— It's been almost a week since a Midwestern mom published a blog post with the provocative title "My Son Is Gay," and the Internet still can't get over it. On Monday, the TV world caught on, as morning show personalities and talk show hosts chattered about little boys dressing as little girls, using a photo of the 5-year-old dressed for Halloween as Daphne of the "Scooby Doo" gang as a talking point.
His mom has kept his name private, calling him only "Boo" on her blog and in the national media spots, but all the attention that little boy's photo is getting is causing some "mommy bloggers" to wonder about the lasting effect their online ramblings might be having on their kids.
In a way, Samantha Henig can relate to little Boo — and she can provide a hint for moms-with-blogs of how their kids might ultimately feel about their mothers' oversharing. Because in the days before mommy bloggers, there were family columnists for newspapers and magazines, who often included personal details of their children's lives while writing for national publications — women like Erma Bombeck, Joyce Maynard and Robin Marantz Henig, Samantha's mother.
"I feel like I was the precursor to all of this," says Samantha Henig, now 26 and a writer herself living in New York City. "For me, it was always fine. I thought it was kind of cool." She says she had the personality for it, but she acknowledges that some kids — her older sister, for example — might feel differently about having their moms tell their personal, sometimes embarrassing stories to an audience of strangers.
"It was a little bit different when I was doing it, because I was edited," says Robin Marantz Henig, now a science writer and contributer to The New York Times Magazine. The stories Henig wrote that involved her children often took weeks or months of careful writing, and then went through several rounds of editing, before being published — compare that to a blog, which can be dashed off in a matter of minutes.
"But I did things that were just as bad," Henig continues. "I did things like, 'My daughter is fat; what can we do to make her less fat?' With photographs." That's her older daughter, Jess, she was writing about — which might explain why little sister Sam was more easygoing about being a subject in her mom's stories.
"My older daughter, at some level, has not forgiven me for what I wrote (about her body)," Henig adds. Last year, she and her daughter, Jess Zimmerman, wrote about their experiences with that Woman's Day story for O magazine. Zimmerman wrote, "When Mom wrote about children and health, I appeared in the role of Fat Kid Saved by Diet or Exercise. The reality might have been that I ate no more than other kids, that I read a lot but also played a lot outside, that I wasn't even particularly fat. But such complexities weren't part of my role in my mother's narrative. I was an object lesson — proof that even fat kids could be salvaged."
Even for professional writers like Henig, who know they're writing for a large audience, it can be hard to prepare for the backlash that can happen in their own household when a personal story is published. Bloggers like "Boo's" mom may write something intended for a small readership — but you never know when a gossip blog like Gawker is going to find you and send millions more readers your way.
Because in recent years, many mom blogs have started wielding more cultural influence, bestowing stamps of approval to this baby product but not that one, sometimes attracting thousands of advertising dollars and page views in the process, as The New York Times noted earlier this year in a piece about mommy bloggers scrambling to "build their brands." An Internet market research group called eMarketer estimates that there are 3.9 million moms with kids younger than 18 who write blogs. But what happens when the stars of your blog start to grow up — and can search for their names online?
Some simply choose to stop writing about their kids' lives in so much detail after they reach a certain age. Heather Armstrong, whose Dooce.com has made her into an Internet celebrity, told her readers in a post published in August that she wouldn't be writing much about her oldest child, Leta, anymore, and that anything she did write would have to get the 6-year-old's approval first. "I've ... felt a protectiveness growing about her as she's gotten older and knew that I'd be writing less as that feeling continued," Armstrong wrote.
It could be worse, little Leta: In some of the weirder corners of the Web, moms use their blogs or their Facebook pages as an outlet to air every gross detail that childhood brings — the popular Tumblr site STFU Parents catalogues the most egregious examples of parental oversharing on Facebook. (Warning: An astounding amount of posts center around poo and placenta — and there are photos. Shudder.)
Some mom bloggers go to the other extreme, avoiding all but the barest details and descriptions of their children. Jessica Gottlieb, a 40-year-old mom blogger in Los Angeles, has never used her kids' real names online, and she never posts photos. It's partly for safety reasons, but she also wants to avoid creating a public, online reputation for her children before they get the chance to create one for themselves.
But many mom bloggers don't see it that way; their blogs are just their way of trying to capture fleeting moments in their children's lives. "It is my hope that my children are able to see my blog as the love letter it is to them," Jill Smokler wrote on Friday on her blog, Scary Mommy. "I love that we have a written record of their early days, not just an album filled with photos. ... We are all just trying to do the best we can for our children. All we can do is hope that they recognize that."
As it turns out, sometimes, they do.
"Recently, I reread a lot of the things (my mom) had written about me, and it's nice," Samantha Henig says. "Whenever I go home, I look through old photo albums, but (my mom's articles are) this extra level of remembering my childhood."