Monday, November 15, 2010

When Kid's Stories Become Their Own

All it took was a tweet.

I was sitting in my kitchen, and a tweet finally took what has been mulling over in my brain for a long time, and pulled it all together into a post.

Awhile ago, I announced on Twitter, and then here on my blog, that Kevin asked me to begin referring to him by his real name instead of Jake. I dutifully complied. It hasn't been easy, and every now and then I still get a reader or follower with furrowed brow, asking me if they have gone insane, or if I suddenly produced another child.

"Who is KEVIN?" they ask, "and why can't you just keep calling him JAKE? It would be so much easier for us!"

Dear readers, I love you, but my first job is being Kevin's mother and if he asks me to call him by his real name here, despite the confusion, Iwill happily comply. No questions asked.

Once I saw the tweet that got my mind rolling, and went on to read the post, I felt compelled to write about my perspective as a writer and mom of a teenager. In some ways, after reading such posts I've almost felt like it's my duty as a mom who has lived through the years that many parents haven't encountered yet, and say, "WAIT! It may seem like a good idea NOW to write that and publish it publicly when he's three/five/nine, but what about when he's 15?"

It's true that as writers, we glean inspiration and fodder from those around us. What I think people really need to remember before they hit that publish button and share something with the world, is whose story they are sharing. Is it really yours? Or, is it your child's, and is your child okay with it being shared? Just because we are the adults doesn't give us carte blanch permission to publish everything we deem fit. There are times, like it or not, when we need to consider the damage that sharing will do, and if it's worth it.

Let me explain by telling you a story.

When I was 11 I wanted a cat. My brother had a little yappy black dog, my sister a fluffy Persian that hated to be touched, and I had no pet of my own. A friend's cat had recently had kittens, and I desperately wanted one.

Now think of a sensitive 11 year old who desperately wants her very own kitty. I didn't know how else to convey to my parents my deep desire to have a pet, which at that time was more important to me than anything else. I had trouble with friends, and it felt to me that a cat would always be there to play with and love, no matter what.

My parents didn't want a cat. At ALL.

I pleaded to no avail until finally, one night out of desperation, I wrote them a letter. Begging. I was willing to do anything to have that cat, and if it meant promising them the moon, I would do it.

My parents said yes; although there was one unexpected side effect. They kept the letter because they thought it was cute, and funny. Did they keep it just to put in a memory book for me? No.

They kept it and reminded me of it often, saying that they were going to read it in public at my wedding.

As most 11 year olds would be, I was completely mortified. For years later, I kept thinking about the letter and wondering if I could steal it back and destroy it. It was my heart and soul, deepest longings that I had expressed, never thinking that anyone other than my parents would see it. Now they plan to share it publicly? They never asked if they could, it was just decreed that because THEY thought it was funny, my words, my story, was being taken from me.

Eleven years later, it was my wedding day; a hard won day that was, considering that my parents hadn't wanted me to marry the man that I had chosen and had done everything in their power to stop it. I had forgotten about the letter by then, but at my reception when my Dad stood up and pulled the piece of loose leaf out, I knew exactly what was coming.

He read, while the audience laughed. I laughed along nervously, looking down at my plate, and picked at my wedding dress. In the end, he commented that I was good at getting what I wanted. Then, cat. Now, husband.

I felt humiliated.

In fact, I felt that if I had known that letter was going to be used in that fashion, I never would have written it, cat or no cat. If I had only been asked, I would have told my parents that I really didn't want them to read that letter, because it was intended only for them and not for public consumption. People wouldn't understand an eleven year old's naive plea to have a pet to make her feel loved, and to be laughed at, hurt. It wasn't funny to me in the least. As a result, I didn't write anything that other people could read, for many years.

For fear of being laughed at.

When we have children, and are writers, writing about the changes we face and our evolving role as their mothers is perfectly acceptable, but as our children also grow and evolve, our task becomes more arduous. The writer in me may see situations that I long to share, but as his mother, I know that in doing so I would rob him of pieces of his childhood that are ours alone or even cause him humiliation and pain as he struggles, like we all do, to become the man he eventually will be. We mother/writers become, in essence, stewards of their childhood. Censorship becomes necessary at times; not because we fear that we will send our kids into future therapy, but because we want them to grow into confident, loved adults who will never feel the sting of humiliation at the hands of our keyboard. Growing up, we have all done things that we are not proud of; the difference is that those things weren't shared with the world and it's true-some things are better off unsaid.

When Kevin was small, I too struggled mightily with doctors, diagnoses, and often felt in over my head as a mother. Had I been a blogger then, would I have written about it?

Probably. Honestly, in a lot of ways, I'm glad I didn't blog back then. Those days are behind us, never to live on in infamy via Google. Some of the things he did were cute and funny to me, but now as a teenager he would have a very different perspective and perhaps, just like my feelings over the letter, they wouldn't be funny to him at all. My feelings as a completely frustrated and inadequate mom are things that he really doesn't need to read either, as I know he would feel guilty about them. That's not to say that it isn't a good thing to write about the struggles of motherhood; of course, our common experience makes us feel less alone and more able to wade through the storms. The tight rope act is that as children grow, to slowly, gently, allow kids to have more space and control over their own stories. As parents, and the stewards of their childhoods, I truly believe we owe them that because eventually, those stories aren't ours to tell.

Writing may be my therapy, my love, but it would be incredibly selfish of me to deem everything as potential content simply because it makes ME feel better to write about it regardless of the consequences. People joke about therapy and ruined parental/child relationships over blogs, and I caution you; I know, more deeply than I care to share here, what it's like to have your relationship with your parents fall apart into a million pieces, never to be put back together. Once this happens, you are never the same again.

Knowing this, writing may be my love, but never, ever, at the expense of my relationship with my son. I would cease to blog again if that ever were the case. He needs to feel safe, and trust that I will be a good steward of his childhood when I sit down to my keyboard.

These days, Kevin owns his stories; if I want to write them, I ask. He brings me a cup of tea, then drapes his long frame in a chair beside me to listen as I read to him, almost like when he was little and I made up bed time stories. As I read, he giggles and sometimes we dissolve into outright squeals of laughter as he interjects things I had forgotten. If changes need to be made, they are immediate. The editing becomes a team effort as together we weave his story, with my words, into a masterpiece that we not only are proud of but think all of our readers will love.

For once we hit publish, we can't control what happens to those words. You never know where, or how far they will go. They may live quietly in their space on a blog or suddenly be on the front page of Yahoo with a screaming headline.

Either way, as Kevin's Mom, I know one single truth for certain.

I give him the power over HIS story.

Edited to add: Since I've had a few comments about this, I needed to add that I didn't tell this story to bash my parents, but rather, to give a perspective as to what it might be like from a child's point of view when they lose control over their words to adults who wish to share them. We all do the best we can, and sometimes we embarrass our kids without meaning to. I'm sure this was the case here. I never thought that my parents actions were, in any way, malicious. I just wished that I had been given a say.

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