In my 20s, I dated the son of a novelist. Now, whenever I consider including my children in one of my personal essays, I think of him. By the time he was a teenager, he recognized himself in the pages of his mother’s books: from the crush he’d had on one of her friends to the way he pushed his glasses onto the bridge of his nose.
Whenever he was with her, he wondered if she was collecting little pieces of him. No doubt the way my mother, having seen herself in my work time and again, shifts uncomfortably in her seat when she realizes the conversation I’ve initiated veils my real purpose – to puzzle through a childhood memory so I can write about it. Why do I think my parents are fair game for my work, but I draw the line with my children? I didn’t always make a distinction.
When I was a newer writer, my children were babies. Nursing, sleeping on my shoulder, clinging to me as we crossed a street, they were literal extensions of me. I felt what they did and said was my story. And the material of new motherhood was rich.
If I’m honest now, I didn’t consider that my children had begun their own stories. How could they have? They operated in a world of first names only, written in their teacher’s hand on construction paper apples or spring flowers depending on the season. Their developing personhoods were far-off – murky photos my husband and I were still trying to see in the darkroom of parenthood.
I was too new to parenting to realize these two people I’d brought into the world would be crafting their own personas sooner than I thought. I was too new to writing to realize that an essay published years ago about my young daughter’s developing body would be part of her story forever, whether she liked it or not. I wrote intimate things about her child self. Might it color someone’s view of her as a grown up? Even hurt her? That particular essay is one of my favorites, but I would never write it today.
I fancy myself fearless about revealing my foibles and insecurities in my essays, the harsh and embarrassing experiences of my life. As I excavate for bigger universal truths, I’ve written about my husband’s sobriety, my sexuality, my grandmother’s drowning, punching my father in a heated rage, losing a friend I envied, and the ways in which my mother protected me and couldn’t protect me when I was growing up. But after publishing an essay last year about my teenage daughter’s driving accident, I have decided my kids can no longer be central players in my stories.
Even though my daughter blessed the driving essay before I submitted it . . . even though she’d read the lines about her face crumpling into tears and me managing not to say, “Oh my God, we almost killed someone” . . . even though she’d been happy for me when it got accepted . . . I now wonder if it was the right thing to do.
My former boyfriend’s mother sifted through his disparate parts to create a whole – her whole. But in life, he was still trying to make sense of who he was and might become. She composed versions of him made of selected traits, events, and anecdotes that he might not have chosen for himself, but now can never quite escape. Just as, in my driving essay, my daughter has no control over who she appears to be from my vantage point. There is a power dynamic between my children and me, whether they know it or not. Even if I ask permission before I publish a piece that includes them, how can I ever be sure they will feel comfortable saying no?
As a writer of memoir, it’s not easy to make my kids – such an important part of my human experience – off limits. My writer self sees the good stuff all around me, glittering story ore ready to be mined. Recently, I was tempted to write about a situation with my son that had impacted me deeply as a parent. I could have rationalized that my prose might “help” other parents who would benefit from my experience. But mother trumped writer – even though daughter, wife, lover, and friend never have.
If I do nothing else in this world, I have a responsibility to protect and nurture my children – to give them the best chances in life, to let them make their way in the world free to declare and manifest who they are without any unnecessary baggage from me. My growth as a parent has been to see that I cannot impose my own narrative on theirs, on the page or in real life.
Which is no doubt why my mother has supported my writing even when it hurts her. Even when I reveal her 16-year-old self choosing the wrong man or her beloved mother drinking herself to death. Even when, again and again, I pick the scab from the tender, precarious life we led together.
As parents, everything – every conversation, facial expression, the way we once wore our hair, a favorite sweater – becomes an ingredient for our children’s lives, like so much flour, salt and sugar. What they cook up should be their business. My mother married at 16 and then, as a beautiful divorcee, took me traveling the world with her. Just two of the ingredients, among so many, she assembled on my life’s counter. The mother who raised me is an epic character I repeatedly return to because she helps me make sense of me – part of the burden and the honor of parenting.
What bits of me have my kids been collecting all these years? Given that both are writers, I am likely to see myself in their pages one day. What have they been saving up for the time when they can claim my story is simply the fodder for theirs? The ugly habits mothers never think to hide from their young children. The failures and neuroses glimpsed and made sense of from a child’s viewpoint. The jiggly belly, dimpled buttocks, unplucked chin hair. The overheard conversations or worse, the sounds from a parents’ bedroom. Moments of my stupidity or angry flashes of cruelty unpacked and sized up through my children’s own truths. Buoyed – I can only hope – by my fierce and unquestioned love for them.
Andrea Jarrell’s personal essays have appeared in numerous national publications. She is the mother of two teens. When she’s not writing, she’s running a college marketing firm and blogging about juggling the work and writing life at CreativeWorkLife. She can be found on Twitter @AndreaJarrell.
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