Yesterday, I wrote about some awards I’d won through the North Dakota Professional Communicators organization. Two of the four awards recognized columns I’ve written for The Forum newspaper as part of its Tuesday “Parenting Perspectives” feature. Each entry requested two columns, so there were four in all represented.
This is what the judge had to say about my first-place entry for column-writing: “Well written, entertaining stories on ‘Parenting Perspectives,” but are all your columns on your own family? Do you ever tell about other parents experiences and problems?”
It was a little different from the comment that came from the judge of my religion pieces: “Well written stories! Your connection with the reader is excellent. Good job!”
The latter comment made me feel great about those stories; I’d worked hard on them. The former comment, well, I wasn’t sure. Was it a compliment? She gave me first place, praised my writing, but quickly moved on and ended with a more critical stance.
I am no Erma Bombeck, that’s true, but I do feel passionate about personal-essay writing. And therein lies the key to this posting. I am not a political columnist, nor am I an advice columnist.I am a personal essayist. Thinking back on the year, the first of “Parenting Perspectives,” each of my columns was about my family, and each of the other four columnists also wrote exclusively about their respective families. We did not stray from that vantage point, ever. We stayed near our own individual hearths to enlighten our readers.
I can imagine that after reading four of my columns all in succession, it might have seemed a bit like self-absorption to the judge. However, readers of The Forum only read my column once a month. They read each of the other parenting columnists once a month, too. In that way, they have a new parenting voice each week. I think it works pretty well. We’ve got a grandmother, a single father of two boys, a mother of two girls and a mother of an infant daughter on our slate of columnists. And I’m in there, too, with my brood of five, two girls and three boys, preschooler to teenager. We all have something unique to contribute. But we write about our own parenting experiences because they are the parenting experiences we know the very best. Especially when it comes to parenting, unless you are some sort of expert who has written a best-selling book on parenting, the only family you can truly offer up as an example is your own. I would be hard-pressed to give “this is the only way to do it” advice to any parent, because no family is exactly like mine. I would, however, if asked, share what I have experienced and what has worked (or not worked) for my family. I love encouraging new parents, and listening to moms who are older than I am to help prepare me for what’s coming. But always, always I am mindful of the fact that you cannot truly advise someone else’s family on what’s best. Certainly, there are some tried and true methods and guidelines, but each must be adapted to the individual family.
The other point I want to make is that even though the personal essay might seem self-absorbing, its purpose is not. We write about our lives not for self-indulgence, but because by going deep into our everyday lives, we are hopeful that maybe, just maybe, we will hit on some universal truth that might hearten another parent. I had a great response to the column I just wrote about mismatched socks. Even those parents who would rather die than be caught sending their children to school with socks that do not match perfectly surely must recognize, on some level, that this parenting gig is not going to work in a perfect manner; that on occasion, we’re not going to look just right. We’re going to have bad days when we don’t respond perfectly, or when our kids don’t respond as we’d like them to. It’s okay. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed. We really are, in a sense, all in this together, being imperfect but doing our best. The point of the mismatched socks story was to recognize that imperfection will happen, and to be okay when things aren’t picture-perfect, whether it’s something physical like mismatched socks, or something internal and much less visible to the outside world.
And so, yes, dear judge. I really did get what you were saying, but you read my columns out of the context of their rightful place. I am only part of a mix of other parenting writers who write not to indulge ourselves, but to foster a connection. We don’t need to obsess over our families and bore our readers in the process. We write about our families because we’re hoping that something we say will strike a connection in another parent and give them a little more courage to carry on in their job, the most emotional demanding job of all, of parenting. We’re hoping to evoke something with our words — maybe a smile, or a laugh, and on occasion, maybe even tears that will help heal an ache somewhere deep inside.
That’s what I try for in my columns and through this blog as well. I’m offering an outstretched hand to my readers and saying, “Hey there, would you like to travel with me for a few moments today? Maybe something I say will bring a smile to your face, or offer a different perspective, or point out something new. I’d love for you to join me, even for a few moments. And if you’d like to offer something in return, I’m listening.”
So, I won’t apologize for writing about my family only, because the best I can offer you is a glimpse of my own life. I mother this family, and not any other. I’ll save writing about others for the news articles I also do on a continuing basis. But this isn’t one of those. This is a slice from my life that, I hope, will add a little something to yours.