging instead of spending time with them (well, her; Jasper was at that point still a fetus)? Was I not profiting from telling stories about her? Wasn’t obvious that I was, as a blogging mom, a bad mom? I still get these questions. I don’t think that a week goes by that I don’t get these questions, or questions like them. Hell, just this week I got a lovely email demanding why I thought anyone cared about my struggle to figure out the how and why of telling personal stories, because, after all, I should have stopped telling those stupid, exploitative stories years ago. So the questions are fresh in my mind: can a blogging mom be a good mom? What is mommy blogging good for, anyway? These are stupid questions, of course. I know that.

They are, however, questions for which I once wrote an answer:

Nothing makes a mom-blogger prouder than to open the online editorial page of a major newspaper and see a picture of her daughter with a hyper-linked headline that asks “Is Blogging About Your Kid Exploitation?”

Of course it is, you say to yourself. And then you print the article and fold it neatly – you know, for the scrapbook, and also maybe for tax purposes – alongside the stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills you’ve collected from the enterprise of exploiting your daughter. The stacks that you make her wrap in wee elastic bands and load into the stroller basket to take to the bank. When she’s not busy posing for the pictures that you post on your exploitative ‘GET UR LIVE TODDLER SHOW RITE HEER” blog, that is. Or amusing herself in the corner with old vodka bottles while you spend the better part of each day telling the Internet stories about her. You know, for the cash.

I knew what that Globe and Mail story was about when I agreed to be interviewed for it. And I knew, too, that allowing them to photograph Emilia and I would make us a focal point. I also knew that when I said, in the interview, “this is going sound totally inappropriate, and probably needs a lot of explanation – it’s just that I can’t think of a better word – but in a way I think of her as my property, yanno?” that the ambivalent preamble would be omitted when the quote was – inevitably – used. (Actual quote, minus preamble: “In a way I think of her as my property, my work of art… She’s a work in progress that I’m involved in. To that extent, I have some license to be public about having her as my muse.”) I didn’t have a problem with that. I was prepared to stand by that. I knew that I would have to stand by that, because I knew that I’d get shit for that.

And I did. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the force of the shit being flung.

In the comments to the online article, this was the tenor of the response:

“Is it just me or is this poor little kid doomed from the get go?”

“Isn’t this just another form of pimping?”

“At 6 her daughter will likely hire a lawyer and sue her for half.”

“Parents that sit and blog are actually NOT paying attention to their children. You know the old saying ‘where are the parents.’ Well their (sic) right here in front of you honey, but they are zombified in front of a screen.”

“If this is the way this woman views her child, I hope she saves up whatever money she’s earning from her pathetic blog to pay for her kid’s therapy later in life.”

And my favorite (regarding a quote from Emilia, cited in the title of the article) “Who would teach their child to speak like this?”

(Note to ‘Dennis sinneD from Calgary’: if you know any two-year olds who can not only construct complete sentences, but articulate those sentences with perfect diction, then you live in some alternate parallel universe where said children quote EB White at five years of age, attend Oxford at seven, and publish their collected essays on the rise of the English novel at ten. Which is to say: NOT CALGARY.)

Anyway. OUCH.

The comments are stupid, I know. And, simply, wrong: I’m not some shameless mom-pimp, whoring out an online kiddy show for pennies from Google ads. I’m a writer. I make money from writing; it’s my job, my contribution to the household income, the means by which we’re going to send her to university and pay for her wedding and help her buy a house and just generally take care of her and her sibling. But it’s also a labor of love – I didn’t start writing to make money, I started because I love it. And I started writing about – mostly – being a mom because, in addition to loving the writing, I found solace and comfort and release and community in it. And so did others – readers, and other writers, who shared their stories with me. And so I kept writing, and so I keep on writing, and so I will keep on writing, until I have no words left. The money is nice, but it’s incidental to my love for the practice of writing.

