One Truth About “Mama Blogging”

I am putting this update up front because I think it’s so important. Please read this piece by Savannah Nicole Breakstone, who writes a mental health advocacy blog called Cracked Mirror in Shalott. Her piece is about what it is like to have been “one of the scary kids,” and while expressing great sympathy for parents who live with kids who have problems, she explains what it feels like to learn that one’s mother was afraid of one as a child.

Her piece has also been linked in this blog post written under the pseudonym Twitchy Woman, who explains why one should be very careful in writing about one’s kid’s problems in very clear, non-blaming language:

parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children.

I think this is exactly right, and I stand corrected (though I would also say that all parents make mistakes, that parents under pressure are highly likely to do so, and that I think the most helpful thing onlookers can do in cases is to offer support rather than blame. And that support, properly understood, can and should include helping someone understand when they have made a mistake, as Twitchy Woman’s post does–s distinct from finger-pointing, which is almost never helpful.)

Those of you who read this blog know that I have talked about mental illness, mine and PK’s. This weekend, in the wake of the school shootings at Newtown, CT, another mama blogger who I had never read wrote her own post about her son’s mental illness, which was picked up by a local literary-type magazine and pretty soon by a lot of other places. Here is the magazine version. It was widely read. I shared it on my friends-only FB page, and also to the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum page that I belong to, because I thought and think that it speaks what folks in the “gifted community” call “twice exceptionality,” or “2e”: kids who are both “gifted” and have a learning disability or mental/emotional problems or are somewhere on the autism spectrum, etc. (We don’t know that much yet about the inner workings of the brain, obviously, but there seems to be some possibility that the “differentness” that leads to “giftedness,” aka a tendency to learn very quickly, might be linked to other “differences”–or it might just be that being “gifted” makes kids more prone to a feeling of “differentness” that can cause mental health problems.) In any case, it’s common enough that the last time I checked, the other GHF members were having positive, empathetic reactions to the post, as I was.

Not everyone did, though. One blogger, whose post also quickly made the rounds, went through the author’s blog and thought she saw a lot in there that was fucked-up, so she wrote her own post about it.

I hated that post. I have memories of people writing posts like that about me, when I wrote another blog, and frankly it really sucked even though the conclusions posts like that drew about me were always wrong. I wanted to comment about it, but comments seemed to have been closed on that post, or I couldn’t see the comment button. So instead I wrote the author an email, which I also posted on my FB page (which, again, is friends-only; I’m very locked-down on FB precisely because of this kind of thing).

People liked my letter, and one person asked me to post it somewhere public so she could link to it. It also occurs to me that it serves as a decent statement about why I write about this kind of stuff on this very blog. So here it is, edited slightly to remove the name of my old blog because I prefer to have this one (where I am not pseudonymous) separate from that one in the world of google, and also to clean up a couple of typos. But other than that, it’s exactly as written, including a few redundancies I wish I’d prettied up before hitting send.

Sarah,

You don’t know me. I used to write an academic blog. I now write, very occasionally, for Crooked Timber.

I’m writing to you because I’m really bothered by your post about Liza Long’s article and I am hoping that maybe I can explain why I think she wrote what she wrote.

As it happens, I suffer from depression, and my son suffers from anxiety and had a brief depressive period about a year ago. Like Liza Long, I have written quite a bit over the years, in various blogs, about my family, including about our mental health issues. I do so deliberately and I have thought it through pretty carefully. My own doctorate is in English Lit, and I believe strongly that one of the most important things women who write can do is write honestly about motherhood and parenting. I think writing honestly about private life is a feminist act, and I have chosen to do so in years partly because of this.

I have also done so, as an academic and a feminist, for much the same reasons that I blogged about such unpleasant things as the academic job market, some of the stresses of being on the tenure track (I left because of my depression and am no longer teaching), the decision to leave a t-t job, and so forth: because I know that I am not the only person who has dealt with these things, and I think it is helpful to read things about struggles one experiences in my own life. My blog’s popularity in its heyday, and the many, many friends I have made via the internet over the years, have confirmed my belief that this is true. I have had many graduate students, junior faculty, mothers, and folks from other walks of life tell me that the things I have written have “made me feel like I’m not alone” or “given me hope” and so forth. I think it is good for writing to do those things.

