On the confessional parent

Susan Stiffelman writes at ParentDish about the indignation some readers of mamapundit felt upon learning that, in the midst of writing about parenting, she was privately coping with a teenaged son’s drug addiction, which recently took his life:

“The shame of exposing our truths to one another keeps many parents in the closet, hiding the realities of our day-to-day lives despite the comfort that would come if we knew we wouldn’t be harshly judged for having stumbled or fallen.”

Perhaps shame was part of the reason she didn’t expose her son’s struggle to readers, though perhaps her reason was simply that it was none of their damned business.

I’m more confessional than some, as readers of my book can certainly attest, and less confessional than others. I understand that as a writer opens up his life to readers, they emotionally invest in his story (or they drop the book/close the internet window/delete the email and run screaming in the other direction). They may even come to feel like a distant part of his family, what with the stories about his life, the pictures of his children, the revelations that he is flawed and scared and scarred just like them.

I don’t see, however, that revelations about some parts of his life confer on the writer an obligation to share with readers the remainder of his personal life. Nor do I think that one has to evidence perfection before writing about parenting, or family, or faith, or bicycle riding, or whatever. The guiding principles, I think, are honesty and humility about what he does discuss, not thoroughgoing self-exposure.

Now, if Katie Granju (mamapundit) had been holding forth about her great success at keeping her children away from drugs, all while secretly grieving over her inability to do just that with one of her children, I can understand why her readers might feel misled, even taken advantage of. But that’s not the case here. Look at an excerpt from her Salon piece in 1999, which is all the more heartbreaking in light of her recent tragedy:

“But the disconnect between being thought of as an authority on this subject and the normal ups and downs of my day-to-day life as a parent can be somewhat jarring at times. Although I believe sincerely and passionately in the topics about which I write, the fact is that I am a flesh-and-blood mama with real, live children. For this reason, I am not always able to measure up to the expectations that other people — and even I myself — sometimes have for me and my family.”

I suspect that’s true for all of us. And I think it’s fair to afford everyone some space, if nothing else, to grieve such a terrible loss.