Most of what I write is not anecdotes about Emilia. I’m not simply keeping a play-by-play (or, more accurately, asskick-by-asskick) record of her life. I’m writing what is, in part, a living memoir of my experience as a first-time (soon to be second-time) mother. She’s a big part of that – the biggest part, in most obvious respects – but there’s a lot about that experience that holds her at the periphery. A very, very close periphery, but still. My motherhood is a work in progress that involves her closely, but it is, also, a work that is more mine that hers. When I said in the article that she’s my muse, that’s probably as close to the truth of the writing matter as I could get. She is the source of my identity as a mother, and my primary inspiration as a writer – but the story that I tell about the experience of motherhood – the experience of womanhood after having children – is not, strictly speaking, her story. It’s mine. Mostly. (The issue of public/private distinctions as these pertain to the quote-unquote institution of motherhood, and the idea of children as any sort of ‘property,’ are subjects for another post. Soon.) (I’ll just say this: the word ‘property’ – from the Latin proprius, meaning one’s own – doesn’t necessarily refer to chattel. Rousseau and Mill took ‘property’ to refer to the broad spectrum of things – including happiness, self-respect, family – that one might hold dearly as ‘one’s own’)

And in any case – even if one does regard my personal blog as simply one long exercise in narcissistic storytelling about life with Emilia – what of it? Why does so-called lifestyle writing in print not prompt people to generalize those writers as narcissistic nutbars or neglectful parents or – most pleasantly – pimps? Memoirs, autobiography, lifestyle op-ed columns – these have been around for a very long time, and while some such writers, I’m sure, are called narcissists, most of them have probably not had the unique pleasure of being called crazy, zombified pimps. (Most of them, however, have – from Rousseau to Sedaris – historically been men. There’s something about so-called lifestyle writing or memoir by women – online or off – that inevitably provokes hysterical name-calling and foretellings of the decline of civilization. This has everything to do with the historical consignment of women and family to the private sphere, I think, but again, that’s a subject for another post. I can only skim the surface here.)

There’s something about mothers lifting back the veil of the family that upsets people, that leads people to accuse the mothers who dare do such a thing of neglecting their maternal duties, of exploiting their children, of exposing their children to the dangers of the public sphere, of being bad. But that’s precisely what makes mom-blogging – to overuse a deservedly overused phrase – a radical act. We’ve always been told to not lift the veil. We’ve always been told to stay behind the veil, no matter what. We’ve always been told that the sanctity and well-being of our families depends upon the integrity of that veil – upon modesty and privacy and keeping our struggles and our victories to ourselves. Which has, over the course of the history of Western civilization (and that of other civilizations, of course, although I cannot speak to these with any authority), kept us isolated from one another. Kept us silent.

I choose not to be silent. I choose to tell my stories, tell – while she is young – her stories, tell the stories of she and I and our family and our place in this world and to pull meaning from those stories and to speculate on those meanings and to reflect, out loud, on what it means to be a mom in this day and age and other days and ages and all the days and ages to come. I choose to use my voice, my fingers, my keyboard to make myself heard. I choose to write. If that makes me appear, to some, a crazy, narcissistic, exploitative zombie-pimp who whores her child out for the sake of a few bucks and the self-indulgence of storytelling, then so be it.

It’s worth it. It’s so worth it.

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    Penbleth August 27, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Clearly you are a terrible mother, I can hear it in your ever post and see it in the face of torment on your child in the photo. Or the opposite. Keep going and ignore the critics, just because they know how to talk doesn’t mean they make sense.

    Marinka August 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I want to address a piece of this.

    The idea that our children’s stories belong to our children and as “mommy bloggers” we are robbing them of them.

    I’d like to call bullshit on that.

    I blog about my children because I adore them because they are my life’s work and because at some points, it’s impossible to separate where my story ends and theirs begin. (Don’t make me quote Donne here, please. We’re not islands. Although welcome to Manhattan!)

    Since the internet, we’re all living a little more publicly. I suggest that your critics take it up with Al Gore.

    Issa August 29, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Best comment of the year award now officially goes to Marinka. Truly.

    alimartell August 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    What Marinka said.

    pgoodness August 29, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Thank you. Finally someone else thinks the way I do – my kids’ stories are my stories at this point in their lives, and probably forever to some extent. As they get older, they’ll have their own stories and they can tell their versions however they choose. In the meantime, I made them and I’ll write all about them if I damn well please. :)

    Julie August 27, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    To build on what Marinka said, I don’t tell my children’s stories online. Necessarily, I tell mine, because that’s the only perspective I can assume, and when my kids are ready, they’ll tell their own.

    I honestly believe that everything we write about our kids says so much more about us than it ever could about them that I can’t believe people even pull that argument out.

    A Morning Grouch August 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Well said! I think your daughter will absolutely love to read these blogs when she gets older, perhaps a teenager, young adult or maybe when she is a mother herself. It will be the linguistic version of a scrapbook that you are creating for yourself, for others to enjoy, and to pass along to her. Bravo. Anything that is put out there for the public will attract criticism – and clearly there are zillions of people with idiotic opinions. Screw ‘em.

