No, It’s Not Okay to Flip Off Your Sleeping Baby

No, It’s Not Okay to Flip Off Your Sleeping Baby September 2, 2015

In Slate, Education Columnist Rebecca Schuman shares a gallery of photos of herself flipping off her sleeping seven-month-old baby. Schuman explains why, so far, she hasn’t found a compelling reason to stop taking and sharing these photos.

She loves her baby, but the kid is a bad sleeper, and is making her very tired and frustrated.

Schuman says:

The reasons I take and post these pictures are varied. I crave emotional release after hours of increasingly desperate nursing, jiggling, rocking, walking, and, my personal favorite, walk-nursing (all wriggling, self-torpedoing 22 pounds of her). I’m also trying to amuse my husband, to diffuse what could otherwise be even more strain on two adults pushed to the boundaries of civility. And, of course, there’s the defiant gesture of Parenting Realness, an offshoot of the Go the Fuck to Sleep genre—that urge to fly in the face of decades of parenting decorum and admit that while we adore our children to smithereens, we’re not going to pretend to love the bare Sisyphean relentlessness that our days and nights have become.

She argues, I guess with tongue in cheek, that Kant and Artistotle would frown on her behavior. Kant, she says, would say that “what I’m doing isn’t necessarily bad for the baby per se, but it might be hardening my heart toward humanity in general”; and Aristotle would condemn her for “habituating” herself to “the wrong kind of actions.”

But, she argues, her actions don’t actually harm the baby in any way:

[I]s my current use of the one-digit salute warping my offspring’s fragile little mind? She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby

Let me be clear. I, like the author, despise the “lovin’ every minute of it” culture that is strangling American parenthood like so much sentimental kudzu. We’re expected to cherish every second we spend with our children, and we’re expected to be awash in joy and wonder at all times.

This is bullshit, and I’ve said so more times than I can count. It makes us into worse parents when we expect to be joyful and grateful all the time. Raising babies is hard, and there are lots of times when it just plain sucks. I recall telling my pediatrician, in a moment of sleep-deprived candor, that I wasn’t actually going to throw my always-screaming baby out the window, but I sure felt like I wanted to.

Speaking the truth about how we feel can be a great release. I have mountains of sympathy — oceans of sympathy, galaxies within galaxies of sympathy — for strung out parents who are exhausted beyond belief by the insane demands of babyhood. My own baby is six months old and is currently all angry all the time, because she thinks she can run, and her ridiculous doughy legs won’t cooperate. I’m hardly getting any sleep, and things are kind of awful right now. I’m having a hard time writing this post, because the baby won’t stop shouting at me.

But listen to what I said: the demands of babyhood are awful. That does not make your baby awful. One of the first things you need to learn, if you want to be a good parent, is to make sure you know the difference between “fuck this situation” and “fuck this baby.” The former is a universal experience. The latter is grotesque.

But why? The baby doesn’t know the difference, and I believe this mom who says she loves her baby. Isn’t this just some harmless, if tasteless, venting? Does it really matter what goes on around the head of someone who doesn’t and can’t understand what’s happening, which is really just a joke anyway?

Well, how would you feel if this were a gallery of photos of a fed up policeman flipping off people he’s put in handcuffs? Or a gallery of photo of an overworked heart surgeon flipping off a series of unconscious patients? Or a gallery of frustrated judges flipping off prisoners headed to jail? Or a gallery of exhausted nurses flipping off dementia patients? Or a gallery of under-appreciated ESL teachers flipping off a roomful of baffled foreign students who didn’t know what the middle finger signifies?

Not cool, right? Even if they are only venting, even if the people being flipped off had no idea it was happening. We expect more of people who do know what it means, because of their position of authority. Along with the authority and strength of their position comes the responsibility not to abuse the weaker person, even if the weaker person has made a lot of trouble for the stronger person, even if the weaker person doesn’t know it’s happening, even if the stronger person is very tired. If these policemen and judges and surgeons and teachers felt free to behave grotesquely and offensively toward the people under their authority — if they wrote jocularly about it in Slate magazine, and proudly provided a link to more photos — we’d freak the hell out, and rightly so.

