The tabloid contacted me on a Friday morning. I know it was Friday because I’d just returned from a trip to the Bay Area to visit the family of a friend who is severely ill. I wanted a day to process emotions and enjoy a day off with my toddler before her older sister came back from visiting her dad over spring break. At the sight of the message, I felt my stomach sink into my chair.
The tabloid contacted me because of an article I’d published the week before about orgasm equality. Within days, it had spread around the internet, and the producers of a TV show wanted me to make an appearance on the show via Skype. My article hadn’t been the type I normally write, and it made a radical statement: that my daughters, and all girls everywhere, should be taught how to pleasure themselves, and that I planned to give mine vibrators.
Of course I meant when they’re older, but when the tabloid article came out, the headline said, “Single mom-of-two reveals she is planning to buy vibrators for her daughters — aged EIGHT and ONE — so they can learn to have ‘mind-blowing, amazing sex.’”
The writer had asked me the ages of my daughters, and I’d told her, but asked her not to use their names. She had, predictably, done a bit of research, finding whatever she could to make the article more sensational, hiding what it was really about. I shook my head at her statements, which were totally out of context, and couldn’t help but peek at the comments.
“Take her kids into care!!!” one said. Others followed. The commenters were rallying for people to call Child Protective Services on me.
I knew and was completely confident that if CPS did call and ask me some questions, they’d find absolutely nothing to be worried about. I knew my kids would not be taken away. But I also knew they’d be required to do a full, thorough investigation.
The internet is rife with threats to call CPS on moms who write about parenting. But the truth is, it’s not a joke, and a call to CPS, no matter how ridiculous, often tears a family apart, sometimes literally. Kim Brooks’s viral essay on Salon describes how when people call the police on a parent, it is not taken lightly. “I felt guilty and ashamed,” she wrote. “I felt I’d put my child at risk for my own momentary convenience. I knew I wasn’t a terrible mother, but I’d done something terrible, dangerous, and now I’d suffer the consequences, go to court, pay legal fees, live with a criminal record.”
This is the other side of the story, the side the commenters don’t see.
One mom who spoke out on experiencing the CPS call said it was the worst experience of her adult life. Because of her prior experience, she asked me not to use her real name, so I’ll call her Jennifer. “The person who made the ‘anonymous tip’ cited a picture of my toddler daughter playing in the bathtub found on my Flickr account, and my sexual orientation (queer) as their ‘evidence,'” she wrote in an email interview. “The police were clear that they absolutely had to investigate all allegations of child abuse, especially physical, but that did not mean they were finding me guilty of this crime.”
Jennifer went on to describe an eight-month-long investigation. “The police were very clear with me about the allegations, which were outrageous — [that] I was having big sex parties and making my daughter watch, I forced her to watch pornography and I photographed her against her will. They told me this over the phone, and again in person when we met later.” Jennifer said they questioned her daughter, her daughter’s father and both of her daughter’s grandmothers.
“This investigation was awful on so many levels,” she wrote of the experience. “I was treated with respect by the police and by CPS, but the allegations were frightening, shaming and triggering. The fear of losing my daughter was overwhelming and exhausting. If the police had decided they thought I was capable of those awful things, she would have been removed from my care immediately. That constant threat infused my entire life with stress and anxiety. I had only come out as queer a year before this incident, so having my sexuality twisted to make me look like a predator was a level of hate and discrimination I’d never experienced before. I felt disgusting and wondered if maybe there was something wrong with me, maybe I was deviant somehow. And, to make the experience even more loaded, I am a survivor of pretty severe sexual abuse. Over a decade of my childhood was consumed by it. A lot of that came up for me during this investigation, and I experienced my first episode of clinical depression during this time. It lasted three years.”
That afternoon, after I saw the comments on the tabloid article, when the producers from the TV show called, their unrecognizable phone number made my heart race. I would have nightmares for a couple of weeks.
What angered me about this experience was that I’d obviously been profiled as a single mother. I often write about my experiences living in poverty, and being a survivor of domestic violence. The tabloid pointed all of these out. What did that have to do with anything? All it pointed to was “low class,” so the people commenting thought my kids should be taken away from me.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian recently about her experiences with internet trolls and how they crept into her real life in terrifying ways. She feared for her life at times, and the life of her child. In her article, she questioned her decision to use her real name in her bylines, and wondered if she would have been better off using a fake one. “I certainly could have spared myself and my family a lot of grief if I had written about feminism anonymously,” she wrote. “I wouldn’t have had to leave my house in a hurry, my 1-year-old daughter in tow, when authorities considered a particular threat credible and dangerous. I would never have listened to abusive voicemails or worried for my safety at public events.”
Even though I have yet to receive a death threat, or a threat that’s enough for me to call the authorities, the risk is always there. Knowing words I type to share my experiences and report on others’ could endanger me or my family does not make my job any more thrilling, but does show how vital it is to fight to change the stigmas surrounding women.
But what does that mean for the parents who write about their lives online? Sharing their personal lives, their stories of struggle to reach out and connect, now puts them at a serious risk of investigation. I refuse to live in fear. We need to share the grit, the moments of frustration and exhaustion, along with the joy and picture-perfect moments.
Parents, mothers, above all else, are humans, and winging it while doing our best. Perhaps the more that people see the ugly underbelly of parenting, the less they will become overly concerned and think of getting CPS involved when they don’t need to be — so they can focus on the unfortunate cases that really need them.
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