    Courtney @ The Mommy Matters August 28, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Well, if you are a bad mom, then so am I. I blog about my son (and will continue, long after blogging isn’t “cool” anymore) because it’s cheaper than therapy, more affordable than scrapbook paper and because mama needs a place to be herself, too. Motherhood is hard. And no one needs some ignorant critic judging them for the decisions that they make. Screw the critics. Be you. That’s all that matters.

    Helen August 28, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Great post. Of course you’re not exploiting her. I think the piece about lifting the veil is particularly true – and the more that mummies write about their experiences, the more other mummies will feel normal and sane and part of the world and all that other good stuff. Please keep it up!

    The Woman Formerly Known As Beautiful August 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    First of all, your hair looks fabulous. That silver, silken sheen! Second, you’ve just articulated perfectly, for me, the mission statement of blogging. When done with respect for the dignity of our muses it does indeed break the silence and create community. I am, however, jealous you’re making money so will be making a voodoo doll. Can you please just send me a swatch of that magnificent hair?

    Miss Britt August 29, 2011 at 10:04 am

    It’s interesting that you posted this so soon after posting about being more private, interesting because I was wondering if this is part of why some of us who have created reputations as being SO OPEN slowly finding ourselves so hesitant to be so. As our kids get older, the line between their stories and ours do become more blurred – or maybe more distinct? But maybe it’s also a case of it becoming even MORE all-consuming to live with older children and we have less to give to the page?

    I don’t know, but I know what you wrote about there is just as common as what you wrote about here.

    Zoeyjane August 31, 2011 at 12:22 am

    I agree with that, Britt, but I think that it’s also simpler, too — some of us are aware of the awareness going on. There’s certain lines that can and cannot be crossed, especially within North America. e.g. at a public beach with your topless four-year old daughter, you’re more likely to get comments about her cuteness, if not mere silent smiles in her direction; three years later? You’re (intentionally. definitely.) inviting pedophilia into her life.

    To be completely crass, when my daughter was two, I could get away with joking that she was bitchy. I was free to vent by writing about how every night’s last hour before she fell asleep was a slow march of agony. Bonus: I have a twisted sense of laughing darkness in me, so people took my words even more so with a grain of salt.

    But, now. She’s, like, five, and a real kid, and there are pedophiles around, and me calling her bitchy on my blog could lead to serious self-esteem issues, and with them, a lifetime of dependencies on Prozac, Adderal and barely-sober ween from the closest AA meeting. She could feel fat. She could think I don’t love her. I should be used to being a mother by now, dammit, and the little jokes about being annoyed aren’t fair, because I’m not longer world-approved as ‘charming due to sleep deprivation’.

    It sounds like I’m worried about what other people will think. I’m not. It’s ultimately because of two priorities: deciding not to provide any sort of Child Protective Ministry with potential ‘evidence’ of my ‘neglect’ or ‘emotional abuse’ (2nd place); and not wanting her to remember being five while reading my blog at 12, and her realizing — or worse, misconstruing, completely and horribly — that shortly after she retained a new childhood memory, I sat down and poured out angst. About her. To Strangers. (1st place)

    What kind of a mother does that to a sentient being, right? But what do you do, then? Ask for permission? She’s been raised with her face on the computer and her voice in Youtube videos and ë’s sprinkling the screen so much that long before reading came, she recognized her name. And she’s a Leo.

    Ultimately, her story isn’t hers — I’m a part of it most of the time, and I’m occasionally telling it from my side. Not hers, because yes, that could be telling her story, for cash, fame, power, anti-boredom. That’s where the ethics line divides for me. Plus, I’m not a very strong telepathy practitioner, so I don’t think I’d quite get her story right, without her basically giving it to me, word-for-word.

    That kind of implies permission, right?

    sarah August 29, 2011 at 11:35 am

    So, when are you going to announce the divorce to your readers? We all know it’s coming. Before the move to NYC? After?

    Issa August 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    WTF is wrong with you? Seriously. Whether or not Catherine is getting a divorce is really no ones business but hers. Having been through a divorce, I know it’s one of the hardest things ever. Coming and harassing someone about it (or your speculation of it) is just fucking rude.

    Issa August 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    I don’t think you are exploiting Emilia or Jasper for that matter. We all share what we are comfortable with. They are our children and in some ways, I don’t think telling stories about them online is any different than telling them to our friends at a party. I believe you’d stop if she wanted you too. But really? At 3 and 5? I’m sure you have a long time before they care what is said about them at all.