We would demand that they treat the weaker person with the dignity they deserve because they are human beings. This is what we expect from people who are simply doing the jobs they are paid to do. Why should we expect less of a mother?

Just because someone can’t fight back, that doesn’t mean we can use them. Just because someone can’t fight back, that means we can’t use them.

Recall the infamous Army Private Lynndie England photos from Abu Ghraib. There were many photos showing prisoners being tortured and humiliated, but Americans were especially repulsed by the jaunty, thumbs-up “lookit me!” ones. The ones where the prisoners had bags on their heads, the ones that showed that the torturers thought the whole thing was kind of funny. 

Recall: Schuman’s frivolous joke here; England’s hilarious prank here. 


No, the Slate writer’s baby isn’t be tortured. But there is something chillingly familiar about “HA, you can’t fight back!” attitude. You don’t need to look up your Aristotle to know that some things just aren’t funny. Even if it makes you feel better.

The very worst thing that you can do to another human being is to use him. I used to think this was just some abstract theological formulation meant to neaten up the codification of sins. But now I see that objectification of human beings lies at the heart of every sin. That’s what it always comes down to.

We don’t use people, even if they don’t know they’re being used. Especially if they don’t know they’re being used. And for God’s sake, especially not when it’s our own child.



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  • UAWildcatx2

    I’m a new dad. Our little girl is now nearly 4 months old. The first two months consisted of my wife and me alternating turns to watch our girl. I dreaded (and told my wife this) nighttime, because I *new* it meant that I would be doing laps around our living room and kitchen at 2 am. There were times when I even thought, “please, baby…stop crying…” But never – NEVER – did I even think about verbalizing what that specific gesture means. The author tries to defend her actions, by saying, “She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby. ” As if this makes a difference – if anything, it makes it all the more pathetic. Of course the baby isn’t going to suffer emotional trauma from it, but it says a heck of a lot about you as a person.

  • anna lisa

    Agreed. Flipping baby off is very bad.

    What if the baby is 24 and talking back?

    What about husbands, when it’s his turn to walk the baby, but he points at his nipples and says, “do these look like they work?”

    • BHG

      Still bad. Understandable. But bad.

    • Eileen

      Flipping off the 24 year old – acceptable.

      Flipping off the husband – also fine but isn’t that what got you into that mess in the first place? 😉

      • anna lisa

        Such words of wisdom my friend.
        And now I have a confession to make (again):

        I *did* flip off the 24 year-old. It was a month ago. We were sitting around my parents’ dinner table. The 24-y.o. was feeling sassy and emboldened in the presence of several of his male cousin counterparts. He said something that would have earned him a slap in my grandmother’s day. But it’s not my grandmother’s day–and despite my Mum running such a tight ship all these years (memories of dove soap bars and toothbrushes),–I just knew in my gut that what he said (which I can’t remember) didn’t merit any other form of communication.
        He laughed. Shut him up too.
        I stole a quick look in my parents’ direction and knew that my Dad–my dear old Dad who is literally on death’s door, my Dad that has towed the line so faithfully according to my Mum’s rules–understood. He was sitting there doing a quiet “heheheheh”.
        He knew he deserved it too.
        That’s not to say I didn’t confess it. It was at the same confession where I admitted to the tequila I’d been a bit liberal with at the concert we went to.
        The priest actually laughed, (I think he said something like “that’s awesome” about my husband getting the tequila past the security guards)–and then he almost fell out of his chair when I told him that maybe I’m a bad example at times to my seven *other* kids too. He was shocked, but not in the way I thought he should be. He acted like I deserved to be canonized on the spot regardless. He commended me for having fun with my husband…!?
        When I left the Church a week later, I saw his picture on the bulletin board, and realized he’d only been ordained the month before.
        I blushed, and remembered the pastor telling us that we were going to be getting some baby Jesuits who would be starting their ministry there for just a month–and we needed to be kind, patient, and nurturing with them. He said something like: “Don’t do anything to traumatize them.”

