Read all about it / Cindy La Ferle
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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 on the phone.
That was before everyone had a blog or posted selfies on Facebook – so the chance to reach more than 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.
Of course, not everyone read the lifestyles section in our local paper. 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, and was often stopped at the post office or the supermarket to chat about my latest column topic.
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.
|Mother and son, years later|
Everyone else thought the piece was hysterically funny, but my cute family anecdote turned out to be lunchroom hell for my kid. As it turned out, 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.
Later, when my boy was in middle school, I made a passing reference to the fact that he’d 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 son 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. My Sunday 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 published what most editors consider safe or soft material, knowing full well that my child 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 rarely consulted our son.
And so, after our tearful talk at the top of the stairs, I agreed to a temporary ban on the kid columns.
The ban was lifted later, when he started high school. Still, I avoided forbidden material, tempting though it was. As a testament to my prudence, my son's first car accident was quietly resolved without a single paragraph in the Sunday paper. After so many years of teaching him the importance of respecting boundaries --especially personal privacy -- I’d finally learned how to respect his.
Things are different today. We're all accustomed to airing family stories, political grievances, and personal confessions on social media. We post photos countless selfies, photos of our bathrooms, photos of what we ate for dinner, and videos of our kids' birthday parties. Everything is public; nothing is left to the imagination.
And while I still admire candid writing and blogging, I get squeamish when too much is revealed about youngsters who, like my son, might be melting in the spotlight while their parents try to build platforms or try to attract more followers.
To learn more about my published collection of family columns, Writing Home, please click here.