OK, not really. But a friend posted a link to an article called “Disappearing Mothers” on her Facebook page yesterday, and wanted to know how other parents felt about it. I posted a comment in reply, but found myself going back repeatedly to either edit what I’d said, or add more to what I’d said (thank you, Facebook ‘Edit’ feature!). At that point it occurred to me that clearly I have some feelings about this issue. And what better place for feelings than a blog with a regular readership of three? So here is a link to the article:
And here are my feelings about it—let’s break the article down bit by bit, shall we?
If, from beyond the grave, Betty Friedan were to review the Facebook habits of the over-30 set, I am afraid she would be very disappointed in us. By this I mean specifically the trend of women using photographs of their children instead of themselves as the main picture on their Facebook profiles. You click on a friend’s name and what comes into focus is not a photograph of her face, but a sleeping blond four-year-old, or a sun-hatted toddler running on the beach. Here, harmlessly embedded in one of our favourite methods of procrastination, is a potent symbol for the new century. Where have all of these women gone? What, some earnest future historian may very well ask, do all of these babies on our Facebook pages say about “the construction of women’s identity” at this particular moment in time?
My guess is that this hypothetical future historian will likely think just as much about “the construction of men’s identity,” at least if s/he encounters both my and SkipFitz’s Facebook pages, because my husband is just as likely, if not more so, to substitute our son’s face for his in his FB profile photo. Now, don’t get me wrong; I can certainly see the value of using my own photo on my Facebook page, rather than one of my child, for practical reasons (how else is my 7th-grade boyfriend going to know it’s me when he looks up my profile?) but I hardly think it’s crucial to the maintenance of a healthy identity. What about someone who uses a photo of his or her cat/favorite painting/favorite photo of Alfred Hitchcock? Is that just as bad? Does it imply that one identifies oneself as Alfred Hitchcock (or worse . . . a cat)?
Many of these women work. Many of them are in book clubs. Many of them are involved in causes, or have interests that take them out of the house. But this is how they choose to represent themselves.
Why is a book club, job, or stint as President of the Tax the Churches League a better representation of a woman’s identity than her relationship with her child (a person who in some cases shot straight out of her cooch)—arguably a bigger part of her everyday life than most other things? I agree that a parent (of any gender) should have various interests in addition to his or her children, but ultimately, I don’t see any single one of them serving as a better or more worthy representation of a person.
The choice may seem trivial, but the whole idea behind Facebook is to create a social persona, an image of who you are projected into hundreds of bedrooms and cafés and offices across the country. Why would that image be of someone else, however closely bound they are to your life, genetically and otherwise? The choice seems to constitute a retreat to an older form of identity, to a time when fresh-scrubbed Vassar girls were losing their minds amidst vacuum cleaners and sandboxes. Which is not to say that I don’t understand the temptation to put a photograph of your beautiful child on Facebook, because I do. After all, it frees you of the burden of looking halfway decent for a picture, and of the whole excruciating business of being yourself. Your three-year-old likes being in front of the camera. But still.
OK, seriously? It’s Facebook. Yes, you’re creating a social persona, and the choices you make (the status updates you write, the links you share, the photos you post) all serve primarily to define that persona for your audience of “Friends”—but does anybody for a second think that a profile photo is the sum total of who a person is? Do we really lack such imagination that we can’t handle this one little piece of a person’s Facebook identity being anything aside from a literal rendering of that person’s actual face?
These Facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement, a narrowing of worlds. Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman.
Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk … about … what? A book? A movie? Something in the news? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigour and analytical depth and verve she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her four-year-old. But still.
How does drinking until 5 a.m. constitute “brilliant” and “accomplished”? The Proust part, sure; but what if that same friend spent the same dinner party talking about nothing but Proust? She’d likely come across as a pedantic schmuck who was still clinging to her college laurels, even though they’d grown dry and crusty and carried the faint scent of mildew. Although I agree that talking for an entire evening about one’s child(ren) is in poor taste, I’d argue that talking exclusively about any one thing during a dinner party makes you pretty bad company, and that “a narrowing of worlds” can happen with regard to any singular focus. My thing is that whatever you’re talking about should be engaging for both you and your interlocutor. If it is, you’re golden, no matter what the topic.
You notice that at another, livelier corner of the table the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be an Austen or Trollope novel, where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child. Are we all sometimes that woman? A little kid-talk is fine, of course, but wasn’t there a time when we were interested, also, in something else?
