I knew she was expecting, and after a months-long hiatus from looking at Instagram, I was happy to see a birth announcement appear in my feed. There he was, seconds after birth. There was his name —first, middle, and last. I watched clips of their first hours together, and it took me back to the hospital room where I met my son for the first time. Further down the feed I saw another post, this time about a 20-month-old who was finally, finally sleeping through the night. I thought about how lucky we were to be raising a relatively easy sleeper, and imagined the relief her mom must have felt. I know that feeling too.
Depending on your own scrolling habits, and familiarity with the vast multiverse of what some call “mom-stagram,” it may not surprise you to learn that I don’t actually know these people. They are popular influencers I started following after I gave birth. They’ve never met me, but they share with me the intimacies of their lives. Of course these images and stories are carefully curated, but that doesn’t lessen the vulnerability they transmit. Each time I pick up my phone to check in, I am engaging in a phenomena written about long before Facebook graced our desktops: a parasocial relationship. These result from the “illusion of face to face relationships with the performer.” They are “one-sided, non-dialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible to mutual development.”
I do not call out these women performers to diminish what they share, or to question their intentions in sharing it. I started following them because I was hungry for information and reassurance, and they delivered this in spades. They helped me with naps and breastfeeding. They kept me company during 3 a.m. feeds. Sometimes (maybe more than sometimes), they told me what products to buy. Still, their stories offered comfort and insight, and a semblance of connection to something outside of my small quarantine bubble, and the hours spent alone on a playmat. I was not an influencer, but I deeply understood this impulse to share. I was posting snippets too — of my son during tummy time, of my son smiling for the first time, of my son trying solid foods. It felt good to present proof of my labours to the world, to be rewarded with messages and pink hearts floating across the screen. What harm was there in that?
The answer to that question arrived when I was introduced to the concept of “Sharenting.” It’s what “happens any time an adult in charge of a child’s well-being, such as a parent or a teacher, transmits private details about a child via digital channels.” It’s what I was doing when I posted a video of my son to my 326 Instagram followers, or 843 Facebook friends. This is not a humble brag about the size of my social network; the point is that the majority of my followers are not people I speak to or see on a regular basis. They are not people I would send a birth announcement to, if I was the kind of person organized enough to send such a thing. So why was I effectively sending them multiple photos and videos of my son? And what would the children of these influencers, the ones whose names and sleep habits were as familiar to me as those of my own child, think when they were old enough to understand the degree to which their young lives were witnessed by strangers, however kind and well intentioned those strangers might be?
The day I heard the word “Sharenthood” for the first time, I reacted with uncharacteristic impulsiveness. I disabled my Instagram account, only enabling it after removing every image and mention of my son. I do not think this choice is simple for many of the women I follow, whose work and income is dependent on the content they share, who share their families to support their families. I had nothing to lose, and my son had everything to gain: privacy and a chance to choose when and how to share any part of his identity online.
I still delight in showing him off to the world, but that world has shrunk to the people we would happily open our photo albums to. Our family and friend group chats are teeming with baby content, and I am grateful for this gift of virtual connection to each other and our children. I am still drawn to the work of mothers, to the words that so vividly capture the experience of new parenthood. These stories are just as powerful bereft of the photographs and videos that no longer feel like mine to look at.
And if you do find me online, I hope you’ll recognize a proud mother who is eager to tell you all about the son you don’t see.