CONFESSIONS OF A FACEBOOK MOM
by Melissa Duclos
I’m with Teddy and Elliot, sitting on the floor amidst a pile of Legos and a stack of books, and I find my eyes wandering up to the shelf. My fingers get a little twitchy. I find a reason to stand up. “Hold on, honey. Mommy just needs to check something.” I slide my finger across my touchscreen, unlocking the phone. The familiar blue banner appears, and I swipe my finger upward, my eyes scanning the Newsfeed. Pictures of other people’s kids, other people’s dinners, other people’s yards covered with snow. Justin Bieber got arrested; Derek Jeter is retiring; there’s an interesting article on parenting in The Atlantic; a good op-ed on writing in the Times. The kids play happily together—they’ve just entered this magic phase of chasing each other giggling in circles with rarely any fighting—while I stand leaning against the kitchen counter, my eyes glancing up and around every few seconds.
“Mommy, what are you looking at?” Teddy asks me.
“Nothing,” I sigh, clicking the phone back to sleep. “I’m all done.”
I have a problem with my phone. More specifically, I have a problem with the Facebook app on my phone. I can’t seem to leave it alone. I made a New Year’s resolution to place my phone on a high shelf when I am at home and not otherwise using it as a phone. I rarely use it as a phone, in fact, and so it should hardly come off that shelf at all.
Things have gotten a bit better in the last couple of months as a result, but not much. I feel guilty about all of this, but not because I’ve been ignoring the kids. I’m a firm believer that kids need to be ignored, so they can learn to entertain themselves. (I read about it in some parenting article that someone once posted on Facebook, that everyone liked and shared and commented on.)
I feel guilty because the phone tricks me into thinking I am alone when I am not, because it takes my mind out of the room in a way that dicing an onion for dinner or folding tiny socks does not. I feel guilty because I enjoy it. The sub-text of course is that I don’t enjoy the time I could be spending with my children, or at least not as much. This is sometimes true, and so I feel guilty for that, too.
Checking Facebook on my phone makes me a terrible mother because it means there’s something I’d rather be doing than building a Lego tower with my children. There’s more, of course. I’m also a terrible mother because I’m teaching my children that this kind of behavior is acceptable. Looking at your phone, I am telling them, is like scratching your elbow or running your fingers through your hair—just a little tic, barely perceptible to those around you. It doesn’t matter at all.
It does matter, of course. My children are too young to recognize how rude I’m being, but that doesn’t make the behavior any better. I teach them to eat with their silverware and wipe their mouths and say please and thank you and so I should also be teaching them not to interrupt live conversations with furtive or not so furtive glances down at their phones.
There we are: two strikes against me. The phone goes back on the shelf and I go back to the Legos with promises to do better, try harder.
Lots of people quit Facebook, or take “vacations,” announcing to their friends and family that they will be “going dark” for a while. Maybe they have the same problems I do: checking at inappropriate times, blocking out their real lives in favor of virtual ones. Though my own Facebook checking is a source of guilt for me, I have no interest in taking a vacation. I’m not sure I could survive it.
I work from home, with the help of a part-time nanny. She leaves in the early afternoon, and then I’m on my own with the kids until my husband gets home from work. My work, as a freelance writer and editor and on-line writing instructor, is done almost entirely via e-mail. There are many days when I don’t leave my house or talk to another adult outside of my own family. On those days, Facebook feels like my only link to the outside world.
It’s a tenuous link, but it has value for me. There’s a practicality to my interactions on the site. I’ve received product recommendations, potty training advice, recipe ideas, and links to articles that have had a real-time effect on my parenting choices. I would know a lot less, or have to spend a lot more time finding the information I needed, were it not for Facebook.
But it’s more than that, too. When I post, for example, an intentionally hilarious comment about my husband and I ending every evening prone on the living room floor, our children using our bodies like playground equipment, what I really mean to say is, “My God, I am tired. Are you all this tired too? Are we all in this together, or am I somehow doing this wrong?” The “likes” and comments may not actually give me an answer, but they do make me feel that I’m not alone. When I post a video of Teddy and Elliot playing musical instruments together while wearing fireman hats, I am not just bragging about how adorable my children are. (I am, of course, a little bit bragging about how adorable my children are.) Beyond that, though, I am looking for witnesses to our lives that are otherwise lived largely behind closed doors. Without Facebook, hardly anyone would ever see my children. Hardly anyone would ever see me.
