“Mom, how do all these people know me?”
It was near the holidays three years ago when my children started realizing they lived their lives in the public sphere. I had been blogging since they were toddlers, starting back in 2010, when blogging was still a trend, still a viable option for stay-at-home moms trying to reclaim their identities while also reaching a community of like-minded, sympathetic individuals. By the time my twins were 6, my daily writings had attracted a modest — but sizable, in the smallest sense of the word — following. People were starting to share my work beyond my circles.
I had a few memes go viral. I had a few essays make the rounds on news aggregation. I was not a big deal. My kids thought I was. They thought they were.
One of them, on that fateful day in mid-November 2014, picked up my phone after I had uploaded a picture of a first lost tooth. The likes and comments were pouring in. Moms and blog audiences are nothing if not supportive about these small milestones (so long as everyone obeys the unspoken rule: no poop).
She was thrilled. All of these people, virtually lining up to stare at her face. Soon the kids were asking me to share videos, jokes, close-ups, action shots. They wanted to show off for my audience. They wanted followers and subscribers and likes and comments before they even knew what the Internet was.
Most mommy bloggers who give it up (which is most mommy bloggers) cite their children getting older and the need for more privacy. Suddenly it feels as if we are violating their personhood, because as babies become toddlers and toddlers become bigger kids, our sense of ownership over them lessens. At first, they seem like simple extensions of ourselves, so that writing about them is like writing about us, showing them is showing ourselves. We feel like we have a right to them, like our consent is their consent.
That feeling fades for most parent bloggers, and they start to question not only continuing to cash in on their struggles as parents and their kids’ struggles as kids, but also to question having written anything about them ever. I questioned the same things, but for different reasons.
I was not worried about my girls being hurt or offended or angered at their lives on public display. Instead, I was worried I stripped them of the boundaries they needed to feel those feelings in the first place.
As a female writer on the Internet, no one knows more than me the intense danger that comes from being in the public sphere, even if you are simply living your life. People sometimes do not like that. People who can threaten and cajole and hurt and insult. People who could come for you, if you say the wrong thing or give too much information.
When I was growing up, AOL chat rooms were just becoming a thing, and my mother instilled a fear in me so strong, that even today, as a freelance writer who has received death threats on social media and in my email, I have never visited a chat room like that. I grew up understanding, perhaps in exaggerated fashion, the dangers the Internet could hold, and I need to pass that on to my girls. Not just stranger danger — I would hope I have enough parenting finesse to wade those treacherous waters — but the blurred line between virtual and real. The amounts of information that are appropriate for strangers on the Internet to know.
My children have seen my following, and they have seen how we interact. To them, these people represent the entirety of the Internet. We are all happy mom-like figures, sharing pictures and stories and good times. The Internet seems like a big playroom to them. No matter how much I pay lip service against that idea, as long as I was thrusting them into that space, they were going to do what I did, not what I said.
If Mommy thinks the Internet is a safe place for their lives to unfold, then it must be so. They had no fear, no safety guards in place. Now that my children are 9, when they want to play online games, they have to know what they can share and what they must not. As kids who have lived in a safe world, thus far, it is beyond their capability to understand that not everyone is as they seem on the Internet. And it remains my job to protect them.
I did not quit mommy blogging to preserve their autonomy and grant them the privacy they deserve as independent human beings. They would give me their consent to continue in a heartbeat. Being public does not bother them at all. And that is why I quit. Not to preserve their privacy but to salvage their desire for such privacy so that as they become adults there is something there to preserve at all.