On Privacy

privacy  n.  a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by others > freedom from public attention (from the OED)

With roots in Latin privatus apart from the public life, deprived of office, belonging to an individual.  Originally the past participle of privare deprive, free, release, from privus one's own, single, individual (from Barnhart's Concise Dictionary of Etymology)


I have been thinking a lot about privacy lately.  It began a week or so ago when I shared a(n admittedly) funny story about one of the children with a friend.  Even though the subject matter of the story wasn't any big deal, and although I did not (and would not) tell it in the presence of the child, after I told it I had a sense that I shouldn't have.  It dawned on me that perhaps the story was not mine to tell.

We parents all become accustomed to telling stories about our children from the time they are tiny -- oh, he smiled for the first time today! she's crawling now! you'll never guess what he said today!  But at a certain point, children begin to have a more public life, a life outside the little family nest, and a growing awareness of themselves as an individual.  They need to have a say about what the world ought to know about them, and what they would like to keep to themselves.  I think my boys are coming into this stage, and their mom is just now catching up.

In fact, I want very much for them to have a sense of privacy.  In a world where oversharing and TMI seem to be the rule rather than the exception, I think it's so important to teach children that there are some things that we need to protect, to keep free from public attention.  I'm not talking only about bodies here, although that kind of privacy and modesty is important to me, too.  I'm talking about anything that feels too precious to be shown to all the world.  And I'm also talking about things that may not be precious, but that just don't have to be in the public domain, such as a person's reason for saying "no, thank you" to a party invitation, or an invitation to come over to play, or a request for information on any number of subjects.  I am teaching them to say, "I'd rather not say," or, "It's something I'd like to keep to myself."  I'm teaching them that, with a few important exceptions, they can say these things to anyone about anything, that they have a right to privacy.


Generally, I'm a pretty open person.  But I remember how hard it was for me when I was very ill and needed a lot of help, and I felt like all privacy was lost to me.  My body was the domain of doctor after doctor.  Our front door became a revolving door for the many, many people who came to help us.  People discussed "how she's doing" in the next room (or sometimes even in the same room) well within my ability to overhear.  It's not that I wasn't grateful for the help, or that I necessarily had anything to hide.  It's not that I resented people's concern about how I was doing, or that they were talking about it.  The thing that bothered me was that I had lost control over what I kept free from public attention and what I didn't.


I also think about privacy in my writing life.  There are some subjects, some poems, that are only for me. Some of them might even be pretty good poems, but they won't be going any farther than the Resting Drawer.  I think we owe it to ourselves as writers, and to our readers, to honor a sense of privacy in what we put forth in the world.  Probably every writer has a different sense of what is private and what is public for her.  Probably the lines of private and public will shift over the span of a writing life.  But it's something that I keep in the back of my mind as I write and submit.


Which brings me back to the children.  And this blog.  Perhaps you have heard about the woman who wrote about her child's Halloween costume in a blog post gone viral, and the opinion of some people that she is exploiting her children by writing about them in the public sphere.  I have tried to be both cautious and respectful when writing about my children here.  I don't feel, for example, that posting a photo of Sister blowing out her birthday candles is exploiting or endangering her.  And it would be pretty hard to write about motherhood without imparting an occasional anecdote.  On the other hand, I will respect my children's growing sense of themselves, and will be thinking about which stories are mine to tell, and which just aren't.


Stephanie said...

I think this is a really interesting topic. Re: that Halloween costume post, on the one hand I was so thankful she chose to write about it because I felt like it was a tremendously important story, but on the other hand I did wonder what the 15-year-old version of her son might think about it.

Molly said...

Stephanie, thanks for your comment. It is a tricky issue. I actually have no problem with the post about the Halloween costume - I was glad she wrote it, too. But you're right -- when you put it on fast forward, it brings up questions.

Ms. WK said...

M --
again, I appreciate your candid voice. I feel like you're a voice of reason in a swarm of noise.
love you!

Molly said...

Ms W-K, thanks for reading. Love you too!