parenting-while-feminist book sneak peeks!: of Facebook updates and mommy bloggers

Now that I’ve drafted a substantial chunk of my book project, I’d like to start sharing little pieces of the rough, messy, but one-hopes-full-of-promise version with you. First up, a tiny slice out of my work on “mommy blogging” and other modes of parental self-expression. What are your thoughts?

People love groaning about how terribly annoying child-related Facebook updates are. I once listened to an entire academic conference paper about how distressing it is when young mothers use Facebook profile pictures that feature a baby or child instead of or in addition to the Facebook user herself. The speaker believed that everyone uses a Facebook profile picture the way she herself does: to express his or her core identity (which raises, for me, some pretty serious questions about those users whose profile pictures display dogs, cats, geographic locations, or random aesthetically-pleasing objects). And she was disgusted that, as she saw it, friends who temporarily change a profile picture to a recent baby photo or—double gasp—an ultrasound image of a fetus (presumably by way of making an announcement or emphasizing an emotionally-significant experience, or maybe as a weird joke, who knows?) have completely abandoned their own identities and are now living vicariously through their children, shells of their former (much cooler and more socially-adept) selves. In less august settings than scholarly conferences, too, people often seem annoyed when parents say much of anything about their children or the experience of parenting in pretty much any context outside a Mommy and Me or La Leche League meetup.

Many people also enjoy rolling their eyes at “mommy bloggers,” a label that some apply to anyone who writes a blog, is a mother, and ever mentions children or parenting. The stereotypical mommy blogger is a young, college-educated, white stay-at-home mom who posts artsy-cute pictures of her children, tells stories that illustrate her extreme attentiveness as a mother, and shares recipes and other evidence of her superior craftiness and housewifery. The conversation around “mommy blogging” involves dynamics that extend far beyond blogging. The bile thrown at “mommy bloggers,” the condescension and the mocking, and indeed the label itself all express a larger cultural disdain for women who A) are mothers and B) dare to talk about it in public. This distaste illustrates a larger belief that, really, mothers and children ought not to exist in public at all. We (and alarmingly mother-like fathers who actually parent their young children, too) ought not to take up public space—even virtual public space—because we belong utterly in the private and domestic sphere.

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  1. Posted 13 February 2013 at 1:24 PM | Permalink

    I second that!

    My Grandmother drives me crazy with “What, you’re meeting someone for lunch and you’re taking the baby?? Why don’t you get a babysitter?!” I know she’s “from another time” (as if people born in a certain year do not experience all the other years of their lives…) but it’s a reminder to me that I should keep my Motherhood in the Home rather than dare live it out in the Real World.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 2:02 PM | Permalink

      Thanks for this comment. It’s interesting to think about the keep-it-in-private strains of “get a babysitter already!” I’ve also experienced that suggestion in a different way, involving the assumption that Eric and I want or at the very least ought to want to do certain outings/activities/etc. sans children. Thinking further, perhaps what I’m perceiving and what you’re perceiving in various interactions are intertwined …

  2. Nikki P
    Posted 13 February 2013 at 3:27 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for defending the baby profile picture phenomenon. It didn’t occur to me to ashamed for using a newborn pic after my daughter was born until a pregnant friend swore she’d never lose her identity in such a fashion.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 2:03 PM | Permalink

      “It didn’t occur to me to ashamed” — ha, awesome way to put that. Oh, thanks, helpful friends, I almost forgot to feel bad about myself as a mother! Whoops!

  3. Lauren
    Posted 13 February 2013 at 10:22 PM | Permalink

    My problem with the Facebook profile photos isn’t so much that it’s an identity-loss thing (although I kind of think it is, but if that’s what people value and are going for — I mean, to a certain extent, that’s kind of what parenthood is about, right? — that’s of course fine) but that it’s not what *profile* pictures are supposed to do. How is anyone supposed to find you to friend you (or remember who you are, particularly if your name has changed since they most strongly knew you) if you’re not you? So I feel as strongly about babies-as-profile-pictures as I do about landscapes or dogs or whatever: if it’s not you — preferably your face, fairly close up — it’s not an appropriate profile picture. Fill albums with your child or your vacations or your pets if you want to share (and in fact, please do!), but the profile photo itself is meant to be a recognizable picture of the person whose profile it is.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 2:08 PM | Permalink

