Adele has a baby boy, who shall remain nameless, at least for now. The superstar singer has declined the invitation to divulge his moniker, saying in People magazine: “I am not sharing his name at the moment. It is very personal to me. I am enjoying him on my own.”
But Adele, what about the sacred celebrity-fan covenant? Don’t you know that we downloaded millions of your songs and, in exchange, you must sacrifice your progeny to us, Rosemary’s Baby style? (Rosemary did reveal the name of her baby, by the way, and it was Suri.)
Adele’s choice to protect the privacy of her child seems novel and winningly off-trend. Recently, The Atlantic ran an article by Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the plague of “parental overshare”: the reams of articles and blog posts by parents whose favourite, if not sole, subject is their kids. She cites a New York Times blog post by Beth Boyle Machlan about her daughter’s obsessive compulsive disorder in which she describes intimate details of a therapy session, and the recent controversy over “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” a post-Newtown piece by a blogger named Liza Long who pegs her own troubled 13-year-old son as a potential mass murderer, illustrated by his photo.
Blogs have always been breathless and unedited, but parental dirty laundry is being aired in mainstream writing too. In October, Andrea Askowitz wrote an odious essay in Salon about her first-grader failing a “gifted” test (now her daughter knows that she would be merely “average” were it not for her mother scamming the system). This month’s parental overshare is Dara-Lynn Weiss’s book The Heavy, in which Weiss ignores her own eating issues and puts her overweight seven-year-old on a diet.
Bovy defines parental overshare as meeting two criteria: The kids must be identifiable (hiding full names doesn’t count in these traceable times) and “there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience,” which excludes Facebook addicts posting baby’s first blink, and many mommy bloggers too.
Without question, Weiss’s writing – her daughter’s body and eating habits are unpacked in agonizing detail – invades her kid’s privacy in a way that would be libellous if children had any rights. Bovy argues that charting a child’s issues, be they as banal as bedwetting or as serious as threatening one’s mother with a knife, also makes them susceptible to negative outcomes later on. A vivid description of a knife-wielding incident in adolescence forges an electronic footprint that can’t be scrubbed away. These tales of youthful indiscretions might pop up during a job interview or a college application. In giving away our kids’ present lives in public, we may be sabotaging their private futures.
As a writer in a Life section of a national paper, Bovy struck home. Lucky to play in a space that often touches on personal and domestic issues, I have struggled over how much to reveal about my own life, especially as it pertains to my kids. If I do convey their experiences, I justify it – sometimes nervously – as elucidating a larger social issue. But when I recently wrote that my kids sometimes walk to school, my editor and I had a long discussion: Was this particular description a threat to their safety, and a pimping of their personal experience, or a necessary – and honest – illustration of the piece’s theme of confronting parental anxiety?
We went with the latter interpretation, while fully aware that the decades-long rise of “confessional” writing has been a double-edged sword for women writers. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, the It girl of the nineties memoir boom, revealed recently in New York magazine that the twentysomething depression she had shilled so casually had segued tidily into fortysomething misery. Squeezing drama from years as the bruised, broken girl in the corner makes for a limited career and life. But Wurtzel has adult autonomy. Her mom didn’t write about her foibles; she did.
At its best, personal writing – usually a female domain – is a way to elevate the kind of social issues that have often, in journalism, taken a back seat to so-called objective reporting. Good confessional writing, online and off-line, isn’t just prurient, but engages the small, photographic details that animate a story. It allows something revelatory, an answer to the almost anthropological question: How do other people live? The question is especially germane when it comes to parenting, which can be such an isolating slog, considering how far many of us are from home and our elders.
But is the hit of perceived intimacy worth it if means throwing our kids into the public sphere when they are half-formed? Of course Adele, famous and young, would cultivate her kid’s privacy; she has seen up close how the children of celebrities become celebrities too, in the worst way – inhuman, disposable. Perhaps unlike parental oversharers, she knows what’s sacrificed in the spotlight. Her silence over her son’s name is a sweet song.