Four and a half years ago, my brand new husband and I set off from Brooklyn with only what we could fit in the back of our station wagon. We were heading west, to Portland. We’d never been to the city before, and knew only one or two people there, but we’d heard great things and were ready for an adventure. We expected we’d return to the East Coast—to our roots, our families, our friends—after a year or two. The move was to be our last big lark, before we settled down for good.
We didn’t expect to fall in love with the city, but we did, and so we find ourselves still here, with two young children, saving to buy our first house. As a result of our decision to move across the country, we are very much on our own when it comes to raising our kids. Our situation is certainly not unique. Most of our friends—those we’ve known since high school or college and those we’ve met since we moved—live and are raising their kids away from their parents and extended families. Everyone has heard the cliché that raising kids takes a village. My husband and I, and other couples like us, have needed to build a new village.
I suppose it’s not surprising that in our digital age we would turn to the internet to do this. My Facebook friends, many of whom are people I haven’t seen in “real life” since grad school or college or high school or even junior high, are my village. This village includes the friends we’ve made since we arrived in Portland, many of them parents with children very close in age to my own. These friends have helped us when we’ve needed a babysitter, when we moved, when I went into labor one month early and in the middle of the night. They are in many ways like family, and we’re very grateful to have them. But even they we see much more frequently on Facebook than in real life. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the friendships we have would feel as solid as they do were they not fortified by the daily glimpses into each other’s lives afforded to us by Facebook.
Facebook, then, has been a way for me to reach out for community during what would otherwise be an incredibly lonely time in my life: cooped up in my house, alone with my work and my kids. But it’s not without its pitfalls. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing my real life to the edited versions that other mothers present on Facebook, even as I know I am doing the same myself, posting jokes instead of just admitting simply how tired I am, how beat up by motherhood I very often feel.
And of course Facebook is not nearly as private as we would like to think. A friend of mine venting about the trials of dealing with her two-year-old caught the attention of a radio DJ, who tagged her post, made it public, and labeled her a “terrible” mother. She received hundreds of hateful comments in response, and had to threaten a lawsuit before the harassment stopped. She thought she was reaching out to her village; she didn’t realize just how inclusive it was.
Finally, there is the guilt. If I could schedule play dates every afternoon for my kids and sit at the edge of the playground, providing the bare minimum of supervision while chatting with the other mothers, I would not feel guilty. Even if there were no other kids for Teddy and Elliot to play with, if I simply invited another adult over to my house to sit and talk while the children entertained themselves, I would not feel guilty. (I would feel like a genius, actually.) When I check Facebook, though, looking for a similar kind of connection, I feel guilty. It’s a habit I just want to break, a lesson I want to avoid.
I’m not sure what to make of this ambivalence. Something tells me that it means something, though, that if my Facebook village were a real community rather than a projection of what I need it to be, I would not feel so conflicted about my time on the site. Maybe, then, Facebook has merely tricked me into believing that we are not really doing this alone.
Or maybe not. A few weeks ago a snowstorm in Portland virtually shut the city down. My husband, trying to commute home on public transportation, ended up stuck in the airport. He and I both agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to try to come pick him up with two small children in the car, knowing we could get stuck in traffic for hours. Alone with the kids, watching the snow come down in the field behind our apartment, I was at my wit’s end, not with worry—he was safe, I knew, and so were we. Instead I just felt very alone. I posted about his misadventures on Facebook, concealing my feelings behind many exclamation points. Within an hour, a friend of ours in Portland who had seen the post was on his way to pick Jamie up. He was home before bath time.
We put the kids to bed together, just like we always do, Jamie supervising the bath while I tidy the bedroom, choose Elliot’s bedtime story, pick out their clothes for the following day. When the kids are rosy and fragrant and still slightly damp, their pajamas clinging to their skin, their hair combed back, Jamie takes Teddy into the other room for his stories while I carry Elliot over to Teddy’s toddler bed for hers. I hold her on my lap, the board book in front of us both, my phone tucked under my thigh where she won’t see it.
After the book, we nurse. She’s almost ready to wean, I know, and I am mostly relieved; I’m ready to have my body back. But I will miss it, too, the warmth of her head on my arm, her particular habit of clutching at me as she sucks. I hold the back of her head with my left hand; with my right I find my phone. She closes her eyes. The lights are off and our noise machine shushes in the background. I revel in the quiet after another long day, and I open my Facebook app.
Melissa Duclos received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine BookTrib, where she writes book reviews and lifestyle articles. Her fiction has appeared in Scéal literary journal. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.
Author photo by Katherine Duclos
Image credit: Ed Yourdon