As a high school writing teacher, I frequently quote Anne Lamott to students who are worried about writing unflattering things about their parents or friends. She says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
It feels important to give young writers permission to document and push back against the social and parental forces that shape their lives. But an adult writing about one’s child is a different thing entirely. Sure, I own every temper tantrum I’ve had to parent, every mean word my now 13-year-old daughter has uttered to me. Does that ownership give me carte blanche to project those images of her into the world, especially at her age, when she’s still figuring out many things about herself?
When I was a new mother, I was lucky to have time to bathe, breathe or read—much less to write poetry. When I did find the time, my daughter would appear as an abstract version of herself: not so much a character of fact but the impetus of my various undoings. She was significant only in how she highlighted my shifts in temperament or catalyzed revelations. Because these poems were predominantly about me, I never thought twice about putting them in the public sphere. In truth, I wrote them to claim my part in a broader discourse.
When my daughter was seven or eight years old, she decreed I could no longer take and post photos of her—no matter how adorable the self-styled hair—on social media. It was an incredibly mature request and one that was easy to respect; what an invasion it was for me to record and disseminate her first forays into individualism to an audience she couldn’t see or fathom. My poetry practice isn’t the same as my social media practice, however. My craft is my own, though it also can have an audience. My daughter couldn’t have known enough to ask me to use equal discretion in publishing my work, and, because I saw it as inherently mine, I didn’t think to offer it to her.
I recently published a lyric essay, which braids the depiction of my waning body during cancer treatment with that of my daughter’s waxing body during puberty. It didn’t occur to me to think about how she would receive it, or even if she would or should know it existed. It had been a difficult piece to write, and I was proud when it was picked up almost immediately.
When my daughter asked if she could see it, I flushed with the sudden realization of how it might land with her. I watched with trepidation as she read, grimacing a bit and shifting in her seat. “It’s good, Mom,” she said, at last, wanting to support me. Then she admitted her discomfort. She rightly questioned who would have access to this essay, who else would see this version of her, shy and confused as she grappled with her growing breasts and obliviousness to my illness and suffering. In my eyes, I had written a piece that reflected my body’s battle and the way hers mirrored it; to her, I had exposed her private blossoming.
I’d love to say we had an enlightened conversation and came to some mutually decided upon rule for what I can do with poems and essays that include her. Did I mention she’s 13 and practically allergic to conversation? We instead made an uneasy peace with her ambivalence. She wondered if, in the future, she could read what I write before I try to publish it. I asked myself, too: where does my responsibility lie? She shouldn’t have to be thinking about the public recounting of her deeds as a motive to, as Lamott says, “behave better.” But don’t I have a right to meditate on the forces that shape my life, even if they are unflattering to some? Does she have the right to police my work?
I eventually realized I was complicating the issue by confusing writing with publishing. I have the right—perhaps even the imperative—to proclaim my views on and experiences with motherhood in all its forms and phases. Writing is how I understand, and craft and care is essential to my process. Instead of pitting my writing against my daughter’s burgeoning sense of self, I realized I could permit myself to write the poems I need to write independent of any next step, any public face. Everything about parenting feels fleeting as my daughter rapidly sheds her child-self and grows into a young woman. I embrace the sense of urgency I feel in writing these moments into poems. But that urgency doesn’t mean what I write today needs to be flung into the public sphere tomorrow, that my gratification on that front is even something to consider.
If and when I am determined to publish, I can choose to collaborate with her or compromise to provide what we need. If I want, I can publish work that refers to her in abstract terms, gives her a persona, uses only a pronoun or employs an allegorical version of her. I can choose to protect her privacy or to seek her permission. One thing stays the same: I can always write whatever I want. It is only in putting a public face to my writing that I choose to allow her voice a weight that is equal to my own. This choice seems reasonable, an appropriate balance of my writer-self with my mother-self. When we’ve made it through adolescence, or maybe even when we’ve made it to next month, I’ll have new eyes and new feelings—as will she. The work will keep until we’re ready.