Published on October 25th, 2022 | by Christy Tending1
Privacy, Erasure, and Consent as a Writing Mother
Like all parents, I desperately want to protect my child. For me, that includes giving him the safety and privacy to become exactly who he is for his own sake. I have no interest in sharing my child’s embarrassing, private moments with the world.
There were a lot of things his father and I considered in making this decision. The first was his ability to consent. To put it bluntly, a baby or small child cannot understand the ramifications of having pictures posted online. Therefore, he cannot consent to the consequences of having his pictures or information posted on platforms whose profit model includes collecting as much user data as possible. On a more personal level, I never want to embarass my child, which means that I don’t post private or personal stories about what he goes through. I want him to have his milestones and difficulties without being scrutinized on social media.
Context is also important. My husband and I are both activists and I was pregnant in the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017 when white supremacists were doxxing left-leaning activists. So our privacy boundaries also come from a place of wanting to protect my son from people who might wish to harm me because of my political beliefs.
Personally, I am Very Online and have written in great detail about my journey with sobriety, my mental health struggles, and my activism. I know not everyone will love what I write. Not everyone will agree with my choices. But before I put things out to the world, I have processed them fully and am able to give full consent to strangers on the internet thinking that I suck.
My child does not have this power. And so I leave his stories to him to tell one day. (Or not. But that will be his choice, too.) This means that there are no photos and very few details about my child’s life online. When I do post, it is always from my perspective and through the lens of my experience as a parent, and doesn’t include any identifying information about him.
What started out as a deliberate but straightforward choice for our child has had unexpected consequences.
Before I became a mother, I thought that I could just keep things separate: that I could share myself with the world without interruption, while simultaneously protecting his privacy.
Writers love the Anne Lammott line from Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” which, while clever, leaves out kids who don’t know that they’re being held accountable in that way.
When our child was born in 2017, we posted three pictures upon coming home from the hospital, and not a single one since. We received very little pushback, especially once we explained our reasoning, and I’ve even had friends quietly tell me how much they appreciate and respect our choice. Most people know how private we are and understand our choice. As they remind me, they know where to find our child if they want to see him!
Sometimes, it is tempting. To show how much he’s grown or how cute he looks in the sweater I knit for him. To tell the stories of how hard it is some days not to absolutely lose my marbles over what a jerkface my otherwise sweet kid can be. But I have been diligent: nothing about where he goes to school or his friends or his milestones. Nothing about those little day to day moments that make up the first years of a life.
On any given day, I am annoyed and in love and heartbroken and so tired. And from the outside, it looks like I’m “curating” my life—code for only telling you the good parts. Because this is where things get sticky. When things happen to my child, I’m also having an intimate experience of that. It’s not happening to me, but it absolutely affects me. It shapes me. For better or worse, I am my child’s go-to person. Milestones and setbacks alike, I have a front-row seat to all of it.
Until the pandemic, there was a small separation between our existences. He went to preschool and I worked from home. And a few times a month, I would go to activist meetings in the evenings. This gave me a sense of purpose, ties to my community, and a creative outlet. All of these small reprieves vanished overnight with California’s stay at home order. Suddenly, I was stuck inside and responsible for 90% of my son’s human interaction, food, entertainment, and enrichment. I felt exhausted, depleted, and desperate for any shred of an identity separate from the label I most often heard, “Mama.”
While my decision not to share my kid’s childhood on the internet seemed simple at his birth, in the context of the pandemic, I felt vaporized. Before the pandemic, it was often difficult to contextualize how I spent my days, especially when my son went through medical issues or I was having a particularly emotionally-draining week. But when schools closed and my days became all about my child, it was impossible to offer any kind of update that didn’t feel like a betrayal.
I felt not just invisible, but non-existent.
Just like any other mom, I was calming tantrums, doing laundry and dishes, and buckling under the tyranny of having to decide what to make for dinner. I spent whole days stuffing down my creative impulses, instead spending that time picking up toys and wiping my child’s snotty nose and going for walks at a toddler’s pace. To pretend that these events don’t factor into my experience or shape who I am feels disingenuous. And yet, it seems, that’s the price of keeping my child’s privacy intact, in a world that commodifies our attention and profits from our vulnerabilities.
It’s my duty to try, at least a little bit, to the extent that I can control anything, to offer my child the privacy of a childhood where he is free to make mistakes, to grow, and to evolve into himself, free from scrutiny. I’m not egotistical enough to think that my kid will read everything I write. He will probably not care. But what if he does? What if his friends do?
While I would never breach the commitment that I’ve made, keeping those experiences private has a cost. It feels some days like I can’t account for how I spend my time, where my energy or attention span go, and what it is that I, in fact, do. It flattens my life into a story both selective and inaccurate. I know that by maintaining privacy in this area, I am erasing a significant part of my current experience.
When you spend so much of your time, your best energy, and your waking attention on not just this small person but the undertaking of parenting, you want it to mean something beyond yourself. You want it to count for something in the world. And when the pandemic atomized us, scattered us into our homes and made it unsafe to go outside, I longed for a moment when all of the laundry and the tedium would be worth something. I wanted it to make sense.
Which, for me, meant writing.
So when I sat down to write, I wondered: what is there to say that is not a breach of trust? What can I possibly offer from my story that is separate from this child who cannot consent to my personal impulse toward oversharing? One day, during an especially long nap time, I made a list of every one of my identities that was “Not-Mama.” Buddhist, wife, sober person, activist, writer, knitter, queer, mental illness-diagnosed.
The list went on.
I speak three languages. As an activist, I’ve been arrested seven times. I am a friend and a sister and daughter and I can tell you what that orange hummingbird in my backyard is called. There must be something of myself to explore that isn’t just picking up toys and microwaving leftovers? There must be something beyond reading the same book a thousand times.
Forced to work around a limitation, I found new avenues to explore, new parts of myself to excavate. I found stories I’d never told my dearest friends and emotions that I’d never admitted to myself. During nap times, after bedtime, and (praise the various goddesses) when school reopened, I disappeared into my memories and slipped into the parts of myself I’d ignored in favor of my child’s latest fixation. I discovered entry points to stories I hadn’t dared to touch and began writing from myself as the center instead of just the witness.
Writing stories from my life from before parenthood—and even since— has allowed me to investigate and interrogate my life in new, rewarding ways. And while I write a lot about parenthood—again, from the parent lens—I am also telling stories that reflect all of my parts. By examining all the intersections of myself, I’ve been published in places I’d never dreamed of and crafted a voice for myself that is rewarding without going back on the commitment I’d made to my child. Within these constraints, I found forgotten parts of myself to explore, and permission to expand in ways I’d never imagined.