I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. The words still ring in my ears sometimes. “Don’t you just love being a mother? Isn’t it the greatest?!”
After the words were said, they hung heavy between us as the silence grew longer. It was three weeks after my daughter had been born, and my world was reeling. Did I love my small, squealing, never-sleeping, constantly-nursing child? Absolutely and without a doubt. Did I love being a mother? The jury was still out on that one. My hormones were raging out of control, I was sleep deprived, I didn’t recognize myself in my postpartum body, and the list could go on. But how do you answer a question when it’s posed like this? I couldn’t think of any way to respond to the woman on the other end of the line, the clearly enthusiastic leader of a new mother’s group that I was hoping to join, than with a short, “Yes. Of course. It’s the best!”
For a number of reasons, not the least of which felt like a true lack of honesty among mothers about the ups and downs of their lived experiences, this mother’s group did not end up working out for me. And I tell this story because it is a fitting illustration of many of my experiences soon after becoming a mother. There seemed to be a disconnect between my own experiences, those shared with me by new friends who were also embarking on the journey of motherhood, and what I saw and heard all around me in public discourses about what it meant to be a parent.
Many of these public parenting pictures were painted for me via social media. Facebook feeds boasted pictures of smiling, chubby newborns and beaming parents. Status updates shared each new developmental marker achieved by a child. There was the rare moment of despair or lamenting a lack of sleep, but overall, what I saw felt glossy and polished. And my own social media feeds were certainly not exempt. I found myself much more likely to post when things were moving along smoothly than when I was frustrated, tired or at my wit’s end.
Through conversations with other moms of all ages, I know that this pressure to be loving every minute of motherhood or to present a “brave face to the world” is not new: there have been moments of secret shame kept to ourselves for many, many years. One friend actually told me that she thinks some sort of silent suffering is inevitable within motherhood. But perhaps what is new is that my generation of mothers, who are at the front edge of the millennial generation, are some of the first ones parenting in the seemingly ubiquitous shadow of social media.
In a recent article for Relevant magazine, blogger Shauna Niequist reflected on what she called “Instagram’s Envy Effect.” She writes, “But seeing the best possible, often-unrealistic, half-truth version of other peoples’ lives isn’t the only danger of the Internet. Our envy buttons also get pushed because we rarely check Facebook when we’re having our own peak experiences. We check it when we’re bored and when we’re lonely, and it intensifies that boredom and loneliness.”
At its best, social media becomes a place to share stories and to build community. It is a place to ask for advice and to receive dozens of perspectives, sometimes in a matter of minutes. It can be a place to share interesting articles and to spark discussion.
But perhaps one of the largest problems with social media is that it takes our ability to perform or curate our identity to new heights. In some ways, we could describe social media as the interpersonal equivalent of drone warfare used in our foreign policy. Now, our military can drop a bomb by activating a remote programming sequence. For the person ordering this attack, there is no personal experience of the havoc wreaked by this bomb when it lands. In the same way, sitting in front of a computer and updating our status or uploading a picture to share with our “friends” via social media also divorces us from the impact of whatever it is we share. We’re not swapping picture or stories in person, with a real-time back-and-forth dialogue. We’re putting something out into the world without ever really having to know who all it “hits” or what it communicates. I don’t have to see the ways that the news of my pregnancy strikes a friend who has been secretly longing for a child and struggling with infertility for two years. I can be blissfully unaware of the ways a joke that I post may inadvertently marginalize a group of people. And the list could go on.
When we are given the option to curate our own image, it is a natural tendency to always want to show the best of ourselves. And, on the flip side, we may sometimes judge those who are willing to share with more vulnerability and honesty. We might feel uncomfortable and warn them that they are “putting too much out there.” So, as mothers, how should we use social media? It can be a valuable tool, but how do we strike the right balance between vulnerability and safety?
The answer to these questions is important, because the experience or feeling of shame, which can so often rise in reaction to social media interactions, can be highly detrimental to our health and well-being. Self-titled Shame Researcher Brené Brown, whose recent TED talks on the nature of vulnerability went viral, calls shame itself “lethal” and suggests that Americans, on the whole, are “swimming in it.” According to Brown, there are three traits that breed shame: secrecy, silence, and judgment. All three of these can crop up quite easily when surfing social media from the comfort of our couch or mindlessly trolling Facebook on our phones. Brown suggests that the worst thing we can do is to avoid talking about it when we feel shame. She notes that others can relate to these experiences, and she would suggest that, if your conversation partners can’t handle your vulnerability, you may need to reexamine their place in your life or your inner circle of friends.
But what’s the answer here? Are we supposed to be vulnerable with all 800 of our Facebook friends? Some would suggest that the answer is that we limit technology or step back from it, but truthfully this doesn’t feel like a sustainable intervention for everyone. For example, a 2012 study predicted that 14% of all mothers in the United States are so-called “mommy bloggers”. In addition, three quarters of American moms are on Facebook, and mothers are sixty-one percent more likely to visit Pinterest than the average American. Clearly, social media is becoming at least a peripheral part of the lives of most mothers in the United States right now. And it’s not just women who are mothers that are impacted: by and large, statistics show that women are using social media at a higher rate than men. In general, with the exception of Google+, women outnumber men on most major social media outlets, and are also quicker to adopt new media channels when they arise. Facebook alone has well over 1 billion users now, 56% of whom are women. Social media is not going away. Although there is value in finding ways to limit the amount of time we spend staring at screens, we cannot deny that social media is changing the ways we learn, interact, and even build movements and community.
Given this assumption, that social media will be a companion on our parenting journeys, I’d like to make three recommendations for the ways that we can continue to engage these tools in healthy ways. We can become cautious technology adopters; we can learn to talk to one another and to love the “female whole,” even via social media; and to practice what Judith Butler calls “performative subversion” via social media.
First, we can become cautious adopters of new technology, always asking questions about how this new technology will impact our lives and our interactions with others before signing up. In a recent colloquium address at Bluffton University, Gerald Mast suggested that Mennonites would do well to follow the example set forward for us by other Anabaptist groups like the Hutterites, Old German Brethren, and others, who have historically been much more suspicious about the adoption of new technologies. Mast noted that these groups host vigorous debates about what technology implies for their communities before any member of the community is allowed to begin using it. Although occasionally they do permit broad use of new technologies, they are, in general, cautious, slow adopters. Likewise, Mast suggests that we too should be careful about signing up for or acquiring access to each new technological medium or outlet. He exhorts us to think first about the ways this technology will change not only our lives, but our communities and our relationships to one another.
Secondly, especially as mothers, it is important to begin to understand the ways that women have been pitted against one another throughout history. This is not a new phenomenon driven by social media. Postmodern feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray explores the ways that gender socialization over the years has set up a widespread spirit of competition among women. This is probably no surprise if you watch recent news which continues to decry “mommy wars,” but Irigaray explores the historical roots of these conflicts. Pointing back to Sigmund Freud, Irigaray explores the ways in which society has pitted mothers against daughters. In Freud’s widely adopted framework, there is only one space for a mother to occupy, and the daughter cannot become a mother without somehow substituting or supplanting her own mother first.
Irigaray notes that this socializes women into a self-defeating cycle, where sameness and uniformity is valued over differentiated experience. She writes, “Without realizing it, or willing it, in most cases, women constitute the most terrible instrument of their own oppression: they destroy anything that emerges from their undifferentiated condition and thus become agents of their own annihilation, their reduction to a sameness that is not their own…A symbolism has to be created among women if love among them is to take place. Right now in fact, such a love is possible only among women who are able to talk to each other.”
Irigaray goes on to suggest that society, which is inherently driven to perpetuate itself, has a great interest in keeping women silent and separate from one another. Perhaps Brené Brown might describe this practice as keeping women locked in silent shame states. Irigaray suggests that for women to love each other, and really to love a feminine consciousness, they must be able to love both the mother and the daughter simultaneously. Both identities must be bound up in what it means to be a woman, and also seen as part of a “female whole” that is not, in fact, bounded at all, but can take on many different expressions.
Given the statistics shared earlier about social media, women are talking with one another, or at the very least talking at one another, at higher rates than ever. Could this represent an opportunity for the type of exchange that Irigaray suggests we will need in order to build sister love? This could certainly be the case. Online community certainly has played its role and has placed a wealth of information and feedback at our fingertips. But as explored earlier, social media can be a double-edged sword. Perhaps it is not the amount of interaction that matters the most, but rather the character and flavor of the interactions themselves. What would need to change about the tenor of the ways that we relate and act online so that social media would, in fact, be a tool meant to advocate for justice and to build greater solidarity among parents of all genders?
Judith Butler, another philosopher whose theory has explored the meaning and construction of gender identities, would suggest that, no matter our gender, we are always, somehow, performing. Whether we be male, female, queer, transgender, etc., we are acting out our gender in ways that are often ordered by what Butler would call the “heterosexual matrix.” Our gender identity is a series of repetitive acts, which we learn to mimic from the culture around us.
Butler’s philosophy is far more complex than we have time to explore now, but what is perhaps most helpful for this conversation is Butler’s concept of “performative subversion.” According to Butler, subversive behavior is one way to operate within the “trap” of gendered identity that we are stuck in, and it is most effective when it can both mimic and simultaneously juxtapose behaviors that undermine stereotypical gendered expectations. On social media, perhaps this takes the form of presenting a picture of oneself as a mother, but also as a writer, scholar, consumer, activist, etc. Or perhaps it implies simply making space for women to think about mothering that goes beyond biological connections, and making space for women who don’t want to see motherhood as the center point of their feminine identity. This is certainly an oversimplification of Butler’s theory, but I wonder if there might be something that we can take away from it to guide our interactions with one another on social media. What might the equivalent of “dressing in drag” or queering our interactions look like for mothers on social media, and for Mennonite women in general?
Maybe this is taking social media too seriously. There are likely times when we just want to post a picture online to share with friends or ask for advice, without having to “overthink it.” But we also have a responsibility to act in ways that represent all of ourselves and that show the ways in which we may conform to gendered identities, but also which subvert the stereotypes that exist about what it means to be a woman, to be a mother, and to be a Mennonite. Is the real opportunity that exists with social media the possibility for conversation that is structured differently than discourses of the past? Is the real exhortation here to be an active participant and not just a passive consumer, and to somehow present a multifaceted picture of who and what a mother is? Perhaps. Muriel Ruckeyser once said, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” We are at a point in time when many women have the tools in front of them to begin telling the truth about their lives. Who knows what could be possible?