Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Disappearing mothers

FT.com
If, from beyond the grave, Betty Friedan were to review the Facebook habits of the over-30 set, I am afraid she would be very disappointed in us. By this I mean specifically the trend of women using photographs of their children instead of themselves as the main picture on their Facebook profiles. . . Where have all of these women gone? 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?
. . .
But this is how they choose to represent themselves. The choice may seem trivial, but the whole idea behind Facebook is to create a social persona, an image of who you are projected into hundreds of bedrooms and caf├ęs and offices across the country. Why would that image be of someone else, however closely bound they are to your life, genetically and otherwise? The choice seems to constitute a retreat to an older form of identity, to a time when fresh-scrubbed Vassar girls were losing their minds amidst vacuum cleaners and sandboxes.

It's amazing how many of the comments miss the point. "But my children are my number one priority!" Well, fine. That's not the same thing as your identity. I suspect a lot of them are wholly unfamiliar with The Feminist Mystique. They think that total, complete and unyielding devotion to your children, to the point you cease to matter, is a virtue.

I think this is a cultural ethic that has emerged in the past few decades, along attachment parenting and the shunning of formula moms. We have somehow engrained in ourselves the notion that every small benefit to child is worth the greatest sacrifice to mom. That it is not a careful weighing of the interests of both that should be used to make decisions, but rather that baby wins. Every time. And if you put even the slightest consideration of self above your child, you lose.

Unlike our mothers, we were not pushed into homemaker status by all-male law schools and hiring discrimination. We're not even pushed into it by cultural expectations exacted upon the moment of high school or college graduation. It is far more subtle than that, replaced instead by the concept of "having it all" and perceptions of virtue that kick in when you have a child (and in some regions, when you marry).

I think it is because of this that we have forgotten Friedan's essential lesson. A human being cannot disappear and still be happy and mentally healthy. Nonperson-ness is not a virtue, it is a recipe for slowly boiling misery. No matter how important our role, no matter how much we love our children, we need to retain a sense of self to be healthy. We need to matter.

And although this should not be the most essential point, perhaps it will get them to listen: it is not good for your children. Do you want your son to grow up thinking his wife is a mere vassal to her family? Don't you want your daughters to have a role model of independent femininity? By wearing self-sacrifice as a badge of honor, you prioritize their immediate wants while subverting your long term responsibility to raise happy, healthy adults.

But still the comments here glaze over all we have learned in the past 60 years, instead droning the mantra that children matter most, and really meaning that only children matter at all. I wonder if they have even thought this through?

1 comment:

khh1138 said...

THANK you. I've found it hard to articulate why I find it so disturbing when friends' images disappear, to be replaced by a picture of an infant. This is it, exactly.