Mothers in America aren’t allowed to claim the elements of a good story online, and it’s hurting them in real life
I have a picture on my phone that I wish I could show you. It’s the kind of thing the internet is made for. Cute baby with rolls for days. There’s a fluffy cat involved. In my better moments, this picture makes me feel like I’m doing something right as a mother. I thought about posting it on Facebook. I even created a post. But I keep hitting cancel at the last minute. This has been going on for weeks.
You may think this hemming and hawing is a bit neurotic. And it is partly that. But it’s also a response to a devastating cultural double bind.
There is much tongue wagging about sharing pictures, stories, or any information online about children. At least weekly, a new article circulates on social media decrying these kinds of posts. One recent Forbes article summarizes the concerns: “…Technology coupled with parents’ behavior is increasingly putting children at risk for identity theft, humiliation, various privacy violations, future discrimination, and causing concern about developmental issues related to autonomy and consent.”
Yikes! What selfish person would expose their children to those potential harms?
Indeed, who is so selfish? The answer, of course, is right there in that indicting quote: Parents. Read between the lines and you can see what they mean to say is mothers.
But why? Why would mothers expose their children to those potential harms?
I found the answer in an unlikely place: A black box theater. I was at the theater, which is located inside my favorite bookstore, on an unusually cool mid-June evening. I had biked there from my house to hear Ocean Vuong talk about his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Nearly everything Mr. Vuong said that night was indeed gorgeous, but it was one of his simpler observations that grabbed me.
Mr. Vuong said that Western culture is built on Greco Roman storytelling. He noted that all of our books and all of our marketing and even all of our social fabric revolves around the elements of these stories. Greco Roman storytelling centers on the protagonist. In those stories, the protagonist desires some sort of goal and, through conflict and work, attains that goal.
It is natural then that mothers would want to cast their experiences in this framing, too. It is doubly natural, when 7 out of 10 U.S. adults are active on social media, that mothers would want to share their stories online. In fact, these platforms are almost entirely comprised of microstories that feature protagonists who exert effort to reach goals.
In this context, posting a photo is a way for mothers to be part of the social fabric, a normal and healthy wish. You may think that there are ways to do this, even online, that mitigate privacy risks to children — and you would be right. Children are vulnerable people, and it is important for our society to protect them from exploitation. And here’s where I would morph this essay into a listicle if that were all there is to it.
But it’s not all. The important thing, the critical thing, is that there is no avenue that is permissible for mothers to see what they do as worthy of story. This isn’t something to remedy with blurring faces on Instagram or crossing out the name of your child’s school on Facebook. Those are red herrings for the real issue: Mothers in America are not allowed to claim any of the elements of a good story, and it’s hurting them IRL.
The entire storytelling arc hinges on the existence of a protagonist — the hero, the lead, the one we’re rooting for. But mothers are not welcome to center themselves in this way.
Admittedly, it’s hard to want them to. Mothers care for children, and children (especially young ones) are incredibly cute. Cuteness has its own gravity and it pulls attention in a way that feels both pleasant and natural. It’s also true that children are not props; they are people. But then again so are mothers.
That may seem like an obvious sentence to write, but I feel I must take the time to do it. There is a peculiar and pervasive insistence that mothers give up some of the rights of people upon having children. Indeed, this stripping of rights is nearly instantaneous. After all, you cannot legally compel a person to give a part of their body so that someone else may live. Organ donation is not mandatory, even when it can save a life. But in many places in the world (not least of which are Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia) you can compel a woman to give whatever parts of herself are required to facilitate the transformation of embryonic cells into children. Perhaps mothers aren’t quite people, after all.
Perhaps they are something more. People do like to say things like “My mom was Wonder Woman!” or “My mother was a saint!” These cliches would be flattering if they weren’t also fundamentally dismissive. They supplant effort with magic. Moreover, these cliches and others like them use language to substitute an archetype for a real person. As if being a mother wasn’t an identity worth complimenting on its own. That a mother’s value is only unlocked when she is really someone else.
A Facebook photo, in this context, becomes evidence. A kind of proof of personhood. Two eyes, a nose, ten fingers. “Don’t you see,” the mother says, “I am a person; just like you.”
Mothers are also barred from the acknowledgement that what they do is effortful, an essential component of any hero’s journey. We seem to have decided that because mothers love their children, it isn’t really work to take care of them. It is a joy, yes. It is a blessing, of course. But it’s not work.
It is strange, really, this insistence that we cannot love our children and also find the work of raising them to be, well, work. These are not mutually exclusive concepts: Love and work. They are not even necessarily related. I could tell you that I love the color teal (I do), but that affinity really says nothing about whether or not I work on or with or for teal (I don’t). Likewise, if I told you that I once worked in local government (I did), you’d have no clear information about one way or the other about my affection for it (I’m not saying).
Here’s the thing: I know doctors and lawyers and software engineers who love medicine and law and coding. No one suggests that being a doctor, lawyer, or software engineer isn’t work. These things are understood.
The difference, of course, is that all of those positions are paid, and motherhood isn’t. As Cinzia Arrizabalaga, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser write in their book, Feminism for the 99%, “Because [capitalism] avoids paying for this work to the extent that it can, while treating money as the be-all and end-all, it relegate those who perform social-reproductive labor [e.g., mothering] to a position of subordination — not only to the owners of capital, but also to those more advantaged waged workers who can offload the responsibility for it onto others.” Because it is unpaid, the work of motherhood is not recognized; it is not allowed to take up space.
It falls on women, then, to make maternal labor appear smaller. Don’t post, don’t tell. This shrinking from view calls to mind the way that Diet Culture conspires to keep women occupied with making their bodies appear smaller. This smallness is more pleasing, more aesthetic. It is also, in both cases, a way to minimize and control women.
As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” The virality of articles about whether photos of kids should be shared on social media is not evidence of a culture obsessed with children’s safety — if it were, U.S. lawmakers would do something about school shootings. No, it is evidence of a culture obsessed with controlling female behavior.
What about a goal then? Do mothers at least get that? If obituaries and Hallmark cards are to be believed, the goal is to be called a “devoted mother.” It’s a phrase so common as to seem meaningless. But the words do have meaning.
The first definition for “devote” in The American Heritage Dictionary is to apply oneself entirely to a particular activity, pursuit, cause, or person. The phrase “devoted mother” is commonplace because it is the norm. Mothers are expected to apply themselves entirely to mothering, and many of us do.
The problem is that the attainment of that goal is obliterating: Mothers apply themselves so thoroughly that many of us are worn thin to the point of transparence. This degree of application renders invisible mothers, their efforts, and their goals — all three.
I am not suggesting that we, as mothers, should go into a social media posting frenzy. There are meaningful ramifications to children’s privacy and autonomy to consider. But I do suggest that we, as a culture, should consider why we are so keen for mothers to erase themselves from the story.
This essay has also appeared on Medium