Dooce blogger Heather B. Armstrong earns a living revealing personal details — an act that actually got her fired from her job as a web designer seven years ago. Since then she's made a reputation for brutal (and often hilarious) honesty and openness. Her new book, It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita documents her post-partum depression and self-admission to a mental health facility. Not something many parents would be willing to put in hard copy. But you don’t have to be famous to have your personal details on the internet these days. So how do you shield your children from information you don't think they should know? And how much is okay to tell them? Heather B. Armstrong looks at how we decide where to draw the line.
How much do you tell your children? What did your parents over-share with you? Tell us here.
John Hockenberry: It’s an issue for all parents. Heather Armstrong, I’ve got a question for you: You’ve made a career disclosing information about yourself, when do I tell my children I’m actually a space alien?
Heather B. Armstrong: I think the answer to that is never. Never ever.
Heather B. Armstrong: I think, it’s much like what I’m willing to write about her on my website, publicly for millions of people to read, in that the boundaries sort of shift and change as she becomes more aware and can handle more information. When I started my website back in 2001 I was single and liked to call myself a “recovering Mormon.” And living in Los Angeles and exploring the recreational side of drug use and other things that she will eventually find out about me because it’s very public and millions of people know this about me. And much like the guy who said previously, it’s something that when she comes to an age when she can handle it, I absolutely plan to talk to her about it.
John Hockenberry: How much control can you have when it’s possible for a 7-year-old, my 7-year-olds know how to Google me. They haven’t done it yet, I don’t think, but that’s going to be a scary moment.
Heather B. Armstrong: Yeah. There already have been some scary moments. My book that was recently published, I got a hard copy of it in the mail and she sort of grabbed it out of my hands and turned to the 16-page photographic insert. And there were all these pictures of her, at five years old she’s actually reading at a third grade level, and she started to read these captions underneath the photos and would look at me like, “What? You said this about me?”
John Hockenberry: So what do you do? Do you go, “Nice reading, sweetheart. Hand Mommy the book now.”?
Heather B. Armstrong: It’s a book I wrote about you, sweetie. It’s called “It Sucked and Then I Cried.”
John Hockenberry: Great work. Have you talked to parents and have people talked to you on your blog who have actually crossed this bridge with older kids? Randy Cohen was talking about his daughter who is a teenager now. For us it’s a little premature, but how would people handle this?
Heather B. Armstrong: I actually have several friends who have teenage children, and invariably it hasn’t been that big of a deal because their kids are now so immersed in social networks that it’s like “Yeah, yeah, yeah. My mom smoked pot. And yeah, my mom used to do this.” It’s just not a big deal. And I think it’s going to become increasingly more that way because, these kids, to them, it’s public knowledge and it doesn’t seem strange to them that privacy is being peeled away.
John Hockenberry: Is it also true that you think your kids would have trouble knowing about, is actually not what they will have trouble knowing about you? That what you choose to keep secret is actually the most boring from a kid’s perspective?
Heather B. Armstrong: Right, I think my daughter is going to be much more horrified when she sees pictures of my hair at age 13 than she will be that I ever, you know, smoked pot once.
John Hockenberry: What are some of the really tough issues? Previous marriages? Obviously the huge one is, “Oh, he’s not my daddy.” How do you handle that sort of stuff?
Heather B. Armstrong: You know, you have to open lines of communication with your child. For instance, I’m pregnant with my second child and everyone is like, “Have you had the sex talk with her yet?” I’m like, she’s five years old, I’m not going to have this talk with her. Then all of a sudden, she found a book in our collection that talks explicitly about sex and she started reading it. She comes up to me and she says, “What is this picture of Mom?” And it’s like, “Oh, dear. Let’s go talk to your father about that.” It’s all a matter of opening the lines of communication and speaking in words that correspond to the age that they’re at. My husband has an ex-wife and I’m sure she’s going to approach us one day and I really don’t see any us encountering any problems talking to her about that subject at all.
John Hockenberry: But you’re anxiety actually maybe doesn’t mirror her anxiety about doing it. You can’t just do these things casually. Yet in this internet age, information is out there whether you know it or not, right?
Heather B. Armstrong: That’s why you set up a fund for therapy.
John Hockenberry: Is there anything you would never tell your daughter?
Heather B. Armstrong: There’s nothing I would never tell the internet. I mean, no. I’m totally open book and anything she would want to know I would absolutely tell her about it. I have no problem talking to anybody about anything.
John Hockenberry: Yeah, we kind of noticed that. What do you say to parents who actually want to retain control? Who actually do have difficulty with some of this kind of information and don’t particularly relish the thought of doing their own Dooce.com blog disclosing a lot of information about their lives.
Heather B. Armstrong: Stay very, very, very far away from the internet. And probably monitor their children’s use of the internet as much as they possibly can if they’re that worried. Children are creative people and can find ways around those instruments. But, again, I think children are becoming so much more savvy that I think this is a problem that we’re all going to have to deal with.
John Hockenberry: Finally, you write about postpartum depression in your book “It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown and a Much Needed Margarita.” Have you phrased the answer to the question that your daughter may ask someday, “Mom, why did having me make you so depressed?”
Heather B. Armstrong: “Why did having me make you so depressed, Mom?” And my answer to that is “There’s something wrong with my brain. There’s nothing wrong with you, it has to do with the genes I inherited from your very crazy aunts and uncles.” That’s where we’ll go with that.
John Hockenberry: Good answer. And you have a chance to edit it in the next couple years.