      I would be fascinated to read a study on various populations’ perceptions of “what profile pictures are supposed to do”! (I’ve read scholarly works on how Twitter users perceive their own audiences and how Twitter works / ought to work, and I know there’s interesting stuff out there on Facebook as well, but … alas … I don’t have the time to go down that path at the moment.) It’s interesting to consider our assumptions about the implicit rules in rhetorical situations where there are few explicit or policed ones–your perspective on functionality and findability, others’ perhaps on maintaining a smaller virtual community and/or focus on self-expression, etc., etc.

      I get what you mean, though, about figuring out of this is the right Firstname Lastname. The point about being findable by & connecting with people from your past is the main reason I avoid Facebook like the plague.

  4. Lara
    Posted 14 February 2013 at 7:43 AM | Permalink

    The world looks really different from suburban NJ, I can tell you that! I am a “SAHM,” to use the jargon, (or a housewife author?), and I live in the world where the Mommy Bloggers rule. I guess I’m not sure where the “real world” boundaries are, but here, there are very few restaurants that don’t serve chicken fingers (which I find really annoying, since i’m trying to get my kids to learn to eat real food), probably 75% of the public announcements and public activities are child-oriented, and the Mommy Bloggers run the schools via the PTO. Maybe I just don’t ever go into the “real world,” but all the out-of-home places I go to regularly (grocery store, library, post office, pizza joint, gym) are filled with children, and are organized for children’s well-being, or at least do their best to accommodate. But maybe this is all a big bubble that represents the sphere around the “home.” It wouldn’t be crazy to see it that way; here, husbands go off into the “real world” of New York City, leaving on a train (which is not kid-friendly, at least during the commute), and return at night, and the two worlds rarely meet. Here in the suburbs, I don’t think there’s much eye-rolling about Mommy Bloggers. There’s lots that isn’t ideal, but intensive parenting and housekeeping (and fancy remodelling) are highly respected. I don’t know how much academic eye-rolling represents what “people think.” For you book, it may — people who self-define as “feminist” may be more urban, more self-consciously sophisticated, more likely to be working in a full-time away-from-home job, etc., so they may have heard (or done) more eye-rolling about Mommy Bloggers. I think it will be important to have a strong sense of your audience, not just that they are “feminist,” but who they are, where they live, etc.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 2:22 PM | Permalink

      Thanks for this comment from another subculture! Here are some thoughts and questions, in no particular order:

      * I’ll check my draft to make sure the context of these remarks are clear, and probably add some examples. I need to define the conversation more clearly — I see belittling of “mommy bloggers” happening in popular/mainstream media (newspapers, magazines, etc.); here, I’m not talking about on-the-ground circumstances (like the “mommy blogger” types getting respect as community leaders/participants and certainly as consumers [see chicken fingers, family-friendliness, etc.] in your community. I also talk a bit in the larger piece about problems with the term “mommy blogger,” which doesn’t exactly sound super-grown-up.

      * I wonder whether what you’re describing is a urban/suburban/rural thing or a New York City and its several states’ worth of suburbs thing. If you have further thoughts on that, I’d be interested to hear them.

      * Do you know of any books, articles, etc. that examine or represent the perspective you’re reporting on here?

      * This notion of an entire community being a sort of feminine-domestic space in opposition to the masculine motion to the big public workspace that is The City is really interesting and, of course, all sortsa tied up with the history of the suburbs and so on. Outside the scope of what I’m writing, but still …