Huh. Looks like I’m attending the wrong parties, then, because when Skip and I get together with our friends (with kids), join our hands and step into our own version of an Austen novel (because I do agree that once we’ve all left the dinner table, the conversational circles that form do tend to be gender-based—but I ain’t nobody’s Trollope), the fellas are just as likely to be talking about the kids. Sometimes moreso, in fact: often after the party’s over and Skip and I are having our post-party debrief, he has gleaned much more information about our friends’ kids from the Dad Discussion than I have from the Meetin’ in the Ladies’ Room. So I think there are some unfair and untrue assumptions being made, here—either that, or this gal needs some new friends . . .
The mystery here is that the woman with the baby on her Facebook page has surely read The Feminine Mystique, or The Second Sex, or The Beauty Myth, or the websites DoubleX or Jezebel. She is no stranger to the smart talk of whatever wave of feminism we are on, and yet this style of effacement, this voluntary loss of self, comes naturally to her. Here is my pretty family, she seems to be saying, I don’t matter any more.
Or maybe she’s saying, “Dude. Is my family the shizz-nit or WHAT? I mean, LOOK AT THEM. I did this bizness, yo. I friggin’ ROCK.” (And I’m sorry, reading that paragraph just makes me think of Terri Gar as Sandy in the movie Tootsie: “I don’t care about I love you! I read The Second Sex! I read The Cinderella Complex! I’m responsible for my own orgasms!”)
I have a friend whose daughter for a very long time wore squeaky sneakers. These sneakers emitted what was to adult ears an unbelievably annoying squeak with every single step she took. I asked my friend once why she put up with the sneakers, and she said, “Because she likes them!” Imagine being in this new generation, discovering with every joyous squeak of your sneakers that Galileo was wrong: the sun is not the centre of the universe, you are!
Our parents, I can’t help thinking, would never have tolerated the squeaky sneakers, or conversations revolving entirely around children. They loved us as much and as ardently as we love our children, but they had their own lives, as I remember it, and we played around the margins. They did not plan weekend days solely around children’s concerts and art lessons and piano lessons and birthday parties.
Why, many of us wonder, don’t our children play on their own? Why do they lack the inner resources that we seem to remember, dimly, from our own childhoods? The answer seems clear: because, with all good intentions, we have over-devoted ourselves to our children’s education and entertainment and general formation. Because we have chipped away at the idea of independent adult life, of letting children dream up a place for themselves, in their rooms, on the carpets, in our gardens, on their own.
OK, here I totally agree; not that I’m not guilty of placing my gorgeous boy on a pedestal every once in awhile, and it’s true that SkipFitz and I attend a damn lotta birthday parties, play dates, and activities designed to be fun for our child. (I mean, he is part of our family, after all; he gets a vote. Our votes trump his, sure, but we do consider him (as we do each other) when we make decisions about how to spend our time.) We are also, however, the parents who teach our son to say, “Excuse me, please” if we’re talking to each other or to other people and he wishes to interrupt. (We’re also trying to teach him that he should only interrupt if it’s important, but “important” is a tough notion for a 4-year-old to grasp, so quite often, his “Excuse me, please” is followed—after confirmation that yes, it IS important—by “I just saw a muscle car!” or “How do you make cotton candy?”) We’re the parents who are teaching him to be polite and considerate of others in restaurants, movie theatres, and bookstores (which even some adults haven’t learned, as we all know). Are we perfect parents? Not by any means, and quite often we make the wrong damn call. But we do try our best to raise a child who realizes that neither his immediate world, nor the world at large, revolves around him. And by the way, those playdates? Quite frankly, they’re not really about my kid at all. They’re pretty much all about me. And wine.
Facebook, of course, traffics in exhibitionism: it is a way of presenting your life, at least those sides of it you cherry-pick for the outside world, for show. One’s children are an important achievement, and arguably one’s most important achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they are who you are. It could, of course, be argued that the vanity of a younger generation, with their status postings on what kind of tea they are drinking, represents a worse or more sinister kind of narcissism. But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self, is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a photo of one’s child simply means “I think my kid is pretty cute.”
