Mom, the family columnist
Her young son is aghast as his life begins to unspool in the local newspaper.
My only child was barely 9 when my features editor called to offer a coveted column spot in our local daily newspaper.Skip to next paragraph
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"Write about things that typical suburban families can relate to," said the editor, who couldn't see me doing the happy dance in my kitchen while we finalized the details over the phone.
At the time, blogging was just a Silicon Valley pipe dream, and every writer I knew wanted to be the next Anna Quindlen. The chance to reach 20,000 readers weekly seemed like a professional coup, the perfect beat for a mom who had postponed a journalism career to stay home with her child.
I'd already published articles and personal essays in several national magazines – but my byline was hardly a household name. A weekly column would change that, at least locally.
Of course, not everyone read the lifestyles section in which I appeared. Not everyone was interested in the poetics of keeping house while keeping a child out of the principal's office. But before long, I had established a faithful Sunday readership, including a coterie of admiring fans who would stop to chat at the post office or the supermarket.
My son, in grade school at the time, was the first to expose the hubris in this.
"If you're going to write about me, you better get it right or don't publish it," he exploded after I wrote about the time I discovered a sticky stockpile of empty soda pop cans under his bed. The column, which had mercilessly trashed the housekeeping habits of little boys, described how I felt when I discovered that one of the pop cans hosted a colony of honeybees. (For entertainment value, I'd stretched the facts a bit, implying that my son was keeping the bees as pets.)
Everyone else thought the piece was hysterically funny, but my cute family anecdote turned out to be a lunchroom nightmare for my kid. His teacher shared the column in class the following Monday. Defending himself, my son announced that my story was inaccurate, and that I had "seriously misquoted" him.
Not surprisingly, things got worse when he reached middle school. In my ignorance, I made a passing reference to the fact that my boy had dressed as Spock from "Star Trek" on Halloween. After the offending paragraph appeared in the paper, I was told that I did not have permission – or the right – to document his personal business. I had no idea that a Halloween costume qualified as personal business, but then again, the issue wasn't really the costume. My own child had grown suspicious of my motives.
"I wish you'd quit writing about me," he shouted, fighting tears as he ran upstairs. "I don't want to ruin your job, but that's just how I feel!" It was a very brave thing to say, given that he knew he had posed a serious dilemma. The faithful readership had made it clear that the "kid columns" were my best stuff, and they wanted more.
I was momentarily caught off guard. Hadn't I been careful all along? From the start, I avoided hot-button topics in favor of tender family vignettes – and often worried that I'd be professionally dismissed for it. I published what most journalists would consider safe or soft material, knowing full well that my son had to face the village at school while I hid behind a desk at home.
Furthermore, before sending the columns to my editor, I routinely read them aloud to my husband, always with the hope that I wasn't compromising our family's privacy. But I hadn't done the same with our son.
And so, after our tearful talk, I agreed to a temporary ban on the kid columns.
The ban was lifted in high school after my son grew thicker skin and facial hair. But I still avoided forbidden material – tempting though it was – including his budding relationship with a girl at school. As a real testament to my prudence and restraint, his first car accident was quietly resolved without a single paragraph in the Sunday paper. After years of teaching my son the importance of respecting boundaries, I'd finally learned to respect his.
The messy little guy whose childhood was documented in my columns is now 26. This fall he'll marry his high school sweetheart, and the readers of my weekly blog are already asking if I'll share details of the wedding.
I won't avoid the topic entirely, but I will tread carefully. While my son and his fiancée don't seem to mind, I know their best stories aren't mine to share.
Then again, anything to do with grandkids might be up for grabs.
Making a Difference