      • Lara
        Posted 14 February 2013 at 4:44 PM | Permalink

        I wish I had some academic lit I could refer you to — it might be out there, but I haven’t run across it, and haven’t searched specifically. I’m working on a chapter on changing meanings of parenting/mothering for my miscarriage book, so I might see something, and I’ll let you know if I do. I can at least confirm from personal experience that this is a phenomenon not limited to NYC area. I saw it in Boston and San Francisco areas as well, first-hand, and have heard reports from Ann Arbor. But that still may be a narrow subset, I realize. In doing research on parenting/mothering history, I am seeing that it is not hip right now to work on middle-class women, so what’s out there that’s current tends to be pop and not supported by research. (Speaking of research pertaining to women of different socio-economic classes, did you know that while the unintended pregnancy rate has remained stable for decades, and that’s the stat we always here, the distribution has actually shifted pretty dramatically? So, it’s gone down for women living at greater than 200% of the poverty line, and up pretty dramatically for women living at less than 100%. Not too surprising, given the repeated social services cuts since 1980. But striking, and meaningful for both groups. The research is sitting right there, but no one I’ve been reading has pointed to what this means for middle-class women, and they even seem reluctant to point out what it means for poor women, even when they advocate better family planning service provision.)

  5. Posted 14 February 2013 at 1:03 PM | Permalink

    I confess, I have sometimes rolled my eyes at people who post nothing but pictures of their children as their FB profile pictures. It’s interesting to think about what the profile picture is “for”. I’ve seen it used a lot to represent identity, but also to market businesses, to show something really exciting that happened, to celebrate life changes… When I examine my feelings about people who use their kids as their profile pictures, I think I tend to not mind the “life changes” aspect where someone is posting an ultrasound photo or a newborn photo, but do sometimes think when friends are still posting pictures of their five-year-olds “Okay, time to get back in the picture yourself”. It’s interesting to think of Lauren’s comment that since there is a loss of identity (or transformation to a new identity) inherent in parenting that this can be a true representation of what is happening in people’s lives – of course the simple act of posting a profile pic of your kid does not “rob you” of your identity (that was a “oh, duh” moment for me just now). The act of giving yourself over to raising that child can profoundly change your identity and if that’s reflected in your profile pics – OK.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 2:10 PM | Permalink

      What a thought-provoking take on the conversation that’s happening here. May I draw on these ideas and/or quote you as I continue writing and revising?

  6. Abby
    Posted 14 February 2013 at 3:18 PM | Permalink

    Check out Kate Zambreno’s book of feminist literary criticism called “Heroines.” Towards the end, she writes about women bloggers–she’s not focused on mothers at all, but it might be interesting/helpful to hear her take!

  7. Lara
    Posted 14 February 2013 at 6:10 PM | Permalink

    A great essay about mothers, photos, and self-image (and the reaction to it was amazing):

    Not exactly the same as the Facebook question, but relevant, I think. To your other interests in body image as well, Molly!

    • Lara
      Posted 14 February 2013 at 6:13 PM | Permalink

      P.S. I got this through my local chapter of Mothers & More discussion list. That group’s national membership might be a sample of who you’d want to reach with your book. They aren’t explicitly feminist, but the central mission of the organization is to help women find community in combining motherhood with all the other aspects of their lives.

  8. Posted 16 February 2013 at 12:54 AM | Permalink

    I personally handle it like this–there’s often a kid *with* me in my profile picture and that is just like my real life. For me, this communicates that kids/motherhood are a big part of my life, but that I’m still literally “in the picture,” too. I do get bugged by non-person profile pix because it is sometimes hard to tell who is who (and, one of my friends has her husband’s picture as her profile pic and it always confuses me–kind of like if you were sending email and decided to set it to come from your kid or husband’s name instead of your own…). I especially don’t like dogs as profile pix!

    • Lara
      Posted 16 February 2013 at 8:32 AM | Permalink

      I joined Facebook solely to participate in a breastfeeding protest (when they were censoring breastfeeding pictures because they showed breasts, and especially if those breasts were nursing toddlers), so my very first picture was inherently me-with-kid. I took that one down, since it was more a solidarity move than my real desire to post it, but I also have kept me-with-family pics for my profile. Linked In is just me — my professional-ish head shot.

      • Posted 17 February 2013 at 9:16 PM | Permalink

        Wouldn’t you know it, my current profile picture is of me nursing my toddler on the rocks in the woods! ;-D

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