Facebook was pioneered for a younger generation, of course. It lends itself naturally to strangers who run into each other at parties and flirtations struck up in bars. Part of what is disturbing about this substitution is how clearly and deliberately it subverts that purpose: this generation leaches itself of sexuality by putting the innocent face of a child in the place of an attractive mother. It telegraphs a discomfort with even a minimal level of vanity. Like wearing sneakers every day or forgetting to cut your hair, it is a way of being dowdy and invisible, and it mirrors a certain mummy culture in which it’s almost a point of pride how little remains of the healthy, worldly, engaged and preening self.
OK, I have all kinds of problems here. I may as well itemize:
- Um, is it really so bad to subvert the purpose of Facebook—especially if said purpose (purportedly) revolves around flirting in bars?
- Though my husband, who has seen some of my most cherished underwear, might argue that my sole goal in life is to leach myself of sexuality, I’m not sure that’s even possible for a person to do without straight-up removing his or her genitals. Furthermore, I disagree with the notion that using a photo of one’s child on FB is a “clear and deliberate” subversion of sexuality. First of all, let us not forget that sex is one of the main ways to make children. The mere fact of having a child, in many cases, basically means you put out. Even if your child was conceived via IVF, turkey baster, people you’ve never even met, or some other means (and as tempting as it is, let’s not bring Todd Akin into this discussion), it’s probably fair to say that you have put out at some point, or at the very least that you don’t hate the idea. This whole argument smells weirdly of the whole Madonna/Whore dichotomy, like sexuality and children are mutually exclusive. (Obvious disclaimer: NO WAY IN HELL am I advocating the integration of the two in the manner of Jerry Sandusky—but I would still say that sex and children are related concepts.) And besides—even if a woman DOES choose to “leach herself of sexuality” by way of her Facebook profile picture (whether by posting a photo of her child, or of herself clad in fencing gear, a Richard Nixon Halloween costume, or my favorite underwear)—so what? Is the author implying that open displays of sexuality and vanity are the only means by which a woman can/should express herself?
- As far as “putting the innocent face of a child in the place of an attractive mother” . . . Well. Show of hands: who here thinks ALL mothers are attractive? Beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder (can I get a witness?), so I’d venture to say that nearly everyone is attractive to SOMEONE (as it should be). But if you honestly think that being (a) a mother, and/or (b) a woman automatically makes a person attractive in any sort of general sense, you must not watch much reality TV (which is also as it should be, but still, you should really get out more).
- I just can’t get comfortable with what the author seems to be implying with this whole paragraph, which is that a woman is somehow less of a woman, or is failing to adequately express herself as a woman, if she fails to wear cute shoes (as opposed to “sneakers every day”), make regular visits to the hairdresser, and get herself all preened up. (For the record, I’ve been known to go years without a haircut, and while I wouldn’t advise it, I resent the idea that I’m less “hot” (which apparently equals “less female”) because of it. Also, I don’t wear makeup. I know, right? I’m practically John Holmes swingin’ it up in here. Watch out lest I spin around too quickly.) I realize (or I think, anyway) that what she’s getting at here is that you should think you’re beautiful enough to use your own picture on your FB page—not a photo of your child. But I’m here to tell you that I think I’m a total hot tamale (hel-LO-oh, does the name InstaPrincess tell you NOTHING?)—and any “failure” of mine to use my own face on my page does not diminish or negate that fact, but rather is merely an indication that I’ve lucked upon a photo of my (equally beautiful) child that I really, really like and want to share. As soon as someone takes another awesome photo of me that I feel trumps the kid photo, I’ll update.
What if Facebook pages are only the beginning? What if passports and driver’s licences are next? What if suddenly the faces of a generation were to disappear, and in their places were beaming toddlers? Who will mourn these vanished ladies, and when will Betty Friedan rest in peace?
Weren’t Betty and her cohorts fighting for women to have more freedom? Including, one might suppose, the freedom to express themselves however they might choose? Would it really help Ms. Friedan rest more peacefully knowing that women are being told that their only choice for proper self-expression is to set their sneakers ablaze, shove their “girls” into push-up bras, and smile for the webcam? The irony burns.
Now. Here is why you can take what I’m saying with a grain of salt:
- You can pretty much take anything with a grain of salt. In fact, you should probably take most things with a grain of salt, except then you’d get all bloated and unattractive which, if you’re a woman, might cause you to grow a penis, depending on what shoes you’re wearing.
