When you have a child, you immediately make all the decisions for this other human being, deciding what they eat, what they wear, where they sleep, where they go, who they will play with, and so on. You are utterly, irrevocably in charge.
If you happen to also be a writer, this gives you a heady power. Suddenly, this is not just a child but a font of story ideas! The Internet is littered with blogs, articles, lists, status updates, tweets, and more about what curious, adorable, touching, or infuriating things our kids are doing. I bet, in most of those cases, the parents didn't ask the kids for permission to write about them. Those rambunctious toddlers didn't sign any kind of use agreements or contracts. After all, this is mommy's life we're talking about, right? These are our children! They belong to us, so therefore we can feel free to write about them as we wish.
I once thought this way too. When my son was three years old, he developed a social anxiety disorder called selective mutism (SM), wherein a child who can otherwise speak normally becomes mute in certain situations, such as school or daycare. In our case, for a while our son stopped speaking everywhere, including at home with my husband and me, and it was a very frightening and stressful time.
To process what we were going through, I started a blog, now dormant, which served as both an outlet for our experiences as well as a way to connect with other families facing this same confounding condition. When I started writing, I used my son's real name and wrote about very personal things, like embarrassing play dates where he refused to cooperate, the many times I lost patience with him, and even his bathroom habits. Later, I published a personal essay about SM on the parenting site Babble, again using my son's real name. It didn't occur to me, then, that this might be an invasion of his privacy, or that if I had told him what I was doing or allowed him any agency at all, he might have objected to my writing about him.
Things became clearer to me when my Babble piece was picked up on the front page of Yahoo News. For days, my very personal story went viral, garnering more than 1,000 comments and many shares. Although I received tons of support, I also got slammed by the usual contingent of trolls, as well as others who dismissed me as an overanxious mom making mountains out of molehills. What hurt the most was seeing people make judgments on my son, tossing his name around like a football. I felt like I had given birth to this child and then thrown him to the wolves. It was a hard lesson.
As the years passed, the invisible umbilical that ties all mothers and children together began to stretch out. My son became more and more of his own person. I began to realize that, as much as his anxiety disorder was something I was going through and processing, it was his life I was writing about. I recognized, belatedly, that he had a right to privacy. Yes, perhaps I should have felt that way all along. But I'm glad I came to that conclusion even late in the game. I stripped his name from all my previous writings about him, and I confessed to him about all I had written.
My son is now 8 years old, a talkative kid who has fully conquered selective mutism. Yet I still feel that our experience and this condition are worth writing about, so this spring I pitched an essay about him to The Washington Post. Before I did so, I asked him how he would feel if I wrote a story about him and his SM.
After considering it, he agreed, but said I couldn't use his name or his photo. I totally concurred and gave my story to the Post with these restrictions, which they thankfully abided by. My article was published both in print and online, with a lovely and poignant illustration by Victo Ngai, shown here.
When it was published, I asked my son if he wanted to read the story, and he said no. I didn't badger him about this. Perhaps he will tell his own version, in his own way, in the future, and I hope he does. But it's his choice.
Whose life is it anyway? It's his, it's mine, and it's ours. I'll keep writing, but I'll do it out in the open.