Becoming a mother is a process — matrescence, I can’t quite bring myself to call it — and not usually a smooth one. My theory is that, these days, the identity transformation begins the first time you apologize for posting so much about your baby on social media. And it’s complete the first time you find yourself jumping into a new mom’s mentions to give her unsolicited advice.
I’m reminded of this every time I open Instagram and see the feeds of women I’ve followed and admired and laughed with and confessed to for years who have recently become a parents. As I watch them make their own transitions into the role, I feel full of affection and compassion and nostalgia, followed quickly by a vexing, almost irrepressible desire to be consulted.
You know that feeling when you say something and then hear it in your own mother’s voice and half of you screams while the other half is so satisfied, so relieved, to be in this familiar territory? Half of you: despairing; swore you’d never be like this. The other half: gngnghhhhhhh. This is how it is to be one of those moms, one of those internet moms who drove *me* crazy when I had a brand-new baby.
When I had my oldest son five years ago, I was so envious of my husband for, well, for many reasons, but in this albeit very minor case because he could make jokes on social media about taking care of a baby and people would just laugh. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine, if you’re a New Mom, making a joke about not being able to sleep without 30 women jumping into your mentions telling you to buy a $2,000 bassinet or let your baby cry until he passes out or put him down “drowsy but awake” (in other words, screaming while you twist in agony)? And you just sit there trying to breastfeed and make more jokes from a place of total abjection while other women start arguing with each other about sleep training?
In the year 2011, the writer Paul Ford outlined a fundamental concept describing online behavior that I’ve thought about easily once a week ever since. (For the mathematicians in the room that’s once a week for eight years.) Ford called his concept “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” and used it to explain what motivates your friends and even completely anonymous randoms — on Quora, Reddit, Yahoo Answers, comments sections, Wikipedia, your Facebook feed, and Twitter mentions — to spend hours upon unpaid hours answering your questions, or in this case, expending untold amounts of energy giving you unsolicited advice:
“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.
It doesn’t take a genius to observe that new parents have a lot of niche knowledge (all hard-won, mostly privately exercised) and no one in larger society gives the slightest shit. Moms talking about mom stuff are boring and obsessive and frequently dismissed by anyone who is not in the new-parent trenches, so when we find someone who is, we are dying to unload, desperate to be consulted. We are experts in our own lives, but ignored by the world at large. This particular dynamic and its attendant impulses have launched a million mommy blogs.
The problem, of course, is that we are different people, with different babies, and different values, different incomes, and different circumstances. In our desperate need to be consulted, we tend to forget that. Another problem, more often than not, is that you DIDN’T ASK. So we just sit on our hands. Screaming inside. Looking at your sweet baby photos. Trying to not make every comment we make the equivalent of “Hey remember, I had a baby too!”
Plus: We can see that you want nothing to do with us. You haven’t made the mistakes we did yet. You haven’t fallen for any of the traps. You are forward-looking. You are wheel-reinventing. You have read all of our tweets and photo captions and essays and books (guilty), and you have metabolized the information, and you are going to actually make something of it. Fine, we say. Sure. We try to give you more advice and then we know we’ve come on too strong so we go back to our corners and watch the process unfold.
It doesn’t happen with the first photo, where under current conventions, you post a photo of the infant, newly born, with his or her or their name and, as if the child is a fish you caught, their weight and length. If you’re committed to being thorough, you express some sort of loving sentiment that feels revelatory to you but reads as perfunctory: “We’re so in love.” (Which we know to mean something closer to: Thank God I think I love it??) “We’ve never been happier.” (My asshole and vagina are now one hole) “We’re getting to know each other!” (My nipples look like they’ve been run through a meat grinder and I feel completely and utterly hopeless but so much so that I’m afraid to say it out loud.)
The second photo you might send offhandedly. Something admiring. Maybe no caption at all. Dashed off when you should be asleep but are still high on adrenaline or oxycodone. If you have a sense of humor (props to you if you’ve maintained it), maybe something about needing a shower. Maybe something coy like “Women are amazing!” or “Midwives are amazing” to drive us veteran parents crazy with speculation (Fifty-hour labor? Emergency C-section? Midwife massaged your gooch with olive oil and you didn’t even tear?).
The third photo, though, is when it really starts. Maybe you’re home from the hospital. You’re in your old apartment, with all your old stuff. You can see you had another life once, one you imagined you would continue to occupy, just with a new person, but now you find you just can’t seem to step back into it. Now, you are crying in the shower. Where to begin? You take a photo of the baby. She’s a marvel. You marvel at her. You have just met a person you are destined to love, you expect, for the rest of your life. It’s unreal! An entire new person. A blank slate.