I would be lying if I did not say that I have also found support for some of my own difficulties with my writing, and that some of the things I have written were cathartic and, in many people’s estimations, a form of oversharing. It is difficult to write about private life without occasionally doing that, but I hope that what I have already said explains to some extent why I think it is a risk worth taking.

Of course, you don’t know me from adam. I could be a terrible parent; I could be lying myself. I can only ask you to believe me when I tell you that those things aren’t true. I have been married for over twenty years, my husband and I love each other, my son is bright and happy (now, on medication), we live a very Ozzie and Harriet-looking life in many ways.

Nonetheless, it would be very very easy for someone to comb through my blog and find “evidence” that these things aren’t true. When I was writing it, people sometimes did so, and wrote blog posts like yours. I can only tell you that most of what they concluded was wrong, and highly shaped by confirmation bias to fit prejudices that they already had: that educated women with children were bad mothers, that people with depression are self-involved, that my husband and I would be divorced within a year, that I was surely warping my son and should have him taken away from me. Again, none of those things were true; we are a very happy family. We have been through some hard times, and I have written about them–often with jocular (or not so jocular) exasperation, including statements like the ones you found in Liza’s blog.

It is very, very easy to pass judgment on what people write about their lives. It is very, very easy to pass judgment on parents, and especially mothers, in this culture. When one is a mother, that kind of judgment is ever-present. It makes parenting in public, let alone writing about it, difficult at times–especially when one is under stress, or when something in one’s life doesn’t fit the Ozzie and Harriet mold. Everyone has an opinion about mothering; everyone has an opinion about mental illness.

You’re an anthropologist; I appeal to your professional training. Surely you know that there are many, many ways to raise children in this world.

I have read your blog post, but I see nothing in it that does not sound like something many, many mothers would say about their kids. I do not think that in saying such things we damage our children or violate their privacy. My sense from reading Liza’s writing (I, too, have had a look at her blog) and the post you wrote isn’t that she’s lying; it’s that she is in a stressful situation, that she uses humor and hyperbole to talk about that stress, and that up until now she hasn’t written a lot about her son’s mental health–but that the shootings in Newtown prompted her to do so because they evoked a fear of hers that is very real. And that she decided to write the piece she wrote in order to tell the truth about what carrying that fear is like–precisely because so few people speak honestly about that kind of thing, precisely because speaking honestly about it opens people up to the kind of judgment that your blog post and tweets are passing on her. Judgement that, as I said, only makes it more difficult, only adds to the sense of isolation and pressure.

Even if you disagree, it seems to me that it is even more damaging to Liza’s children’s privacy for you to have written the blog post that you wrote. Surely you, who know nothing about her struggles, have far less reason to violate her children’s privacy than she might, and surely, as you don’t know her children, you are in a far weaker position to judge whether or not what she writes is actually damaging to them. But even if we assume that you are right–that she is a liar and a bad mother–how is your writing a blog post saying so in any way helpful? How does that not just shine a brighter spotlight on her family and children?

For what it’s worth, and as someone who has been in Liza’s shoes, I wish you would take your post down.

Sincerely,

Tedra

For the record, Sarah Kendzior did reply to me. I won’t post her email because I didn’t ask for permission, but the essence of it was a briefer version of this post from her blog. She and Liza also both posted this “joint statement”–I’m linking to Sarah’s post because my interaction with Liza’s was via a magazine article rather than her personal blog, and because I don’t think that she intended or invited the surveillance her blog has been getting.

Also for the record, I think it is enormously classy of Liza to have corresponded with Sarah and to sign on to that joint statement. I think that Sarah’s “brief response” on her blog, and to me via email, are less so.

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10 responses to “One Truth About “Mama Blogging”

  • anotherdamnedmedievalist

    Agreed. One of the things that I found interesting about reading the two posts was that Long’s rang so true to me. It was the voice of so many of my friends who have children with emotional difficulties, developmental difficulties, and/or mental health issues. There is so little support for parents who are coping with such stresses. Being a parent can be difficult at the best of times, after all. I’m not all that comfortable with everything that Long has written, and came to it only through Kendzior’s post. But the way that Kendzior presented it made me even more uncomfortable. From the “want to know the truth?” opening, and then on through the rest, there is an unsympathetic, unempathetic, self-righteousness that I think exemplifies much that is wrong with our society. Do I wish Long hadn’t occasionally had violent imaginings about her kids? absolutely. Do I think it might have been better had she shared those things a bit more privately? Yep.

