Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Earlier this week, a colleague sent me a link to Katie Roiphe’s essay “Disappearing Mothers”. I’ve found myself grappling with it ever since, trying to reconcile my appreciation for Roiphe’s premise with my intense dislike of her tone. She begins with the foundation of “the trend of women using photographs of their children instead of themselves as the main picture on their Facebook profiles.” Of this trend — which Roiphe only cites anecdotally, seemingly based only on her own “Friend” list — she asks “What, some earnest future historian may very well ask, do all of these babies on our Facebook pages say about ‘the construction of women’s identity’ at this particular moment in time?”
This seems to me like a fair question, though I acknowledge that there are many more interpretations of this phenomenon than Roiphe seems to admit. That picture does not stand alone but functions within a (social) network of meaning that allows users to reveal, especially to their “friends”, multiple aspects of their identity. For many women, motherhood is a huge shift and factor in identity formation, and while that certainly doesn’t mean that the child should stand in for the mother, Roiphe’s alternatives seem to present a disdain for mothers and the actual work of caring for children.
Using your child’s photo on Facebook, Roiphe asserts, “frees you of the burden of looking halfway decent for a picture, and of the whole excruciating business of being yourself.” Such a picture, she argues, obscures the “brilliant” woman behind the child, the mother she describes as follows:
Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman.
Roiphe expresses her horror that such a woman would spend an entire dinner party talking about children, instead of… what? Getting drunk and reliving the “glory days” of academic elitism? If those are Roiphe’s signifiers of brilliance and accomplishment, I’m unsurprised that she is disappointed by the conversations of many mothers, or many humans in general, or really anyone who values actual substance over the superficial markers of status and “sexiness” that she mistakes for interestingness. It feels like Roiphe could easily have missed any substance to her friend’s conversation because she was too busy sizing up the speaker’s appearance and contemplating her next drink.
My concern here is that I actually agree with Roiphe in many ways, that parents, and especially mothers, should maintain personal lives, relationships, and interests even when children make those tasks especially hard. What I struggle with is the value system that she offers in exchange, a kind of feminism that cares only about being provocative for the sake of being provocative, as opposed to valuing the diversity of actual women’s lives. Near her conclusion, Roiphe states:
[T]his generation leaches itself of sexuality by putting the innocent face of a child in the place of an attractive mother. It telegraphs a discomfort with even a minimal level of vanity. Like wearing sneakers every day or forgetting to cut your hair, it is a way of being dowdy and invisible.
The actual work of motherhood is by and large invisible in this culture, despite the fact that men and women across the socioeconomic spectrum need more support and more frank conversations about why parenthood these days is so fraught with anxiety. 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. But 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. All she offers is another prescription: how to be a woman the Roiphe way, which involves dressing up and dinner parties and wine.
I like all of those things, along with my job and a great many books and dates running with my husband where we talk about ideas unrelated to our daughters. But my profile picture on Facebook almost always includes me and at least one of those little girls, and I enjoy seeing the photos of my friends’ children too, because I understand the life-altering impact of children. I don’t assume that those children are their parents’ purpose for living, but that’s a conclusion one can only reach through intimacy and compassion and respect for parents of all stripes, not the kind of surface analysis that evaluates an entire human life by their clothes or their profile picture. I appreciate Roiphe’s questions about what those pictures might say, but her alternative vision of motherhood and womanhood leave me wanting some actual substance and some concern for the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual value of every human, not just the ones she finds worth talking to.