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All I had to do was take pictures of my kids in the shoes and then put the pictures up on the site. It should have been easy. But at the time, my children were 3 and 1 and nothing was ever easy—not sleep, not putting on clothes, and especially not getting them to sit in front of the camera.
The photos were for a sponsored post for a shoe company I loved and continue to love. These posts, in which I reviewed a product and made it look picture-perfect on my site, are the bread and butter of the blogging world. I had been doing them since my daughter was 6 months old and had a post go viral. After that, brands reached out and I, a struggling, oft-rejected, out-of-work writer living in Iowa with two kids and bleeding nipples, took the job. I had criteria of course—they had to be products I used, believed in, and would actually purchase if I didn’t have them handed to me for review. So no $50 baby onesies my kids would just crap all over. No $100 gold moccasins they’d kick off on a Target run.
But after a week of chasing my children around to make them photo-ready, I gave up. I posted the few images I had, which were blurry and featured food stains on my kid’s faces, and let my blog die. The line between working and parenting had gotten too blurry. I felt like I was turning their childhood into content.
Historically, children were an economic necessity: They ensured the inheritance of your estate and provided free labor. Now, in our modern not-so agrarian society, we like to think children have it easy, tooling around on iPads and gorging on organic mac n’ cheese. We idealize childhood into Instagram-filtered nostalgia, but the reality of children’s lives is that they’ve become a product of that nostalgia.
In Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan writes that the new child labor is being photographed for the family business of multimedia publishing and social media. She compares a child’s compliance with their parents’ requests for photos to farm labor, arguing, “Every aspect of the family business becomes familiar to a child. Early on she learns that she can examine a photo on a viewfinder as soon as it’s snapped; that she should monkey around rather than ‘pose’…”
While Heffernan is speaking about all families, the observation is more salient for those who make money off of their children—writers, vloggers, bloggers, Instagram celebrities, and Vine stars. This is nothing new—parents have been writing about their children since Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his son and wrote Emile. But from Emile, Erma Bombeck, and the Skylander Family, the tension has only increased. Is being content the new child labor?
“‘Child content’ is a sensitive subject, to say the least. ‘Why don’t you pick something less divisive, like vaccines?’ one woman joked.”
According to a 2012 study by Scarborough Research, 14 percent of American moms are bloggers. At the time, the survey estimated there were over 3.9 million mom blogs in North America and of those moms, the top 10 percent make up to six figures, writing books and starring in reality shows with their kids in tow.
In a Forbes article, Power Moms author and BSM Media’s Maria Bailey says, “There’s the top 10 percent who make six figures, who write books, and have deals with the Food Network. Then there’s the bottom 20 percent who are only doing it for the love and not making anything.”
The middle 70 percent is where your hardscrabble, not-quite famous, sometimes-viral mom bloggers, like I was, reside. At my peak, I was earning $300 a month off of my website alone. I was also getting paid to blog for sites like Babble, Mom.me, and the now-shuttered BabyZone. That income was founded on the fact that I had children and was willing to share and take pictures of them. Mothers who shared more and had greater social media presence were rewarded with more money and more incentives. Companies are always looking for creative ways to advertise to the lucrative, competitive mom market.
Of course, there’s a flip side to all this baby-product shilling. Criticism about bloggers, mothers, and artists who write about their children often include accusations of child exploitation. But the International Labor Organization clarifies that not all work that children do with their parents is exploitative. Often, a child’s tasks can be seen as positive if they help them develop skills for their adult life.
And yet, as a blogger, I often felt uncomfortable with the level of involvement required of my children. Whether they were striking a pose or testing a product, my income depended upon their performance. And when they were chubby babies, happy to lie on the floor and smile, this wasn’t a problem. But as headstrong toddlers, I could see the resistance. The day I tried to photograph my children for the shoe post, my 3-year-old put her hands up and said, “No mo pictures.” And right then, I knew it was over.
I spoke to a lot of writers and bloggers about how they feel about “child content,” and it is a sensitive subject, to say the least. “Why don’t you pick something less divisive, like vaccines?” one woman joked.
“I did some modeling when I was a child, and so letting my kids get a sense of what I do for a living in a relaxed atmosphere with their own mom behind the camera is something I’m comfortable with.”
In the New York Times, blogger Elizabeth Bastos said that she gave up writing about her children completely because “maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.”
For other moms, like Jordan Reid of the lifestyle blog Ramshackle Glam, it’s about keeping firm boundaries on how content and her children intertwine. “If I’m deciding whether to do a campaign that they’d be explicitly involved in (like this one), my attitude is slightly different: I ask them directly whether they’d like to participate, and explain that it’s work,” she told the Daily Dot via email. “If they want to do it, I explain exactly what we’re going to do, keep it short and fun, and then deposit the money earned directly into their 529 (college) accounts. I acted in commercials and did some modeling when I was a child, and so letting my kids get a sense of what I do for a living (and make a little money themselves) in a relaxed atmosphere with their own mom behind the camera is something I’m comfortable with. Not everyone would be, but we are, and if our feelings change in the future, our choices will change, too.”
Smokler, whose children are 8, 10, and 12, explained, “I think that’s what it boils down to, for me, is making sure they understand and are comfortable with being subjects in my writing. There’s enough they will hold against me some day—I want to make sure not to knowingly add to the list!”Like Reid, all of my earnings from my blog went to my children’s college savings, but unlike Reid, my children had let me know “no mo pictures.” It can come down to the specific family and personalities involved, says Jill Smokler, the brains behind the Scary Mommy blog. Some children love it, while others, like my son, categorically refuse to cooperate. The key, Smokler believes, is to find what works for your family.
I too believe it’s about striking a balance. I love writing by Maggie Nelson, Nicole Chung, and Rivka Galchen, who use stories of parenting to explore identity and the constructs of femininity and family. And I enjoy involving my children in my writing by telling them about the things I think about and showing them my byline when they ask what I do all day while they are at school. And I hope we can work toward a humane understanding of identity, work, and boundaries. But it won’t be easy, and we may not get it quite right.
Recently, I brought my kindergartener to a book reading of nonfiction authors at a local independent bookstore. When the language got too salty, I discreetly slipped headphones on her and handed her an iPad. I received a lot of looks when there were graphic descriptions of drug use and oral sex. But my daughter was oblivious, playing her My Little Pony game instead.
Afterward, a writer and father and author I admire came up to me and told me he was glad to see her there. His one regret, he noted, was not involving his children in all of his work.
Lyz Lenz is currently the managing editor of the Rumpus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Jezebel, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Mashable.