Last week, I wrote a story about Maternal Mental Health Week and how it’s easy to judge ourselves based on other people’s online highlight reels. It’s been well-documented: Social media can summon the more troubled forces of our nature: narcissism, anxiety and depression, to name a few.
Not long after that, I got a note from a mom who told me how demoralizing it is for postpartum parents to wade into social media and see photos of kids, adorably dressed, cherub-cheeked and cleverly hash-tagged. Every weekend looks like a carnival; every day looks curated from a Pottery Barn Kids catalogue. Even the woe-is-me jokes seem blissful: “Another crazy day! Hector scribbled on the walls again! Mommy needs wine! #thestruggleisreal.” We’re all in this together, except when there’s nobody to drink wine with, our kids are in stained sweats from Old Navy and we feel completely alone.
On the other hand, photos can frame our kids (and ourselves) in unexpected lights that add depth and nuance to our relationships. Just check out this recent New York Times story about an author who solicited calls for photos of mothers before they became moms on social media. Who is that person? What did she do, what did she care about, before she cared about you? By the same token: Who is your child, if not your kid? Does social media help us answer that? As parents, we reflect slivers of ourselves onto our children. Couldn’t they do the same back to us? And isn’t that awesome?
Which led me to wonder why we post about our kids in the first place. To be fair, I started with myself. I guess, for me, I’m naturally a writer, and so posting feels like an intuitive extension of the stuff I already write about. It’s a way to share my work, to swap puns, to post funny anecdotes that maybe didn’t make it into one of my stories and to keep up with friends. It feels natural. (On the other hand, I’m not a photographer, which is probably why I post far more often on Facebook than on Instagram, which I find stressful and confusing. I know: #firstworldproblem.)
Posting is also simply a way to feel connected, the 21st-century version of a playdate. Nobody’s home much anymore, but we’re on social media. Which is a slippery slope: Every family can be a brand, if they crave that. Every moment can be staged; every comment can be edited. It’s the modern equivalent of only letting friends come over if your house is scrubbed clean. Is this kind of edited intimacy bringing us closer together, or toying with the darker forces of our nature to drive us further apart?
Then I asked my parent network why they post (I posed my question on Facebook, of course), if likes help to validate them, if they feel upset when nobody likes their photos and how it’s affected their behavior when chronicling parenthood.
No joke, probably 50 people messaged me in 10 minutes. By the next day, I had hundreds of replies. Clearly, I’d struck a nerve. Some people refuse to post any photos of their kids whatsoever for the sake of their privacy and dignity. Others post daily to connect with family, to cement their place in the world, to commiserate with others and to keep a visual record of their kids’ childhoods. For some, social media is reassuringly wonderful and personally gratifying. For others, it’s alienating and undermining.
Here are their thoughts. I’d love to hear yours in the comments!
On image management
“I rarely post images of my kids or family life in general. And having a son on the spectrum and another with learning disabilities, nothing brings me down more than when people post photos of their kids reading or crafting, or something that makes them appear to be a ‘better parent’ or a ‘perfect mommy.’ It’s such bull. You can’t tell me those kids aren’t begging for screen time just like any other kid these days. It’s kind of like how women really dress and care about their appearance more for other women than for men, actually.”
“A couple times, after posting publicly, I’ve reevaluated the post and perhaps taken it down if I feel like it’s not [something] that others may like for any reason, perhaps if I feel like it comes off as bragging or complaining, when I didn’t intend to.”
“I am a proud parent of an only child who is captivating, empathetic, caring and loving. I want to scream and share photos of her everyday life, how proud I am of her accomplishments, funny daily events, et cetera. Instead, I let her know how her hard work has been paying off. I don’t want to make people feel guilty for the level of development of their child. I’m a teacher, and I see children her age way ahead of her in some areas and others way behind. Parenting is tough enough. I deeply care for this generation where teens are giving up to pressure and killing themselves. May the pressure not start at home with little acts such as taking the ‘perfect picture.'”
On social media and self-esteem
“There are some perverse incentives at work. Although I’d generally rather not post that much about my kid, those posts are the ones that get the most likes, by far. Sometimes I have this weird feeling that I’m succumbing to market forces and my own anxious desire to be liked when I post photos of him. Which feels weird! And I think it’s another reason I sort of try to ration the posting. I am maybe overthinking this a bit?”
“You’re publicizing your life to be appreciated by people. Esteem is wrapped up tightly (unhealthily, sometimes) in that. A thumbs-up in public can mean too much. On social media, I don’t think people share to feel bad about themselves; we are seeking approval quite blatantly. Liking posts is positive feedback, with any combination of that being on you, your family, home, life choices, design sense, photo editing ability, neighborhood, education. That said, I try to share honestly, and I’ve had good friends say that I have a perfect life and nothing to complain about, which is neither true nor fair. Life should not be gauged by the quality and content of one’s posts. Real friendship happens when your friend is in your messy house, the kids are hollering, and you can laugh about your failure to launch sometimes.”
