August 31, 2012 7:35 pm

Disappearing mothers

Why would a woman put a picture of her child’s face – instead of her own – as her profile picture on Facebook?
Katie Roiphe©Salem Krieger

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. You click on a friend’s name and what comes into focus is not a photograph of her face, but a sleeping blond four-year-old, or a sun-hatted toddler running on the beach. Here, harmlessly embedded in one of our favourite methods of procrastination, is a potent symbol for the new century. 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?

Many of these women work. Many of them are in book clubs. Many of them are involved in causes, or have interests that take them out of the house. 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 cafés 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. Which is not to say that I don’t understand the temptation to put a photograph of your beautiful child on Facebook, because I do. After all, it frees you of the burden of looking halfway decent for a picture, and of the whole excruciating business of being yourself. Your three-year-old likes being in front of the camera. But still.

These Facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement, a narrowing of worlds. 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. Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk … about … what? A book? A movie? Something in the news? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigour and analytical depth and verve she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her four-year-old. But still.

You notice that at another, livelier corner of the table the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be an Austen or Trollope novel, where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child. Are we all sometimes that woman? A little kid-talk is fine, of course, but wasn’t there a time when we were interested, also, in something else?

The mystery here is that the woman with the baby on her Facebook page has surely read The Feminine Mystique, or The Second Sex, or The Beauty Myth, or the websites DoubleX or Jezebel. She is no stranger to the smart talk of whatever wave of feminism we are on, and yet this style of effacement, this voluntary loss of self, comes naturally to her. Here is my pretty family, she seems to be saying, I don’t matter any more.

I have a friend whose daughter for a very long time wore squeaky sneakers. These sneakers emitted what was to adult ears an unbelievably annoying squeak with every single step she took. I asked my friend once why she put up with the sneakers, and she said, “Because she likes them!” Imagine being in this new generation, discovering with every joyous squeak of your sneakers that Galileo was wrong: the sun is not the centre of the universe, you are!

Our parents, I can’t help thinking, would never have tolerated the squeaky sneakers, or conversations revolving entirely around children. They loved us as much and as ardently as we love our children, but they had their own lives, as I remember it, and we played around the margins. They did not plan weekend days solely around children’s concerts and art lessons and piano lessons and birthday parties.

Why, many of us wonder, don’t our children play on their own? Why do they lack the inner resources that we seem to remember, dimly, from our own childhoods? The answer seems clear: because, with all good intentions, we have over-devoted ourselves to our children’s education and entertainment and general formation. Because we have chipped away at the idea of independent adult life, of letting children dream up a place for themselves, in their rooms, on the carpets, in our gardens, on their own.

Facebook, of course, traffics in exhibitionism: it is a way of presenting your life, at least those sides of it you cherry-pick for the outside world, for show. One’s children are an important achievement, and arguably one’s most important achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they are who you are. It could, of course, be argued that the vanity of a younger generation, with their status postings on what kind of tea they are drinking, represents a worse or more sinister kind of narcissism. But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self, is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children.

Facebook was pioneered for a younger generation, of course. It lends itself naturally to strangers who run into each other at parties and flirtations struck up in bars. Part of what is disturbing about this substitution is how clearly and deliberately it subverts that purpose: this 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, and it mirrors a certain mummy culture in which it’s almost a point of pride how little remains of the healthy, worldly, engaged and preening self.

What if Facebook pages are only the beginning? What if passports and driver’s licences are next? What if suddenly the faces of a generation were to disappear, and in their places were beaming toddlers? Who will mourn these vanished ladies, and when will Betty Friedan rest in peace?

.......................................................................

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University.This essay, originally written for Slate, is published in her new book ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (The Dial Press, $25)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE