Meredith O'Brien: Writing about parenthood and not humiliating the kids

Meredith O'Brien

My mother says I used to be funny, used to write about her grandkids -- entertaining little musings that she enjoyed reading.

But, according to her, I don’t do “funny” anymore. I thought about what she said and read through my recent columns and blog entries. While there is a grain of truth in her comments -- I don’t write as much about the nitty-gritty of my family life as I used to when my twins were toddlers and I also had a newborn -- I’d argue the point that I’ve lost “the funny.”

“What has changed?” I asked myself as I perused older essays, such as when I wrote about being in the throes of Guantanamo Bay-like sleep deprivation when my youngest son wouldn’t sleep through the night (didn’t until he was 3). In my exhausted fog, I started wearing my clothing inside-out and backward. And putting my minivan into reverse instead of drive while in a crowded queue at the drive-thru to get a much-needed 47-liter cup of coffee.

When I wrote about how that same kid wouldn’t potty train. When I wrote about my then-toddler twins bringing a container of grated parmesan cheese, sliced roast beef and two toddler spoons under my kitchen table, dumping the cheese on the floor, fanning the meat out on the red and white checkered upholstered chairs and eating the cheese – yes, EATING THE GRATED CHEESE STRAIGHT – with a spoon while kneeling on the floor, and soliciting compliments for their decision to use utensils instead of eating with their hands like heathens.

I don’t tend to write about those kinds of things anymore. It’s not that they don’t happen. My now grade-school-aged kids certainly aren’t dumping grated cheese on the floor, but their mischievous antics are evolving as they age.

For example, a child who lives in my house recently went on a destructive streak. The person wrote his/her name on our champagne-colored carpeted stairs in teal marker just before it was time to leave for the school bus.

The same person, let’s give the person a gender-neutral name, like “Pat,” defaced a Renoir tray – bearing the image of the famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party” -- that sits atop the leather hassock in the family room, by drawing a beard on a woman’s face in blue ink. Thus, it’s now, “Luncheon of the Boating Party with the Bearded Lady.”

Within the same week, Pat opened up a bedroom window and cut a 2-by-6 inch hole in the screen with scissors and later got reprimanded by the school bus driver for standing in the aisle and chucking around pieces of foam extracted from the inside of the bus seat (which Pat swears Pat did not personally remove but was simply handed by other offenders). The bus incident resulted in me grounding Pat in Pat’s room.

However, when Pat heard siblings and neighbors playing outside, Pat decided to use the new hole in the screen to chuck items out the window at the children below (papers, crayons, little plastic figures, etc.).

These days, I’m more apt to shy away from writing about incidents such as these, and when I do, I sometimes withhold identifying details. Why? Because now my twins are almost 10 and my youngest is almost 7.

They and their peers are starting to use the Internet for school projects and it won’t be long before they’ll be doing things we adults do: Google friends and associates.

As my children have gotten older, I’ve become concerned with how much I reveal about them without their permission. They’ve actually started requesting that I refrain from writing or blogging about certain things so as not to embarrass them. I now try to avoid using their names online or in print and instead refer to them as The Girl, The Eldest Boy and The Youngest Boy.

Even with those constraints in place, when I write about experiences likely shared by my contemporary parental brethren (though I hope none of you has a screen-cutter living with you), I try to strike a literary balance between writing the unvarnished truth and not humiliating my kids by telling the world about intimate details of their lives.

When they were small, they had no cares or concerns about what I was writing and, for the most part, had no idea what a column was. Everyone their age was being potty trained. Everyone was saying crazy kid things. But now that they’re older, things have changed. I try to keep their privacy in mind when I sit down in front of my laptop.

My concerns over whether I was revealing too much information that would mortify my children were driven home a few months ago while I was in the middle of teaching a course on Journalism Ethics and we were discussing privacy.

The course book, “Media Ethics,” said journalists could justify exposing someone’s personal life to public scrutiny under certain specific conditions while adding that under some circumstances, “invading privacy constitutes usurping an individual’s control and stripping him or her of individuality and human dignity.”

Would my writing about my kids’ childhoods inadvertently strip them of dignity when they’re older and friends Google them?

Of course my fretting over their privacy is happening, ironically, in the midst of the Facebook generation, where naïve teens and young adults willingly ditch any semblance of privacy and reveal the most personal nuggets of info about themselves to anyone with internet access.

While I keep my fingers tightly crossed that my kids won’t be among those who share TMI (too much information) online when they’re teens, at least if they do they’ll have no one but themselves to blame. Believe me, I’ll be shouldering enough blame for plenty of other things in their future therapy sessions -- like reprimanding them for cutting holes in window screens and eating grated parmesan cheese from the floor -- but revealing too much information about their grade- and middle-school selves won’t be one of them.

Meredith O’Brien, author of “A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum,” can be found writing about pop culture at Mommy Track’d and blogging at the Picket Fence Post: