Writing About Family Life on Twitter: Where’s the Line? — Episode #184 with James Breakwell
Professional comedy writer James Breakwell has a few rules when it comes to writing about his kids online.
Growing up, James Breakwell never had to think about what jobs he wasn’t allowed to pursue. But now, as the father of four girls — one of whom recently said she wants to be a construction worker, and another who asked if she could be the Pope — he’s put himself in the shoes of the females surrounding him at home.
Breakwell is an author and the internet personality behind the popular Twitter account @XplodingUnicorn, a hilarious parenting account with more than one million followers, and has been featured as one of the top bloggers across multiple media outlets. James is best known for his viral tweets depicting hilarious snippets of conversations with his daughters.
In this interview with our first-ever startup dad to join the show, James gets real about how he navigates building a public persona based on his family life — including how much to share and what to withhold.
He isn’t opposed to distributing pictures of his kids. But in his writing, he uses pseudonyms for each daughter so that random people can’t Google them and figure out where they go to school or live. Though photos aren’t off limits, he says he’s careful to omit identifying information like street signs.
When creating content based on his home life, James thinks about the world he creates on Twitter like “a made-for-TV movie based on real-life events.” He explains, “the things happened, but they’re a step removed … they’re punched up, there’s drama added, there’s humor added.” In other words, it’s not 100% real, but it’s based loosely on real-life.
Another distinction: “It’s like these tweets are about us. But they’re not us.”
“It’s like these tweets are about us. But they’re not us.”
James Breakwell with three of his daughters. Photograph from James Breakwell/Buzzfeed, 2016.
Creating a professional writing career is not always simple or easy
In this episode, we also talk about his career as a writer and how he’s navigated the field of journalism as jobs shrink and newspapers go under around the country. Plus, he talks about having a day job, and why it’s so important to have a job in his field—and why it allows him the creative freedom he needs to do all the work he does. We call him a startup dad because he’s navigating a full-time career with a professional writing career that he’s had to create from the ground up. In our world, building something from nothing is part of the entrepreneurial ethos.
He also opens up about having a stillborn baby, how it affected him, and how as a child, James also had a brother who passed away shortly after birth. We talk about what it’s like to have more kids than it appears at first glance, and how hard it was to go through for him and his family—and how the family coped without a support network nearby.
Tune in to Episode #168 to learn how James and his wife, Lola, got through that difficult period, what a typical day looks like in their household, and how he built a writing career that complements his family life and parenting responsibilities.
Writing About Your Family on Twitter: Where’s the Line? — Comedy Writer James Breakwell, aka Xploding Unicorn
The Startup Parent Podcast — Episode #184
Here are some of his latest laugh-out-loud Twitter moments about parenting his four kids:
Me: Get dressed.
7-year-old: You tell me that every day.
Me: You're supposed to do it every day.
7: You're asking too much.
— James Breakwell, Exploding Unicorn (@XplodingUnicorn) June 23, 2021
My rule for the kids used to be "keep your hands to yourself."
Now it's "hands, feet, and bodily fluids."
I can't wait to see what gets added tomorrow.
— James Breakwell, Exploding Unicorn (@XplodingUnicorn) June 15, 2021
3-year-old daughter: Will I have a baby in my belly someday?
Me: If you want to.
3: No thanks. That's where I put my candy.
— James Breakwell, Exploding Unicorn (@XplodingUnicorn) April 5, 2016
Excerpts from a transcript of the conversation
Follow your dreams, but do it smartly so you can support your family
“I think that the biggest tip I can give to anybody who’s chasing their dreams is don’t quit your day job. And that sounds like terrible, mean advice like, well, you don’t believe in me, but it’s like, no, I’m telling you not to quit your day job because I do believe in you. Because if you quit your day job, you’ve given yourself a deadline, you’re gonna run out of money, you’re not gonna be able to pay your bills, you’re not gonna be able to get food, your partner is going to get fed up with you, your kids aren’t going to get the support they need. Keep that day job. … Keep at it so you can support yourself so you give yourself enough runway to really take off. If you give yourself That artificial constraint, you’re just giving yourself an excuse to quit.”
Multitasking is any parent’s best friend, but especially a startup parent
“My secret is that I double everything up. So like, for example, I go to the gym in the morning. And this, this is the greatest multitasking thing I’ve ever done. … when I am in my writing process, that’s when I do my editing, especially once things are a little more polished, a little closer. What happens is I use a voice-to-text thing, and I have it read back to me. So I went to the gym, and the whole time I was at the gym, I was actually editing my book because I had my phone reading this 90,000 word manuscript back to me at triple speed. … I do the similar thing with my kids, I’m hanging out with my kids, but I’m also selfishly mining them for material, like what things do you want to say or do that are going to inspire this tweet or this newsletter.”
As your internet presence grows, safety for your family comes into sharper focus
“I realized we needed to figure out what we were going to do about the kids. Now, some people won’t share pictures of their children at all, but they’ll use their real names. I went the opposite way because honestly, all little kids kind of look the same. Like I’d go pick them up from daycare in the old days, and I was always lucky if I came home with the right ones … so that part didn’t concern me, I just wanted it, you know, in practical terms, for people not to be able to Google their real names and find where they go to school and find their home address. So that’s why we came up with pseudonyms for all the kids. And we try, when we take pictures, to make sure not to show stuff, like don’t show street signs or things like that.”
It’s important—as someone with a platform—to discuss the lowest moments
“Our firstborn was stillborn. And then growing up, we had a similar instance, where my mom lost a baby, my brother, just after a few hours, and we saw it coming ahead of time. And it was really very traumatic, it was a very hard time for the family. And that’s not something that is easy to talk about, as you know, we always say we have four kids, because that’s the socially acceptable answer. Because if you say you have five kids, and they can only see four, they’re gonna ask ‘where’s the fifth one?’ And that’s not really a conversation you want to have with random acquaintances all the time, to bring up it’s not the socially acceptable way to do that. And then at the same time, I turned around, and I now disclose that story in a book. … when you start talking about it, you realize how many other people have had this exact same experience.”
On navigating the gender spectrum as kids grow
“I think below a certain age kids are more or less androgynous. The way you raise a boy and the way you raise a girl, people say, well, boys are like this, or girls are like that. I don’t know that that’s really the case. People will say girls are quiet, but my girls are not quiet at all. … But you know, as they get older, there are those more defined gender roles. And every once in a while, there’ll be a moment like, Oh, I guess things are different, like, when we get ready to go out to some big formal event or wedding or something like that, it takes me 30 seconds to get ready. And then I’ll go and check on the kids and they’ve got you know, 95 parts to their dresses that have to go on. … So it’s been a process watching them kind of grow into that. And at the same time, it’s interesting to see what interests they pick up naturally … they all kind of have their moments where they seem to fit traditional gender roles, and they have moments where they completely defy them.”
It’s 2021 — dads shouldn’t be assumed to be the ‘sidekick’
“It’s like, well, ‘moms do it this way and dads do it that way,’ and I think especially now that both parents work, I just don’t know that that’s the case so much. … now things are so fluid. So now, at the moment, I’m working from home, and my wife isn’t, so I’m basically a stay-at-home Dad, you know, all summer, it’s going to be me and the kids home and all the breaks, I’m the one who picks them up and drops them off. I’m the one who takes them to all the doctor’s appointments and the sports things. It’s just because I’ve got that flexibility. So I’d say it’s important just not to make the assumption that the dad is the sidekick or that they’re the secondary caregiver. And I know that dynamic still plays itself out. And it probably plays itself out more than it should. And that’s a place that men could do better. But it doesn’t always play itself out.”
James Breakwell with his family, 2021. Photograph from James Breakwell/Twitter.
Takeaways from this episode
📌 On writing six books and editing them between family, work, and workouts: audio is great for being productive while doing other things
“My secret is that I double everything up,” says James, who manages to write a 2,000 word newsletter every week while keeping up with home and childcare responsibilities.
For example, James listened to the manuscript for one of his books while he was at the gym. He had a text-to-voice tool read it back to him while working out and he’d make edits if he heard something that didn’t sound right. He’s able to keep reading new material because he listens to audiobooks while doing household chores. He says audio has been a “gamechanger” since it enables him to do two things at once.
📌 Create boundaries that enable you to align priorities for your work life and your home life
Going viral on Twitter and maintaining that following is one challenge, but another that comes along with it is figuring out how to keep your family safe the more recognizable you become.
Perhaps the two biggest boundaries James has set are avoiding using any of his children’s real names online (they all have pseudonyms instead) — because he doesn’t want anybody to be able to look them up — and not disclosing his day job, which is his primary income stream. He prefers to keep the job seperate from his book, Twitter and newsletter writing.
📌 Incorporate your family in your work life — as long as there’s a shared understanding of how that works
There’s an interesting crossover between work and family life for parents who work online and grow an audience — and that blend can easily become a negative experience if everyone isn’t on the same page.
James says he’s very clear with his daughters and explains that a big part of his work is sharing stories about them, but that doesn’t define them, and at the end of the day they’re not sharing every intimate detail of their daily lives.
His girls have actually gotten so used to him pulling out his phone to record them doing something silly, for example, that they’ll automatically start calling one another by their fake names because they know dad’s phone is out so he can use it for work, and that it’s OK to amp up the stage presence.
FEATURED STARTUP PARENT
James Breakwell, Internet Comedy Writer, Father, @XplodingUnicorn
👱🏼 Name: James Breakwell
💡 What he does: James (he/his) is the father of four girls, a professional comedy writer, a newsletter writer, and the internet personality behind the popular Twitter account @XplodingUnicorn which features family humor and daily laughs about parenting his kids.
He’s written and published six books, including the most recent one: “How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means): Lessons in Masculinity from a Questionable Source.”
Writing About Your Family on Twitter: Where’s the Line? — Comedy Writer James Breakwell, aka Xploding Unicorn
The Startup Parent Podcast — Episode #184
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