    But that doesn’t mean I think she did anything wrong, or that I think her feelings aren’t perfectly valid. What I found very interesting in re-reading Kendzior’s post was that some of the excerpts she bolded as being particularly awful were in fact things that made me worry less about Long. Where Kendzior saw indications of abuse, I saw someone who seemed pretty clear on the line between venting and acting. I saw someone who recognized thoughts that were probably not all that healthy, but also was willing to deal with those thoughts in order to allow them to become actions.

    I could be wrong, but then, I’m not sure that matters. All I know is that I am so tired of this sort of vilification, especially when it takes the place of meaningful conversation about the societal issues that allow such horrendous tragedies to occur in the first place.

  • Kathleen

    Dear Tedra,

    Thank you for your thoughtful email addressing Sarah’s reaction to Liz’s post. Anything can sound messed up when taken out of context, but when you read Liz’s actual blog posts, you get the sense that she is a loving mother. I shared her post on my facebook page only after reading more of her blog posts. I don’t share things quickly or without thought. I, too, am a writer and a mother, and could find no words of my own to share that day. I was saddened that Sarah felt the need to discredit Liz for the very noble act of sharing her own personal story in an attempt to increase the public’s awareness of the struggles that people with mental illness and the ones who love them face every day. I thank you for taking the time to email her.

    Best regards,

    Kathleen

  • Oh My Nose

    I find Kendzior’s actions appalling, and grounds for libel. She holds the Ph.D. That presumes that she can read for tone (hyperbole, irony, anyone?), that she understands genre (a blog is not a medical chart or a Reuter’s report and may well include creative non-fiction), and that she knows how to use quotations without removing the contexts that inform them. Her way of getting at her disagreements with Liza Long was reprehensible. You can’t even comment on her blog anymore, either. Coward.

  • Aaron Potter (@TwoBodyProblem)

    I agree with anotherdamnedmedievalist. I didn’t care for Kendzinor’s tone. Long is hardly flawless, but people are complicated. On the other hand, Long wasn’t writing this in her personal journal, there should be an expectation that someone will read and complain about your public online writing.

    I think Long’s piece wouldn’t have had the reaction it did if it hadn’t come out so soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy. So many of the details were not known, especially surrounding Nancy Lanzer and her personal arsenal.

  • mchp

    Hi Tedra

    Thank you for posting your letter to Kendzinor

    Upon reading her blog post, I felt anger and frustration with how an ignorant narrow-minded person was trying to take away focus from a more important issue, helping families with special needs family members.

    I am not a mother myself nor do I need to be one to realise that firstly, there is more than one way of parenting, secondly, one shouldn’t presume to judge if one isn’t part of the situation, perhaps even when one is part of the situation.

    I have also watched documentaries of kids with similar issues to Long’s son. I think it would be a good idea for Kendzinor to check these documentaries out.

    Reading Long’s blog excerpt on Kendzinor page, I fail to see what a bad mother Long is. Long’s style of writing is similar to mine, melodramatic when wanting to emphasize an emotion. That doesn’t mean that each and every thought was made with serious intent.

    I am glad that eventually Kendzinor brought attention back to the issue at hand “Mental illness” in her joint statement with Long.

    Thanks again for your letter

  • Corin Barsily Goodwin

    Awesome post, Tedra. Thank you for writing it.

  • Mothers agree on helping children with mental illness and their families « EBD Blog

    [...] about her children and read them as presenting a negative family life. At least one other mother, Buffalo Mama, who had posted about her problems with a child who had emotional and behavioral disorders heard an [...]

  • tedra

    @OhMyNose, well, a degree in anthropology doesn’t mean she has qualifications in literature. And a degree doesn’t mean that one isn’t a flawed human being. I disagree with what she did, but I don’t think attacking her in return is a really great way to express that disagreement.

  • Kathryn Krueger

    Your letter was thoughtful and well stated. After reading it I find myself contemplating what feminism is to me, and examining my choices in my own writing in ways I might not otherwise have done. I am glad you chose to share your letter; thank you for that.

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