My daughter Tessa was born in 2006, two years after Facebook was founded. And like many children who shared their infancy with the social network, her milestones were chronicled online in true Truman-esque fashion. (And by that, I mean the Jim Carrey movie — in which the main character’s entire life was broadcast on TV — not the 33rd President).
Her birth, her arguments with her new baby brother, her first day of school, and her first lost tooth were recorded in quippy status updates.
First, these posts were written in my own voice: “Welcome to the world baby girl, now let mom and dad get some sleep.”
And then I quoted the funny things she said:
“’You’re just a shmuck in a diaper!’ Tessa to her brother, during a heated moment on the playground.”
“’Martin the King said we could sit wherever we want on the school bus, but the teacher said no.’”
“’I swallowed my tooth, please leave me a billion dollars,’ Tessa to the tooth fairy.”
Yes, I posted a lot about my daughter. But back then, Facebook — and later, Instagram — were still grown-up places. In its early days — which coincided with my early days of parenting — it was almost like an online cocktail party for overwhelmed moms who couldn’t conceive of going out after 6 p.m. Online, we confessed our triumphs, anxieties, and foibles to one other. We used snarky memes like, “The quickest way to get my children’s attention is to sit down and look comfortable.”
But it all went by so fast — just like the more seasoned moms promised it would. My daughter is 11 now, and her “baby brother” is 9. Had I recorded their movements less and lived in the moment more time might have slowed down. But I’ll never know.
Last fall, Tessa entered middle school, and at her school the students are allowed to go out for lunch. Because we live in New York City — and “going out” means crossing busy Ninth Avenue and wandering around the bustling Chelsea neighborhood — I believed her when she told me, “Everyone has a phone.”
That could be true about everyone — or, at least, nearly everyone — at her school. But does everyone have an Instagram account? No. But Tessa does, like many of her friends. And when I first read about myself on her feed, I felt something like Dr. Frankenstein must have when his creation joined the world.
My child’s virtual image was no longer under my control. But what was even more eye-opening was that she was now posting her own quips about me:
“Does anyone else’s mom call their name, then when you say ‘what?’ not respond?”
My heart stopped when I read that. Did I do that? Was I an annoying mom? I started worrying about all the things she could post about: like how I “cooked” boxed mac and cheese dinners three nights a week and struggled to help her brother with fourth grade math.
Fortunately, I’ve found many more posts about our new puppy and unicorn frappucinos than myself, and that’s even after I’ve become adept at finding the video “stories” that disappear after one day. That there are 30 posts about slime variations but only one about me is both fortunate and extremely humbling.
I’m still waiting for approval on her FINSTA. (For anyone over 18: That’s “fake Instagram account,” a phenomenon in which teens assume a fake identity in order to be their “authentic” selves online, something they only share with their actual friends.) Who knows what I’ll discover when I’m accepted — or if she’ll accept me at all. There are vague excuses when I remind her to approve me.
When — or is it if? — she does, perhaps I’ll find something there I truly wish I hadn’t. But then again, maybe, just maybe, if I trust my daughter enough— or just constantly scare the hell out of her with stories of online predators — it’s OK if she can have some space of her own online.
Like many parents navigating this digital Wild West, I’m constantly grappling with these kinds of dilemmas: privacy vs. supervision, trust vs. safety. I’m consciously trying not to start every sentence with “When I was a kid…”
But the questions I didn’t anticipate were the ones that involved me. Now that Tessa’s posting pictures about her friends and her dance recitals from her own phone, wasn’t it about time to return digital control of my daughter’s life? And should I ever have had control to begin with?
In other words, I recognized I had been living a large part of my online life through my kids. This realization stunned me for a few months into social media silence.
Then, last month I posted a picture of the two of us skiing. I figured it was OK, since, for the first time in a long time, I skied too.
As my kids get older and continue to do more on their own, I’m looking forward to recording less and participating more. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this — writing was what I did all the time, before I had kids. Of course, this essay is about them, so I realize I have a long way to go. But this is where I will begin.
This post is part of the Here.Now. series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.