A few months ago, at a family gathering, we took a group photo of all the cousins and our kids. As my cousin’s wife examined the picture on her phone and got ready to post it, my cousin slapped—literally, slapped—the phone out of his wife’s hand. We’re living in an era in which using social media has become an instinct. The assumption whatever happens—to us, near us—is fair game for #content. But that cousin knew that my husband and I don’t post pictures of our daughter on social media and he didn’t think he’d be able to communicate that to his wife in time to stop her from hitting “upload.” (His wife was fine, if rattled.) His reflexes kicked in. Around us, people in the restaurant stared at him until he sheepishly handed his wife her phone back.
When I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband told me he’d like to keep her off our—well, my—social media. The request surprised me. As a writer, I’m always mining my personal life for stories, and my social media accounts (while hardly well-followed) reflect how open I am. I am a sharer. My husband uses Facebook maybe once a fiscal quarter and doesn’t have Instagram, so I wasn’t sure why he cared what I was or wasn’t posting. I’m used to scrolling past newborn after newborn in my feed, and I expected mine to be among them. So I said as much, pushing back. But he made a kind, convincing argument, telling me he was concerned about her privacy and the digital footprint she might have before she could even consent to being photographed. It’s a significant concern—not just for our family, but socially, as our culture reckons with everything from revenge porn to whether countries should allow individuals to erase unwanted digital content. (France seems to think the answer is “yes.”)
Even at the start, there were parts of the idea I liked: She’ll never get mad at us for showing a photo of her in the bathtub to dozens of strangers. But there were parts I didn’t like: Like, what if she does something really, insanely cute and I want everyone to see? “Just text it to people you actually know,” he said. I sighed. I wasn’t sold on the fix—I didn’t want to assume people cared enough to see her unprompted. (Whereas scrolling past her in their feed seemed much more passive.) Still it didn’t strike me as an immediate problem. “Fine. We can reassess when she starts doing really, insanely cute things,” I said. He rarely asks for anything like this, and really he was asking me to not do something. I decided I could handle it.
Sharing baby stories is the currency of the new mom.
Once she entered the world, I began to feel some regret about the decision. I was spending more hours than ever plugged in to social media, filling late nights and endless afternoons on my phone while I was home alone with an infant. I was desperate to connect to people with whom I could relate. Sharing baby stories is the currency of the new mom. I tried to participate while following the rule we came up with: no face photos, don’t share her full name. But obscuring her while trying to post about her started to seem pointless. I felt like I was missing out on opportunities to bond with other moms. I was DMing women posting about their babies just to feel less alone.
I had to make sure not to grow resentful towards my husband, since it hadn’t been my rule. Erin, a mom of one in New York City, a model, and a doula who is building her business on Instagram, told me she could relate—her husband also asked her not to post their son. “I’m super public and my husband is super private,” she explains. “Since the internet is forever, my husband doesn’t want our son to have his image out before he chooses. Which I get, but I’m also like—this is what I do!” She also doesn’t post face photos but has found a lot of work-arounds. I get it. But for me, it became easier just to retreat.
After a few months of feeling left out of social media #mom culture, I decided to post about how I wasn’t going to be showing my daughter’s face.
I felt kind of like I had been lying by omission by not coming right out and saying that we wouldn’t be sharing her, and it was oddly cleansing to make the declaration. Instantly, I saw positive comments populate: “love this!” “yes!” and applause emojis. I started to feel empowered by the decision rather than restricted. In fact, once I went public with it, it became something I felt proud of.
For one, I love that people interested in my kid actually ask me about her. As it turns out, it’s much more gratifying to get texts saying, “I need to see a picture of C!” than it is to watch likes roll in. It also avoids that awkward dance of telling an anecdote when you meet up with someone in real life and trying to suss out if that person already saw it on social media. I know for a fact that no stories about my child are boring repeats for anyone who’s watched the stories I post on Instagram. An unexpected twist? It’s reinforced some friendships—the people getting the “content” that I would have posted are the people I really care about and who really care about me and my daughter.
On a more serious note, it’s also forced me to make social media a reprieve from being “C’s mommy.” With next to no child content on my account, I have to highlight other things going on in my life. I have to take more stock of the non-mom activities I do and share those moments, reminding me that I’m a person outside of this role. I love being a mom, but it doesn’t consume me. And it matters that the world sees it doesn’t appear to be consuming me either, as it does so many new parents who suddenly flip from posting beers to posting bassinets. Some friends have made half-joking comments that they haven’t had to mute me or tune me out, that I’m one less poster of endless kiddie spam. On some level I get that, too: Even though I have a kid and like knowing what other parents are up to, there are a few children I see so often on my feed that I’ve memorized their bath-time routine. Keeping C off social media, as trivial as it might seem, has given me a stronger sense of my identity, post-baby.
Of course in the end this is about her, and it’s a relief to know that posting her is not a habit I’ll have to wean myself off of when I become like, so embarrassing as her mom. And I loved a point made by Lisa, a mom of one in Los Angeles who I spoke to who also doesn’t post her baby. She does it for her child’s privacy, but she had one additional reason: “I feel like when I was struggling to get pregnant it killed me to see images of happy families and bouncing babies. The comparisons felt so awful,” she says. “I try and remember how that felt to see an image of perfection, regardless of what was really going on behind the scenes.” I was comforted to think I wasn’t adding to anyone’s pain like that, too.
There are still moments it’s not easy. I hate having to police others’ behavior—I’ve had to explain at big family gatherings that the group photo can only be posted if you can’t see my daughter’s face, and once had to ask a good friend to take something down after it had gone up. Personally, I haven’t faced any backlash over that, but Lisa told me she has been pressured to share more about her family by moms in her circle. “I have been getting a fair amount of pushback from my friends who take lots of pics of our babies [together] and post them all over,” she says. I’ve seen comments like this directed at celebs like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kristen Bell who don’t post pics of their kids, too. It surprises me, because who cares? And also: We’re gong to bully people for what they do post and what they don’t? When I want to hit upload, I scratch the itch in the ways I know how: I send it to a group text, or to my dad. Or I’ll stick an emoji on her face and just go ahead and post. But I know we made the right decision for us. At some point, I hope she’s grateful. But even if she never expresses appreciation for her digital blank slate, I know I am. And besides, I’ll find plenty of un-grammable ways to embarrass her in the meantime.
Sara Gaynes Levy is a writer and editor in New York City.