Disappearing mums

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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? 

25 comments

  • Great article. I was a stay at home mum, didn't have Facebook back then. I found that time a very difficult time, I don't believe it to have been a sexless time, exhausting yes. Your time is mainly devoted to your children and family as a whole, there isn't much left for other things. I did become a bit obsessed with the time that was left for sleeping, I would count the hours. What would happen if we all put the needs of ourselves first for that short time in our children's life? I feel it is the way it is meant to be.

    Commenter
    Roz
    Location
    Blue Mountains
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 7:04AM
    • I immersed myself when my babies were little, I stayed home for 7 years out of paid employment.
      Now that my eldest son is towering over me and has newly sprung whiskers on his chin, I sometimes dream of those day wrapped in elastic track pants with my hair cut short because it was easier. They were so exhausting, joyful, and hugely important.
      Despite my sons new found height and wobbling voice when no one is looking he runs back into my arms like the bouncy toddler he was. It's in those moments that I know that I don't regret a thing. Now we are talking about sex and girls and career paths - I realize those years of obsessive dedication set up this amazingly secure bond that will never be broken.
      I will tell my daughter, us women can have it all BUT very few of us can do it ALL well at the one time. It's OK to immerse yourself in "Mummy" world and then when your baby doesn't need you in the same way go back to some of your old life. It's the stress women put on themselves to do it all perfectly at the one time. This the problem.
      P.S to new Mums reading this. It goes so fast - take a deep breath and enjoy mothering, do it well and there will be lot's of time later to do all manner of things!

      Commenter
      Experienced mother
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 2:43PM
  • I dont think mothers are dissapearing, just evolving into many new and interesting types of mothers, what I think is dissapearing is mothers respects for other mothers and their chosen parenting style, sure its not your way, but it doesnt make it wrong, and what works for one mother/family may not work for another, and again, it doesnt make it wrong. Sick to death about reading/hearing the whole stay at home mum vs working mum debates, to each their own, stop picking apart other peaoples parenting choices and just enjoy your own.

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 7:37AM
    • Sounds like an ideal world, Cam. Or is it? I've been judged all through life for many of my choices and a few brave souls have shared their perspective with me. Sometimes in a friendly manner but it's always confronting. Looking back on their "picking apart", I could've chosen to fob it off or get defensive. But Instead I chose to examine the validity of their ideas. It has caused me to grow up, be honest with myself and change my behaviour, where necessary. It has also taught me to be more resilient, confident and compassionate. It's not about who's right or wrong.
      People need to stop wrapping themselves and others in cotton wool and be allowed to think about others ideas and criticisms (like Roiphe's - which I think are rubbish, but am not outraged by) without falling in a heap or outlawing a different perspective.
      It's the debate and conversation that leads to strength and improvement.

      Commenter
      Nel
      Location
      Are you sure that's what you want?
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 12:01PM
    • Yes but Nel that only applies when someone criticises a stay at home mother.

      If someone said that Muslim women are sexless because they walk around draped in head to toe fabric you wouldn't defend them, you would be outraged I have absolutely no doubt. But it is OK, just voicing an opinion da da da if someone says it about stay at home mothers. Like why are are you getting so upset, I'm just voicing an opnion, these mothers are too sensitive, it is just healthy debate. But it isn't healthy debate, it is insulting, demeaning and pointless and smacks of sexism.

      It is incredible how women like this come out with the kind of stuff women had to put up with in the past. I even heard Amanda Vanstone condemning women who get medical degrees and proceeded to work part time when they had children. Soon we will be hearing from feminists that there is no point educating women who want to stay at home with their children because it is a waste of time and money. How the worms have turned.

      Commenter
      Melissa
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 12:40PM
  • It's a funny old world where participating in your own objectification is considered a win for feminism. I think yummy mummies are far more insidious and problematic than women who prioritse things other than mani pedi botox when their children are young.

    Commenter
    Old bag
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 8:13AM
    • What the?

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 11:24AM
    • You know the bit where she put on a bit of lippy and a skirt and regained her personhood because women are only visible when they're making an effort to be sexually appealing to men? Participating in her own objectification.

      Commenter
      Old bag
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 12:59PM
  • I counted the word 'Facebook' eleven times in this article - it's absolutely ridiculous and pathetic how important so many people seem to think Fakebook is in their lives.

    'Profile pictures are nothing less than a window to your soul'. WTF? Not in my world!

    My advice - get yourselves off Facebook entirely and live your life in the actual world instead of a virtual one. Things will only improve immeasurably from then on.

    Commenter
    Haze
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 8:30AM
    • Bravo Haze, you took the words out of my mouth. Analysis of profile pics - please, give me a break. Turn off your 'smart' phones for a week and see how refreshing it feels. Or more importantly gauge what you're missing - very little I suspect.

      Commenter
      pjg77
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 10:22AM

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