“We maybe post three pictures of [our daughter] a month. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. We take pictures of her, but it’s for us to print out, share with family and look back on as memories. I don’t do it to try to show off or compete with others. I feel like the ones that are truly happy are the ones who limit their social media exposure.”
“We keep pictures of our son off of social media. It just seems like click-bait in my opinion, using your child for the self esteem boost of ‘likes,’ which is bizarre to me. The saddest thing is studies show when the child turns 2, there’s a substantial drop in posting on social media because of parents realizing their child is a whole person with opinions.”
On social media as performance art
“I post so I can laugh instead of cry! Also, to be honest, to get a laugh. Or to entertain friends who I know are also struggling with day-to-day parenting. I often have people say, and I know they mean this in the nicest way, ‘Your posts make me feel so much better about my parenting.’ So there’s the temptation to make [my son] look like even more of a maniac than he is, and my daughter to be even more of a smart-mouth.”
“I share photos on social media either to be cute for remote family (lots in Ireland, including my mom, so that’s my first motivation). I also strive to portray a real sense of what parenting is like: exhausting, exhilarating, hilarious, rewarding, demoralizing. I try to post things that reflect it all. Sometimes I’m surprised if I get a lot of likes, but I usually get a bunch of family liking and laughing. I really want to make all parents I know feel they can relate and if things are hard that it’s OK. I’m a postpartum doula, so I work with a lot of new moms, and I see that they all feel everyone else has an easier time from their highlight reel. So I stray from that reel. And usually the honest and funny ones get the most likes. I definitely take more funny or interesting photos than portraits because of social media.”
On respecting your child’s boundaries
“As my kids have grown, I have become more and more vigilant of only posting things that cast my kids in a positive light. I have a friend who regularly posts about how her kids are misbehaving, and that has never sat well with me. Everyone knows kids misbehave sometimes. It doesn’t need to be etched in the memory of the internet forever.”
“The main reason I don’t [post photos of my kids much] is that I read something once about how it’s also not fair to the kids for parents to broadcast their lives. You’re leaving a digital footprint without their permission.”
On being sensitive
“A large majority of my friends are childless, so I’ve lost touch. However, I don’t know who is childless by choice, and who isn’t (since most are past their childrearing years). When I don’t get many likes I think, ‘Oh, no, I’m being insensitive. My childless friends don’t want to see this.’ And then I go into hiding and isolate myself further and further away from my once-close friends.”
“I don’t post much because I am sensitive of others. Not everyone can have kids, or perhaps they’re going through something personal and my happiness may make them feel worse.”
On having a healthy perspective
“I try to post sparingly, as I know not everyone thinks my kid is as cool as I do, but I find that versus what I used to post, my babe is the hugest part of my life so she ends up being front and center. We stage once in a while, when we think it’s content others would enjoy. I don’t really care about likes, but I think that if you post interesting ones, people usually respond, and I do the same. I look at my own feed and it makes me smile, and I guess that’s the point!”
“I don’t have many friends on either Facebook or Instagram: about 200 or less on each. And the ones who don’t want to see and love my kid are welcome to unfollow and unfriend! I’m almost five months into motherhood and don’t want to forget or miss a thing because it’s going, and she’s growing, so fast. I love scrolling through and seeing how she’s changed. It’s totally for me, for my family and close (or far) friends who want to see her too or don’t get to see her too often. I think staging pics is super fun, but I also think the boring, mundane or most candid ones are special, too.”
On staying connected
“[With social media], my adopted son’s birth mother can have a glimpse into his life. It does make me happy on the rare occasion when she likes or comments on something.”
“I post photos so my friends and relatives who don’t see my kids often are able to enjoy seeing them. I could care less how many ‘likes’ I get. The only thing that I appreciate about seeing who liked a photo of them is knowing that the people who have asked me for pics of the kids are actually, in fact, seeing them.”
“When someone likes a photo, it reinforces that they care about my kids and their well-being. That said, I don’t think poorly of anyone who doesn’t ‘like’ a picture. I don’t even notice it, honestly. In some cases, a ‘like’ indicates that a friend is or has experienced a similar kid-moment, which reinforces a sense of community among friends and parents.”
The bottom line?
As one dad told me, “It’s all about image-crafting, of course, to show the world that my family is perfect in every way and that others should feel jelly!”
He was kidding, of course. Or was he? It was on social media, so I can’t be 100 percent sure.