The Writing Parent

Of all of the parenting decisions my mother made when I was in middle school, perhaps the one I am most grateful for is how she chose to write about me.

My mother spent several years as a professional writer. She pursued that occupation with an energy, resilience, and enthusiasm that was inspirational. She was quite prolific during those years, but there is one piece that was published that I particularly think of as “my book” —  a book of prayers for children transitioning into adolescence called Junior High’s a Jungle, Lord.

The summer after my seventh grade year, I went away to a summer program for several weeks. My mother missed me so much that she wrote a book in a voice that she imagined might be like my own internal voice.

She took experiences of my own and experiences of hers when she was my age and she fictionalized them. She wrote in the first person, from the point of view of a fictional me – she entered imaginatively into what it might feel like to be someone like me in a school like my school. The whole project was arguably an exercise in empathy, which is, after all, what intercessory prayer requires. And if a person is writing prayers for someone to pray for themselves and their peers, then in a sense, that writer first is praying on the reader’s behalf.

In the work, what I saw as a thirteen year old was a mother who thought deeply about me and my experiences, who was making an effort to understand me, and who missed me when I wasn’t around. It was heart-warming.

It helped that I got to read it in manuscript form, so I didn’t get blind-sided by what she had chosen to reveal, as I sometimes did when my Dad would use me or my siblings as a sermon illustration, bless him. And in any case, she wasn’t reporting on facts – she was using my experiences as a jumping off point for an imaginative work. Anything that didn’t scan with my own experience of events I could brush off as artistic license.

Now, as a parent myself, I see my mother’s books as an example of how to parent in public. Writing about one’s parenting struggles may be honest, but parents need to remember that, at some point, their children learn how to read. And (a concern my mother’s generation could not have anticipated when they had children at home) how to use an internet search engine. When we are writing about parenting for other parents, we may, ironically, be forgetting that we are parents – that we have children who are perfectly capable of listening in on the conversation.

When instead we write for children, we are not forgetting that we are parents — and hopefully we are further remembering what it will be like for our own children to read what we have written, and perhaps even to meet people who have also read what we have written. (Though Christopher Milne might have qualified that with the response, “Not necessarily.”)

Of course, it is also possible to write for grown-ups in a way that remembers that our children will grow up – but never forgetting that their relationships with trusted adults (and particularly with their parents) requires a respectful discernment about what information is appropriate to share with any person who could ever come across it. Some things are best reserved to be shared at carefully chosen times within intimate relationships with known people. That isn’t dishonest: it’s setting healthy boundaries.

There are a number of concerns that I have struggled with pertaining to writing for public consumption, and this one is near the top of the list: once something is published, you don’t get to chose who reads it. It is out there for literally anyone, at any time now or in the future to consume and then interpret, without any further mitigating input from the writer.

I have been reading Let the Children Come, by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. I highly recommend it, but not without any reservations. Her central idea is something I have believed for a long time myself, and she puts it extraordinarily well early on in the book: “children must be fully respected as persons, valued as gifts, and viewed as agents.” (from the author’s Introduction)

However, I also have many disagreements with her book. I was going to say, “many small disagreements,” but I think that the implications for some of these ideas of hers that I question may be – at least, let’s say, non-trivial.

For instance, in the very beginning of her introduction, Miller-McLemore articulates the need to which her book responds with an extended reflection on the difference between parenting very small children and parenting older children: “Perhaps that is why [Anne] Lamott and other women have written powerful accounts of early motherhood but seldom delve into experiences of long-term parenting. After the first few years, the waters become incredibly muddy.”

Leaving aside for the moment that this book was written in 2003 and that Lamott has written a great deal since then (not to mention all of the new figures that have risen up to write about parenting in that time), it does seem that there is a lot more written about life with babies (and toddlers and preschoolers) than memoirs about life with older children.

Certainly I wrote a great deal about my daughter earlier in her life, but I have made few blog entries related to her in the past couple of years. (She is now 10.)

Speaking for myself, that is not because parenting a child this age is “muddier” or more complicated, or because I am trying to hide from my inconsistencies as a parent (which are, as I am a human being, positively rife), or because my daughter doesn’t do anything wonderfully inspiring anymore (she inspires me every day!), or because it eludes my abilities to say anything meaningful about this time in our lives.

Instead, I write very little about her because I am trying to be thoughtful about how best to share our stories, in a way that not only respects her privacy and her wishes now, but that respects our relationship into the future.

I wanted to record her earlier experiences, in part because I knew that she would not remember them, and I feared that I might forget, too. As she has gotten older, I have remained interested in writing, especially in writing about children and their integral role in the kingdom of God. But I have been becoming increasingly thoughtful about how to do that in the way that love demands: with a respect for the particular people of all ages that I have been blessed to get to know in person.


“Long time, no read!”

It has been a long time since I went 5 weeks between original posts.  (That is, not counting posts that direct you to something I published somewhere else, or posts when I aggregate other people’s work on a subject.)  But illness and holidays and time with family and updating our adoption homestudy and writing other things and helping out friends all took precedence over blogging.

All this time away gave me an opportunity to re-examine how I feel about blogging in general, and about this blog in particular.

Generally, when I write for my blog, what you all are getting is a rough draft – I click publish, and “voila!” – my disorganized first stab at taking on a subject appears for anyone to read.  Admittedly this is not how blogging has to be, but it seems to be how I do it.  It is not my best, most poetic, most polished, most thoughtful work.  It is what I am thinking now that I have a feeling might be useful to someone.  It is like starting a conversation and not getting to stick around to see how it goes.  Or sowing seeds for another to harvest, maybe, if any land on fertile ground.

In the past few months, I have been re-learning the art of slow writing – of multiple drafts written and set aside and re-read and re-organized, until I reach something that is better than I imagined I could have produced.  It is only at that point that I declare the piece finished, mostly out of fear that if I touch it again it will get damaged.  (I am still working out a better way to figure out when I am done than: 1-fear; 2-hit the deadline; or 3-editor says so.  Let me know if there is a better way.)

Slow writing for me means not for this blog.  I am not sure if this is mostly because I want to take advantage of the larger readership of other publications, or if it is because it is nice to get paid sometimes, or if it is because I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, when you didn’t really count as a writer unless you got a publisher to sit up and take notice.  Anyway, there you have it.  Or, there you don’t have it, until it is published.

In the meantime, while all of this other writing and bronchitis and traveling and parenting and other things were going on, the blog was still here, like… actually, all of the analogies I thought of would only make sense to someone born before 1980.  So let’s just say – the internet is always on.  The blog is here, with all of the entries, whether I am writing anything new or not.  And it is encouraging sometimes to read the search terms that brought a new reader to a particular entry that will hopefully make a difference to them.

And so in blogging, as I hope in all of my endeavors, I pray along with Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.