In defence of “over-sharenting”: post as many baby updates online as you like

Your friends on social media may scoff, but sharing your experience of raising a child is a feminist, and fundamentally human, act.

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I had my first child back in the Stone Age, long before broadband and smartphones were everyday phenomena. This made sharing photos of him a right pain. I’d have to disconnect the phone and plug the lead into my laptop, then connect the laptop to the camera via a USB cable, then find the folders in My Computer... honestly, you young ’uns wouldn’t believe what life was like in 2007.

And yet I went through the whole process on a daily basis. No Facebook friend of mine was going to go 24 hours without being updated on my precious little poppet’s progress. I’m sure they all appreciated it, just as they do now when I whizz through photos of my newest baby, my phone now allowing me to make several uploads during the course of one day. 

I am what is pejoratively known as an “over-sharenter”. According to a recent Telegraph article by Tanith Carey, I have joined countless other parents in “invading” social media in order to meet the demands of “our increasingly inflatable parenting egos”.

Whatever our children are doing, whenever it’s happening, we want you to know about it. Whether it’s Arlo eating his first solid food, or Chloe attending her first dance class, rest assured that it’s coming to a timeline near you.

Prepare to be distracted from the serious business of looking at cat GIFs and completing quizzes that will tell you your Hogwarts house based on your favourite corgi puppy. You need to gawp at my baby and you need to do it now!

The general consensus on over-sharenting is that it is a) all to do with vanity and b) bad. I’m not convinced of either of these things. Clearly I think my kids are the cutest – because objectively they just are – but I also think there’s something other than boastfulness at work.

While there can be legitimate concerns about a child’s privacy (I am careful in the pictures I select and where I upload them), I think that, for parents, the act of sharing can be important. It’s a way of seeking not just approval, but support. It’s a way of showing other adults your world and having them respond, even if only by means of a simple “like.”

Ultimately, sharenting can help us to recreate a sense of community (you know, the kind of thing we once thought social networks could be about).

Caring for a baby or small child is hard and lonely, particularly today. As Ari, the main protagonist in Elisa Albert’s After Birth, puts it, “two hundred years ago – hell, one hundred years ago – you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law”:

“You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. Not just people to share in the work of raising children, but people to share in the loving of children.

“Now maybe you make a living, maybe you get to know yourself on your own terms. Maybe you have adventures, heartbreak. Maybe you nurture ambition. Maybe you explore your sexuality. And then: unceremoniously sliced in fucking half, handed a newborn, home to your little isolation tank, get on with it, and don’t you dare post too many pictures. You don’t want to be one of those.”

Yes, God forbid that you end up becoming “one of those”. The way in which we shame parents – women in particular – for becoming “baby bores” only serves to increase isolation and insecurity. We make mothers feel embarrassed to be opening a window on a world that used to be far more integrated than it is today.

When a woman shares a photo of her infant on Instagram or Facebook, it is highly unlikely that she is doing so in the expectation that her friends will find the child just as cute and adorable as she does. Mummies are not total idiots. It’s not a question of one-upmumship; more often than not, the dialogue a mother is seeking is much more subtle than that.

I notice that many of the baby and toddler pictures I see (and those that I send) are not group photos or family gatherings. It’s someone caring for an infant alone, watching the hours pass by with no one else to witness them. Most of the time this person may be bored out of her skull. Then there may be something special – the hint of a smile, or the beginnings of a word – and she desperately needs someone else to share in it. Otherwise everything evaporates into thin air and she’s left wondering, “what do I do all day? Does mothering mean anything at all?”

In this regard I see over-sharenting as both a feminist and a political issue. It’s to do with how society is structured so that childrearing is performed in small, private units, usually by women working alone. I don’t think this is the ideal way of doing things but this is the hand we have been dealt right now. The least we can do is neither mock nor vilify women who create a social narrative to present to their peers online.

The images they choose to upload may not be an accurate representation of what parenting is “really” like but that is not the point. They still make visible aspects of something incredibly valuable that modern capitalist society would like to persuade us does not count.

Mainstream feminism’s focus on reproductive choice at the expense of reproductive justice has led to having babies being presented as a consumer choice, no more or less important than any other and with no particular relevance to anyone other than parent and child. Yet it is nothing of the sort.

In the grand scheme of things, having and raising children deserves to be acknowledged as a big fucking deal. It is fundamental to human life, and when its fundamental nature is used to suggest it is unremarkable – “it’s not as though you’re the first woman on Earth to have kids” – this devalues a hugely important activity that happens to centre women.

As the philosopher Mary O’Brien observes, “reproduction has been regarded as quite different from other natural functions which, on the surface, seem to be equally imbued with necessity”:

“… eating, sexuality and dying, for example, share with birth the status of biological necessities. Yet it has never been suggested that these topics can be understood only in terms of natural science. They have all become the subject matters of rather impressive bodies of philosophical thought; in fact, we have great modem theoretical systems firmly based upon just these biological necessities.”

If pregnancy and parenting lack meaning, then so, too, does everything else. If, as a society, we have no collective interest in the raising of children – if we look askance because one baby photograph looks much like another – then we distance ourselves from a large part of what it is to be human.

It is ridiculous to judge the sharing of baby and toddler snapshots on the basis of whether or not they entertain us. That’s not what they’re for. They’re part of the way in which nowadays, with mothering communities fragmented and work patterns relegating childcare to a hidden, private zone, we still seek some communal, non-commercial way of sharing the meaning – both the joys and the boredom – of the early stages of life.

All of which I’m sure is profoundly irritating to child-free Facebook friends who cannot bear the thought of seeing yet another snotty, toothless grin. But to them I would say – just “like” the odd photo, make the odd comment. It could mean a great deal more than you’d think.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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