        • Eileen

          Sometimes, anna lisa, you just make my day!

          • anna lisa

            And you, mine! 😀
            Ah, the combox confessional.

  • Michelle

    So how is this baby going to feel when she is an adult and searches the internet for her name and finds these pictures???? UMM pretty awful and disrespected, wonder what kind of respect she will give her mother after seeing these. I think we all know. Our emotional experience should not be USING another innocent person to vent at, for both the “bully” and the innocent. I’m sorry this just makes my gut turn in more ways than I can count, and trust me with 5 babies I’ve had my fair share of sleepless nights, and one didn’t sleep for the first year, and dad wasn’t on board to be helpful… But it wasn’t the babies fault, it was just how life rolls.

  • Ari

    Hating children or babies is one of the last acceptable prejudices in our culture. It’s okay to openly say that, when it would never be okay to openly hate another segment of the population. I understand her frustration and the sentiment. She believes it’s harmless, but to me, it indicates an overall greater problem with our attitude toward children and what constitutes a “person.”

  • Eileen

    She needs to give her kid a bottle. I’m giving her permission. She clearly resents her child. I understand the feeling, but putting these pix on the internet is a cry for help. A bottle would help this woman bond with her child by a) giving her a break as bottle fed babies sleep longer b) allowing the baby to bond with someone other than her and c)not being as draining on her body.

    Once I realized that bottles weren’t the enemy, I could nurse with a contented smile on my face. And I miss having a baby so much right now I could cry.

    p.s. If she’s already tried the bottle thing, then she needs to try the cry it out thing. At 7 months, it’s better to let the baby cry it out for 3 nights than it is to resent her.

    • Evelyn

      I think it is very sad that someone would have to resort to crying it out, instead of having communities where an aunty would step up for night duty until mom feels like a human being again.

      • Eileen

        I think it’s pretty clear that this woman is lacking in all kinds of support. She very much wants to be an attachment parenter. And I suppose she is – from her p.s to the article, she’s only spent 10 hours away from her baby.

        A friend of mine jokes – but not really – that crying it out is better than infanticide. Of course it is. A woman giving the finger to her seven month old definitely needs some distance between herself and her child.

        My guess is this woman is a victim of Ninja Mommies, some she may know personally, and others she only knows in books and blogs.. And she needs a good friend whom she respects to tell her it’s ok to give the kid a bottle. It’s ok to put the kid down when she’s crying if she just can’t take it anymore. She’s been brainwashed into thinking that her child will only thrive on x, y, and z. She needs to find her own groove and set her own boundaries. There’s so much anger here on this thread, but I don’t have any towards her. I wish I could give her a hug.

        • Evelyn

          So sad. I was saved a million times by baby-crazy high school girls, who thought it was the greatest thing in the world to come entertain babies and toddlers once a week or so. I never had to resort to bottles or leaving them to cry, because these young women rescued me *before* I lost my mind. I hope she can get back to a space where she can feel happy and be able to enjoy mothering. It’s hard enough when things are going “right.”

          • Eileen

            My pediatrician tells a story about one of her families. The mom had given birth to triplets 20 months after giving birth to twins. (- Yikes! I’m surprised we never saw them on TLC). The pediatrician walked into the hospital room, saw a copy of What to Expect the First Year, and threw it into the trash. She said to the parents, “You’re in survival mode. I’ll give you the only advice you need. Don’t turn down any help for the foreseeable future.”

            But can’t you see how saying things like “resorting” to bottles adds to the stress of already overwhelmed mommies? There is too much pressure and often it is disguised as support. It’s not supportive to tell a woman she’s failing at mothering. A baby needs to feel love, not his mother’s guilt and resentment. A baby’s well being depends far more upon his primary caretaker’s emotional well being than it does upon the details of how he’s fed, bathed, rocked, clothed, etc. With the exception of physically dangerous treatment, there is rarely a reason to question or belittle any mother’s caretaking practices.