You fire up Instagram, and your old life comes back with a whoosh. Photos of flowers, of dinners, of cityscapes, of your own dog. It’s a very cute dog. Or it was. What is a dog anymore, in the face of all this! A living stuffed animal? How naive you were. And then something snaps: You swore you’d never say that! You swore your dog-love would stay central to your existence! Oh God. The inevitability of your new situation has already begun to reveal itself. You start to feel your grip on your old life loosening. Only three photos in! Fuck it, you think. You need the dopamine hits. You feel a twinge of self-consciousness. You imagine that if you listen closely enough you can already hear the tap, tap, tap of all of your old friends selecting “Mute photos AND story.”
You think of all the people you saw become clueless losers clogging your timeline with photo after photo of the same bald, old-man-looking larvae … and then you realize that those old friends were in the exact same situation. You don’t filter the photo. It seems wrong to filter a baby. You type out a caption with one hand: “I promise to post photos of something other than the baby soon.”
And then there I am, Old Hat Mom, sitting here across the country, smugly cackling. “CLASSIC OF THE GENRE!” I write, sending it to my other mom friends. Soon, we know, you will tweet something along the lines of “Having a baby is hard, guys. No one talks about this,” and one of us will say, not to you but to each other, “IN FACT WE TALK ABOUT THIS PRETTY MUCH CONSTANTLY AND HAVE BEEN FOR YEARS.”
And someone else will reply, “Welcome to the party,” and maybe someone else will say, “You. Just. Weren’t. Listening.”
But of course what we really mean is, Why wasn’t I consulted?
We don’t say any of this to you because it’s not helpful or useful. You don’t need more self-consciousness. Plus, we know we aren’t the intended audience. We know this because — and this might be the worst part — we said the exact same thing, not all that long ago. Every few years a new crop of people becomes parents, and no one has ever talked about the experience before. No one has existed before that moment. We are like how every generation thinks they’re the first ones to have it bad. Or how teenagers think they invented sex. Or how no young person has ever lived in New York before. How no less-young person has ever left New York before.
I’m sure the Virgin Mary had Jesus Christ himself and then turned to one of the Magi and was like, “Guys. Breastfeeding does not come naturally or easily. No one talks about this.” Elizabeth, who’d had St. John the Baptist a few months earlier, was probably sitting there exasperated, rolling her eyes like, Mary. Remember? I was just complaining to you about little Johnny’s shallow latch. You have to squeeze your boob and make it like a hamburger. Weren’t you listening?
The thing is, she probably was listening, or at least half-listening. She just hoped it would be different for her.
We do hope it is different for you. I do, at least. It doesn’t have to be so hard. Maybe you’ll get lucky, maybe you will magically get a good sleeper. Maybe you’ll go back to work at the exact right time (five months, is my theory — there I go again!) and you will have no hang-ups about giving your baby formula. Maybe you will feel like a mother more automatically; maybe it’ll happen seamlessly, and without feeling alienated from your old identity and horrified by your new one.
Mom jeans, mom friends, mom night, mom thread. I no longer cringe at any of it. Now I just cringe at myself, when I think of all the moms who came before me, who had to listen to me work out my complicated feelings about motherhood, resisting it as if I invented ambivalence. “No one talks about this!” I said, when they’d been talking about it all along. All of us will always have those parents years ahead, all the moms who came before, who can’t help but look back at us and feel nostalgic and full of advice and unconsulted. “Wait till you have teenagers,” some of them are starting to say, and I grumble. I know it’s part of the cycle, and I know the great teenager humbling is coming for me, but part of me can’t help but feel blustery and arrogant. I don’t want to hear it. When my children’s adolescence is upon us, I tell myself, we’ll have it all figured out.
To all the new moms who want to ignore me now: Think of yourself as part of a grand, somewhat embarrassing tradition. A grand, somewhat embarrassing identity. Every group spends some time resisting the one that came before. We all want to reinvent the wheel. That’s part of it.
You don’t want to listen. But you do really need to talk.
That never goes away. Is that the worst part, how more seasoned parents always have something to add, but you don’t really want to hear it? Because you don’t need answers, you just need to feel less lonely? We have needs, too: You can see it in the way we spring to life, bursting with anecdotes. We still feel lonely; we still feel ignored; we still need to talk.
But listen. We know it’s your turn. We will try to keep our mouths shut. You’re doing a great job. The baby really is beautiful. You post as many photos as you want.