- Confession: I did not plan to have children. Liked (some of) the ones other people had, but did not want them for myself. When I realized, based on the prophetic powers of my urine combined with a small plastic stick, that I was going to have a kid, I knew that I was going to want to talk about it obsessively—because that’s what I do when something (big or small) happens to me. So I started a club. Not officially, of course—there are no dues or secret handshakes—but I just started inviting other people who had recently become parents to bring their kids to my house and hang out with me. In order to seem less transparently needy and desperate, I called them play dates (and sometimes even came up with a cute theme or activity for the kids, like a bug hunt or a backyard movie) but seeing as I started hosting them before any of the kids in question could move or even see more than a foot ahead, let’s be real: they were (and are) all about finding an appropriate audience for my endless blather about parenthood—and happily offering full reciprocation (and booze!) in return. Yes, I work outside the home. Yes, I read books. Yes, I enjoy running, reading, yoga, and pretending to be Sheila E. But dammit, sometimes I just wanted to talk about my nipples and the things I found in my son’s diaper (and know that I wasn’t alone in my horror over what happens when you feed a toddler too many blueberries)—or, lately, the hilarious things he says* and the sheer insanity that ensues when you’re trying to choose a good day care facility. Doing this makes it possible for me to engage socially at other times with people who don’t want to hear ALLLLL about my kid. But for the record, I could conceivably be one of those dinner-party boors.
- I do have a particular aversion to the idea that certain interests/topics of conversation somehow trump others when it comes to Living a Life Worthwhile. And it’s a hill on which I’ve been dying for quite some time. When I was in my late 20s, I spent every Friday night at my mom’s house; we ate bad food, watched worse TV, and chatted about whatever random topics struck us as worthy of discussion. Inevitably, the end of the week would roll around; one or another of my friends would invite me somewhere on a Friday night and, upon being turned down, give me a hard time about it, insisting that I should be out LIVING! Discussing literature over wine! Checking out this or that new band! Doing tequila shots and grinding up against my girlfriends on the dance floor! Etc.! LIVING! Etc.! Not lying around in my PJs with my mom! But . . . why? Why is a drunken argument about Infinite Jest or getting my butt rubbed by a tipsy “WOO-girl” while Sir Mix-a-Lot booms at a deafening volume somehow better “living” than spending time with someone I love? I have never understood that. So my feelings on this particular issue may be somewhat biased, owing to years of self-defense against those who judge me for how I choose to spend my free time.
- Confession #2: I would love to be a SAHM. Well, OK, not a stay-at-home MOM, exactly, because dude, my kid is four. People talk about the Terrible Twos, but honestly, I feel like the amount of time I’m able to tolerate unlimited exposure to him is inversely proportional to his age (a trend I’m sure will reverse at some point, but so far I feel like I was a much more patient Baby Mama than I am as the mother of the 4-and-a-half year-old Endless Inquisitor With Attitude that he’s become). So ideally, I’d get to take him to preschool about three days a week, and spend that precious time writing, cooking, and cleaning. That’s right; I LOVE TO COOK AND CLEAN. In fact, recently SkipFitz was considering applying for a (pretty lucrative) job that would have taken him out of town three whole days a week; and while I was initially hesitant about the whole situation (contrary to what he believes, I do like having him around most of the time), it didn’t take long for the fantasies to kick in about quitting my job and spending my days organizing our pantry, vacuuming closets, shining my husband’s dress shoes (oh, yes—I make a mean bootblack, Baby) and planning and preparing five-star meals for his weekends at home. And OK—maybe spending a couple of summer afternoons a week at the pool with the boy . . . but I digress.) The point is that one could perceive me and my love affair with Mr. Clean as about the most anti-feminist sentiment there is. I still maintain that feminism is simply about women being able to choose—their lifestyles, their careers, their healthcare options, what they do for fun, their shoes, and for God’s sake, their Facebook profile photos—for themselves. But your mileage may vary.
And, in the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
*Last weekend, the boy, his father, and I spent the day at a local amusement park. This was the boy’s first visit wherein he was tall enough to eschew the super-duper-slow-moving kiddie rides and enjoy some of the more intermediate rides (with an adult). After he and his father exited a ride most frequently known as the Octopus, I asked him if it had been fun; he informed me (LOUDLY) that it had “made all the air come out of [his] penis.” I’ve been looking for a way to work that into this blog, because come on; that is poetry, right there.