Photo: Getty images
Last year Katie Roiphe wrote an article, "Disappearing mothers" in the Financial Times about the phenomenon where bright, interesting women with rich lives become mothers and reduce themselves to using photographs of their children as profile pictures on Facebook. If you're a mother you might consider this one of the lesser limits in your life, but apparently, we are all now obliged to feel morally concerned with how we present to the world. Profile pictures are nothing less than a window to your soul. And Roiphe worries that Facebook may only be the beginning of the problem. Mothers show signs of being deliberately sexless, pathologically domestic and 'overly' devoted to their children. Roiphe believes mothers are vanishing, but really, the problem as I see it, is that these women and their new priorities are too visible to her.
I have my doubts about Roiphe's arguments though I recognise something of myself in her description. I disappeared for a time when I became a mother. Even I did not recognise myself. I was absorbed and enthralled and exhausted by this new world. Mothering is the most demanding work I've ever attempted. It's also like a particularly passionate love affair. I was consumed by my children. Crazy love is disorientating, but immensely pleasurable, too. I photographed my children, a lot, and Facebook bore witness to that fascination. My children’s young beauty is still a mixture of wonder and vanity for me.
But this happens - you spend all day and night touching their skin, which is the most perfect skin you have ever known, and then you see a photo of yourself in the latest batch of pictures of your children. You are happy and weary in the photo, and you have never looked older. Ageing happens inconsistently; it happens in spurts. And holding babies in my arms seemed to accelerate my own ageing. Scrutinising that photo of yourself will make you feel vulnerable. You might wince or sigh with disappointment. Were you always this hard on yourself? Will you put that photo on Facebook alongside all those pictures of your children? No, well how about the photo with your tummy showing? Your body has changed, but you don't want to make that your Facebook status announcement.
It's not all terrible. Sometimes, when I am lying awake at night I still trace my finger down the little split in my abdomen. These muscles were never substantial but they separated when I was pregnant and exercise does not seem to be joining them back up. I don't mind, the split is symbolic. How enlightened of me. Well, sure, but I'm not about to upload a bikini photo to Facebook. I might mostly accept my new stomach but I know I am not supposed to – mine isn’t a sexy stomach.
Roiphe says my generation of mothers “leaches itself of sexuality”. Truth is, some of motherhood is sexless. In the earliest days of mothering I was at peace with that. My body awed me in new ways and I did not need sex to feel excitement or sensuality. But eventually I began to feel lost. So, I did things that made me feel tended to and that weren't terribly feminist. I bought products for my skin and hair, television grade make-up, tight skirts that forced me to hold my stomach in, and I stuffed myself back into bras with under-wire. It worked. I have several decades experience weaving self-worth out of artificial constructs of beauty. Performing these rituals made me feel like an adult woman again, as though motherhood, with all its stoic sincerity, had detached me from seriousness and grooming was somehow more sophisticated. And with my beauty regime restored it wasn't 'free' I felt, and it wasn't necessarily more 'me' either, but I did feel more present, and that was enough.
So, I'm a Roiphe success story. My children aren't in my Facebook profile photo. My photo hints at the two more acceptable preoccupations in a woman’s life today – paid work and polite sex. It’s a flattering photo; I have a new haircut, and I’m wearing make-up and smart clothes. But Facebook photos awaken a pit of anxiety in me. I do my own disappearing. I police my photographic appearance tightly, so I can’t help but understand mothers who have decided to do away with the worrying and instead uses a photograph of her children for her profile. (Really, I am more troubled by those friends of mine who are either sufficiently comfortable or sufficiently ignorant of privacy settings as to allow indiscriminate tagging of themselves in candid photos on Facebook. Who has so little neurosis?).
In her article, Roiphe is worried mummy culture might be dominated by a perverse pride in not retaining a "healthy, worldly, engaged and preening self", I wonder if we should be more concerned about an oppressive kind of 'yummy mummy' culture that prods and pinches at us, telling us never to relax and always to keep trying to win admiring attention.
Among my own Facebook friends I see most of the parents and non-parents, alike, are using photos of themselves for their profiles. But some are not, and of those friends who aren't the images chosen include feet, ironic products, political slogans, the Pope, film scenes, art work, pets, Lego, landscapes, caricatures, zombies, views from planes, and a few showing children. It strikes me as telling that we're meant to believe all of these images indicate self-expression except for that last kind - the children.
Surely it suggests an internalised misogyny that we have a seemingly endless number of ways to criticise women for how they mother, and even on Facebook she can’t get it right. If she commits herself zealously to a paid job while also maintaining her appearance she will be commended, but be seen to devote herself to nurturing her children and her efforts will be labelled excessive and suspicious. Roiphe is mistaken, mothers are not disappearing, but if they were who could blame them?