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Say Cheese: Staying in the (Facebook) Picture

By: Lissa Peterson

If you are a young mother, I’m willing to bet you don’t have a lot of recent pictures of yourself. What about your Facebook photo? Are you in it, or is it just of your children? Are you in your family’s Christmas card?

I’ve read a lot of opinions over the past few months about how the current generation of young mothers has a tendency to disappear from pictures. On Huffington Post, Allison Tate begged mothers to allow pictures of themselves to be taken. Not doing so, she says, takes us out of the story of our family.  She recently posted an update on the topic that discusses Christmas cards in particular.

And then there’s Katie Roiphe, who attacks women who use photos of their children as their profile pics on facebook (guilty). In an essay that is dripping with snark, she wonders why women who work, are in book clubs, and have “interests outside the home” still choose to put their little cuties on the profile page instead of themselves. Sarcastically, she says she understands the urge: “After all, it frees you of the burden of looking halfway decent for a picture, and of the whole excruciating business of being yourself.” Ouch.

Roiphe must have a full-time nanny and personal assistant to have so much energy. I feel the day is a success if I didn’t lose either of my children. Sorry, but “looking halfway decent” and “being [my]self” are well beyond the scope of my daily abilities.
I won’t spend too much time on Roiphe’s article, except to say that Erin Newcomb summed up my thoughts on her piece better than I think I could have myself. For example: “If mothers martyr themselves for their children, that’s not an issue of failing to be sexy enough (as Roiphe suggests), but of lacking support and viable alternatives for making life meaningful.” And further, “Roiphe misses the fact that motherhood is a calling for many women, and that engaging in it joyfully was supposed to be a valid choice in feminism.”

It’s interesting to me that Tate situates her argument in the idea of being there for your children, while Roiphe’s focus is on being yourself. Both arguments are valid and important. I’m certainly not immune to this phenomenon. As I mentioned, my current Facebook profile pic is of my children. Finding a pic of me for my Twitter account was a challenge. Heck, the best I could do for my blog was a picture of my whole family.

Why don’t I have any pictures of myself?

First, at the risk of seeming to push blame on others, I must point out that when you become a mother, people mysteriously stop taking pictures of you. And why not? Your kids are so gosh darned cute! And they are brand new. And they won’t stay this young forever. And you are so tired. After motherhood, a woman’s cheering section often starts cheering for the little ones instead.
Then, of course, mothers don’t really help the issue. We don’t encourage anyone to take a picture of us. I know that I tend to scoot out of the way when the cameras come out. I never feel like I am “fixed” enough for documentation. Again, surviving the day is an accomplishment.

Are we really being fair to women with these comments, or are we just requiring them to look great in addition to all of the other expectations we place on them? Those Christmas cards that don’t have moms in them — the dads aren’t in there either. A quick scan of my Facebook page showed that a large number of dads use their kids in the pictures, too. Why make such a big deal about it for women?

I’m constantly struggling to find my own personal level of balance — a way of spending quality time with my children but also connecting with and impacting the world outside my home. I often ask myself why I can’t just give up the urge to do other things. It would be so much easier to stay home and focus solely on my family. I think for me the decision has to do with my own perception of visibility.

I know this will probably sound judgmental of moms who stay home (which I don’t intend at all), but for me it is important to have an active presence outside the home — whatever that may mean. I love spending time with my kids, but I also strongly feel I need to have an impact on the outside world for my own good and to set a good example for my children. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the well-being of my family is all that matters. I want to show my children that we help others — friends, extended family, and even strangers — as well. No, that doesn’t mean that I have to “work” outside the home, but it does mean that I need to occasionally focus my attention on others besides my kids.

So, I think visibility is important too, but a different kind. I prefer the kind of visibility that suggests I want to leave the world a little better than I found it. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I look, or even with making sure I’m identified by my own image and not that of my children. Yes, some of the reluctance with having my picture taken is because I don’t look the way I used to. But I also just don’t see the point of spending as much time on my looks as I used to either.

We all have our own different ways of making an impact on the world. If someone else doesn’t think it’s a priority to always have a recent, perfect snapshot of themselves, maybe it’s because they are too busy making a difference some other way. Maintaining an active social media presence isn’t the only way to change the world.

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