Tuesday, January 1, 2013

I am my son's mother

I am the parent of three human beings, individuals with personhood and rights to privacy, especially with increasing age and growing awareness. People for whom, like any person, I cannot predict the future, how adolescence and young adulthood will play out, what the interaction of that uncomfortable metamorphosis with the world around them will bring. None of us can do that, and none of us should try. Mostly because we all suck at it.

Have you ever taught children? I have, and I remember thinking I could see where they were going, what their futures might be like. What they might be like. Many of the students I taught hovered around the edges of adolescence while others had taken the full plunge. An interesting game, it seemed, to try to peer through the mists of their futures and, based on their antics or anhedonia or antipathy, try to predict what or how they would become.

It's now been almost 20 years since I taught some of those students. A few of them pop onto my radar from time to time, often in surprising ways and at unexpected times. [I have conflated the following examples to avoid specificity]. One young person, a suicidal teen whom many teachers didn't expect to outlive adolescence, was flourishing the last time I saw him and certainly still alive and kicking, now almost age 30. A middle-schooler who was just an all-around star and the light of her family died while a senior in college. One young man who struggled mightily with fitting in but who seemed to have a little flash of hidden genius ended up working in a car parts store and never attending college. An eating disorder wasted away another bright light while a reckless boy with a streak of something edgy ended up with a business degree.

We thought, because of our day-in/day-out experiences with these children over a course of years that we could penetrate those mists and accurately visualize their likely paths. Yet I can't think of a student whose adulthood has manifested those plans we made for them, good, bad, or indifferent. 

No one, not teachers and not parents and not even professionals, can pin down the future of another human being. No one can say where, life persisting, any individual's path will take them. Some target mediocrity and get it. Some reach high and fall far. Some find themselves digging deep into resources they didn't know they had to meet challenges they didn't know they'd face. The behaviors of the child might or might not reflect the behaviors, trajectory, or even survival of the adult.

What I do know is if a person does survive into adulthood, odds are good these days that they will be able to read and google themselves and their families. It's one thing, way back when, to have committed thoughts and deep feelings to a journal that could then be locked up tight in a drawer. It's another thing entirely to commit these deep thoughts and feelings to the digital bits and bytes that all eyes can see. Writing, coming from within as it does, is an intimate activity. The very personal writing many of us engage in on our blogs also carries that feeling of intimacy, one I can experience even now as I type these words, just between me and my laptop. Except that when I hit "publish," as I will do because, after all, a blog is a publishing tool, the world will be able to experience those words with me. That's not intimacy. That's exposure.

Many parents enter blogging when their children are quite young. I did the same, but when my oldest son hit double digits, I decided that we'd reached the point in our lives when he would no longer be an anonymous second-grader but someone who, like most of us, will have an online profile available at the touch of a few keys. So I decided to stop blogging about our personal lives--his personal life--something I'd always done carefully and in a positive way, anonymizing him and avoiding pictures. He was no longer a person who was a child. He'd become a person and a preteen and a reader and an age that required me to respect his privacy and his boundaries.

When I write in a way that might be critical of another person, I try to do so only if that person also can give a perspective, a point of view, using equivalent resources. Otherwise, I'm using tools unfairly, and that's, at the least, bullying. As a middle-aged woman, I'm armored for and capable of handling what people say about me, online or off. My oldest son, on the other hand, is not old enough, in my opinion, to appreciate what online exposure means or to defend himself from people's negative opinions of him--and online, someone, somewhere, will always have a negative opinion. Because he cannot wield the same tools I might use were I to write warts-and-all exposés of him or our family or our lives (which are perfect! We have no warts!), it's absolutely not OK for me to put him in front of me and expose him, via this false intimacy of blogging, to the censure of the world. 

And not one of us, not even I, his mother, has the tools to predict what he might become based on his past or present, much less a defensible rationale for exposing him publicly with negative or harmful prognostications about it.


  1. The words stick around. I can find some of the posts I wrote on Usenet in July 1983. For example, http://tinyurl.com/BKoldSinglesJuly1983

    So I've tried to be careful over the years and remind my children (now in college or headed there next year) to do the same.

  2. I was looking for an email address for you! I wanted to thank you for your article on the Forbes site regarding the whole "aging out of autism" idea. I am a military wife and mother of four with three son's on the autism spectrum. The article in TIME fired me up and I am was happy to hop online and stumble onto your article. THANK YOU. Thank you so much for giving a voice to the individuals who are functioning adults with autism. I can now breathe better after reading your article and feeling a little less irritated. You were very calm and direct in your execution and directly pointed out a the extreme flaws in what I find to be an extremely generalized and ignorant claim in TIME. Thank you thank you thank you