We were standing in line at Costco on a busy weekend morning. My son began to fuss so I picked him up, handed him a pacifier, and held him on my hip while we waited. A few minutes later I turned around and my heart stopped. A man two or three carts behind us in line was holding his smart phone in front of his face, and it was pointed directly at us. I quickly turned my back to him, panicked. Was he taking a video of us? A photo? It certainly looked like it. I turned back around and sure enough the phone was still pointed in our direction. Fuck. What was I doing wrong? What thing about me, my son, my husband, our parenting, or the contents of our shopping cart were going to end up on social media accompanied by a judgmental, disapproving post? Would it go viral? Hmm … I didn’t see anything wrong with the way I was holding my son. He was calm and content in my arms. He was dressed appropriately for the weather. We looked like any other average family out shopping on a Sunday. Maybe it was the fact that we were buying a generic brand of baby wipes instead of organic? Maybe he thought my son was too old to be using a pacifier? I don’t know.
To this day I have no idea why that man had his phone pointed at us. I never saw myself featured in a viral post about my failings as a parent, thankfully. He was probably just taking a selfie. But I still remember the panic I felt when I thought a stranger might be using technology to publicly expose, judge, and humiliate me as a parent. That sounds ridiculous. But it’s not. It happens every single day.
The fact that parents get judged and criticized for their parenting methods is nothing new. It used to come from friends and family members, occasionally a stranger at the park or grocery store. However, in the age of social media and all things digital, parenting is now a public sport. Everything you post can and will be scrutinized by anyone with an internet connection. And even if you attempt to shield yourself and your offspring by keeping family photos private, there’s no stopping a stranger from snapping a photo of you or your little darlings and posting it online for the whole world to see.
It’s terrifying. Want to post a photo of your newborn coming home from the hospital in her car seat? Better triple check that you buckled her in correctly and that the car seat meets all current safety standards because, sure enough, there will be some “well meaning” person on Facebook to inform you that you’ve fastened the chest clip an eighth of an inch too low.
Did you pay a professional to take adorable Christmas photos of your little one? Better not post any that feature Christmas lights unless you want to read a deprecating post that includes the words “electrical appliance,” “fire hazard,” and “electrocution.”
These days it seems parents can do nothing right. Every arbitrary parenting decision is put to a public trial, inviting everyone from parenting experts, the media, distant family members, mere acquaintances, and people who don’t even have children to comment and criticize. The mere mention of an amber teething necklace or the phrase “breast is best” can spur an online boxing match with frenzied social media users throwing punches from behind their screen of choice.
As if parenthood isn’t stressful enough, now we have to worry about what the entire internet thinks of our every move from the moment we begin trying to conceive. And I’m not sure what’s worse — when the stones are being thrown by fellow parents or people who don’t even have kids.
So what’s a parent to do? Play it safe and keep your kids completely absent from the internet or post away and hope for the best? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that question, and like many other parents living in the digital age, I’m just trying my best every day to navigate the murky waters, hoping to make the best choices I can for myself and my family. I wish I knew what the future consequences will be for sharing my family’s life online, but I don’t. No one does. For now I can only do what generations of mothers have done before me — parent to the best of my ability and tell everyone else to mind their own business.