    Allana Harkin August 30, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Parenting is dirty business. Just this morning I had to wipe baby feces off my upper arm.
    I recently joined the ranks of mommy bloggers and I couldn’t find myself in more loving, open and often hilarious company.
    My arms are wide open to anyone who wants to take a swing. Just be warned that there is baby poo on my arm and it will most likely end up on your face.
    Oh well…

    Brenna @ Almost All The Truth August 31, 2011 at 12:25 am

    We are living in an age of unchartered territory. At one time (this coming from my mother-in-law) when my husband was young, mothers were alternately shamed or commiserated with when showing off love notes or the like that they had found while cleaning or doing laundry. Now our conversations are being read by more, but does it change anything?

    There are always that will exploit, whether they are bloggers, writers, or not. There are always those that simply speak from a mother’s heart, telling their story which will inevitably include their children.

    And while I rarely ever follow my own advice: never, ever read the comments on news articles. ;)

    Katherine @ Postpartum Progress August 31, 2011 at 8:56 am

    The divorce comment may be one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen anyone write. What is with people? Sarah, do you know Catherine and her family? Are you friends? Do you know the ins and outs of her daily life or anything whatsoever about her relationships? C’mon! How about some decency?

    Karen Sugarpants August 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    If you stayed home, didn’t blog, didn’t work – it wouldn’t be enough for some people.

    If you worked outside the home and your children went to daycare – it wouldn’t be enough for some people.

    If you continue to do what you are doing now – it likely won’t be enough for some people.

    The fact is, some people need to focus more on fixing their own lives than fixing the lives of others.

    You’re doing what you’re passionate about. So am I. So are the next 50000000 moms in a long line of women who fought so very hard to be able to have choices.

    Not only that, following your passion, is in itself, the very best example we can show our children. My kids know I am following my dreams to be a nurse – they help me study – they see me excited and giddy over new books and a stethoscope – they GET IT that I’m ga-ga over something I love. Your kids likely see that love and passion too. That’s BEAUTIFUL!

    I say: we win. All the moms who are following their dreams: we WIN.

    Enid Melanie September 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    HAHA! The critics HAVE to criticize. It’s their job and they must do it for the bucks :P I’ve even been asked if I don’t mind my husband’s colleagues reading my FAMILY blog! Why would I? I write it because I burst with pride for my little family!

    AC September 5, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Ok – I’m going to respectfully say I disagree. I should say up front that I love reading blogs and get a great deal from them. But I really don’t agree with the discourse of privacy and women having had to keep their stuggles and victories to themselves. I’ve never known a single mother who was silent on the experience of motherhood – we all share our stories with each other over coffee or a glass of wine, at playdates or in the playground in the same way that our own mothers shared their experiences. For me it was the world of work that was isolating – becoming a mother opened up relationships with other members of my community that I never even dreamed of.

    That aside, I think for me there are a few problems with blogging (and I speak as someone who has blogged) and the main one is privacy – not just your children’s privacy but the privacy of anyone you write about. Sharing stories with someone you know, face to face is very different to writing that same story on the internet. The face to face discussion sets parameters in a way you can’t do on a blog. I’ve written blog posts then read them after a period of time has elpased and realised they don’t always sound the way you thought they did. I’ve often read another blogger’s post and wondered how I would I feel if I realised they were talking about me – it can be very upsetting. I would never want to do this to anyone never mind my child.

    The other issue I have with blogs is that as soon as someone becomes successful they neccessarily must change how they write. I am assuming this as I am not a successful blogger! However, surely the pressure to write something must be enormous when those stories are literally putting food on the table? In my experience success changes how bloggers write and they pretty much always go from being very honest and open to much more guarded because like or not, we all know that putting everything out there on the Internet IS different.

    Lia September 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I find that as the western society is losing real connectivity, no more villages to raise the children, more people locked inside their MC mansions too far from the neighbors for a cup of coffee, and endless driving to and from cold super stores, some people, specially moms, are trying to get back that neighborhood feeling that is so important when raising kids. Except that now the neighborhood is virtual and mommy blogs are the new front porch.
    To place your kids in the online world and your fears, conquests, and daily adventures open to the public is to go back to letting the village enter our lives, with its negative and positive affects. The moms who dared to open their lives, got more friends than enemies and more good than bad. Nothing in the virtual world is perfect, as no real village ever was. But it stills takes a village to raise a child.

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