          • Evelyn

            *I* didn’t have to resort to a bottle or leaving a baby to cry. For *me*, that would have been resorting, because those two coping strategies were at the very bottom of my list of what I willing to do. I would imagine that each mother has her own idea of what her last resorts would be, as each mother knows her self, her baby, and her family best. This mom wants to find some way of coping that fits with her attachment ideals, and I think her community needs to support her in coping in ways she finds acceptable, rather than telling her that things she finds objectionable are actually okay. Do you see what I’m saying? I felt angry and disrespected when somebody told me (God, repeatedly, it was like it was the only thing they knew how to say) it was okay to give my baby a bottle, and okay to leave them to cry it out. I wanted to say, “Screw you! You want to help me? Wash my damn dishes!” It’s one thing to say, you know, we all just do what we have to do to survive sometimes, and it’s totally okay to cut corners and stuff–it doesn’t make you a bad mom, and whatever you decide, I’ll support you. It’s another to say, you could solve all of this by just changing your parenting philosophy, which by the way you were brainwashed into. I don’t mean to sound at all snarky, Eileen, and I think we both want the best for this mom, whatever that is for her. I just have a personal hot button labeled, “It’s okay to xyz. . . ” In my experience, it was a cop out.

          • Eileen

            But sometimes you can fix all your own problems, not by changing your parenting philosophy, but by not being so rigid in it. I’m at a loss why people would have told you to give your kid a bottle if what you were doing was working so well for you. Were folks giving you out of the blue advice, or were you projecting a “Screw you” attitude even before you formed the words in your mind? It sounds like at the very least, things must have been very difficult for you. Certainly, the woman in this article has reached the point where her rigidity of philosophy is not working for her. Of course, it’s never wrong to say to someone, “how can I help?” but it’s also not wrong to to point out when strict adherence to a philosophy is hurting them and/or others around them.

    • Rosa Robinson

      I agree! Nursing doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve had 7 kids, one refused a bottle always, one refused to nurse, and the others were happy with either. And they’re all happy and healthy. So am I. It really doesn’t matter which way you do it as long as the baby eats. And there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with putting the baby in a crib and taking 5 or 10 minutes to calm down and breathe. I’ve had my share of rough sleepers (still do!), and there are times . . .! But I remember what my mother said once. “Children are real people with real hearts. They may not understand what you say or do, but they will understand the emotion you show doing it.”.

  • rminnema

    You can tell the character of a person not by how she treats her superiors, but by how she treats people over whom she has power.

    This is as true for a mother as it is for a manager at work.

  • Jackie Akhurst

    It doesn’t matter, because the baby doesn’t know what it means, or that mom’s doing it? How about in ten years, when she learns her mom is famous on the internet for flipping her off? Pathetic.

  • Lisa Twaronite

    I’m definitely in the minority here, but I found her photos — and her explanation for them — amusing, and I could relate to what she said.
    If cell phones had been around for my first year of motherhood, I would have taken a similar photo series decades before she did. And since I raised our kids to share my sense of humor, we would all be having a good laugh about it now.
    The only difference is, I might not have written a piece of clickbait about doing it, just to rile up people who don’t share my family’s sense of humor. She wrote it for attention, and…..she definitely got it.

  • stacie

    This is a great post – a great point. The whole “flipping off the baby” thing bothered me yesterday when I first saw it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Now I know…this is excellent.

  • Ezbs

    The child should do a series of “flipping off” the mum….when the mum is old, suffering from dimentia and helpless and has become a pain in the backside from having to be taken care of. It’s ok, because you know, she’ll be too old and “gone” to get the joke. The child needs to vent, so no harm done….

  • keely1

    Dear Lord in heaven, what have we become? Your child will grow and see these pictures. Then what?