A few days ago, I looked at my Facebook feed and realized that it was dominated by photographs of babies. There were interjections about little Molly's chicken pox, a (subjectively) charming pronouncement from baby Bob. Eventually, upon further scrolling, I came to some comments about the Olympics, the upcoming US election, and opinions about a book.
The demarcation is so clear that I can fairly accurately classify my Facebook friends into childless and childful, based solely on their status updates. The comments about the Olympics/election/books/etc are not, for the most part, written by my Facebook friends who have young children. Photographs of grubby, grinning toddlers, on the other hand, are rarely posted by anyone other than a parent of said toddlers. My in-person experiences tend to reflect this Facebook phenomenon -- as I realize I haven't seen my friend, a new mother, for months, or find myself stuck in a conversation about toilet training that only I seem to be finding tedious, it makes me wonder: do friends who become parents stop having other interests or identities?
This is Katie Roiphe's argument in her column 'Disappearing Mothers' in the Financial Times this week. She highlights the phenomenon of mothers using their children's photographs in place of their own profile pictures on Facebook and extrapolates that women willingly give up their own identities upon becoming mothers, choosing to be represented via their progeny (on Facebook, and in life, for example, dinner party conversations). She muses on what it means for the construction of women's identity in the 21st century. Her conclusion: ominous, voluntary loss of self and the downfall of feminism.
Even though incessant grinning babies on Facebook can irritate me, I wonder if Roiphe's perspective is a bit pessimistic. Yes, when my friends become parents, our relationship usually changes. Their conversation becomes dominated by child chat which, without children myself, I struggle to empathize with. Their fascination with the minute details of childhood is indeed difficult for me to share. These changes, combined with their newfound time commitment and lack of availability, means I tend to see them less. Including via Facebook, where their own face is often replaced with that of a baby.
But is this identity change much different than the year I became a physician? From my first hopital nightshift, my conversation was taken over by my medical exploits and my patients. I sought the company of empathic colleagues who were undergoing similar experiences; I reveled in my colleagues' fascinating medical tales. Meanwhile my alienated non-medical friends smiled politely at jokes whose witty punch line was "180mmHg!", and gradually saw me less often. And of course, with my newfound time commitment as a junior doctor, my availability plummeted. Had Facebook been around, it's conceivable I'd even have posted a profile picture of myself in a white coat, brandishing a stethoscope. A few years later, probably thanks to the timely acquisition of a non-medical partner, I started talking and focusing on other things too. My identity seemed to expand. And thus my circle of friends widened again.
Roiphe argues that parents adopting the identity of their children, around whom their lives increasingly revolve, is a 21st century phenomenon. I disagree - I think we take on different identities and roles at different points in our lives, and always have done. The contrasts between our different lifestyles is just more obvious now, thanks to the fact that the 21st century offers a wider range of options for women, plus the advent of new tools like Facebook that showcase the social impact of these different options. But of course, whether you designate yourself as Mother or Doctor, identities don't have to be either exclusive or permanent.
It's natural to want to talk about what we spend most of our time doing, especially if it's new, and we're enthusiastic and inspired by it. Mothers who put up photos of their kids in place of their own picture may or may not be doomed to permanent loss of self. But it doesn't hurt to maintain interests in other things, remember that we have personal, individual interests and personalities, and accept that nobody is defined by any one role. Mothers can openly talk about the Olympics. Doctors can express opinions about the election. We'll all have a better chance of maintaining a more diverse, interesting and intellectually stimulating range of friends (if that's what we want) by embracing a less prescribed identity, by expanding our conversation topics, and by spending less time considering our Facebook profile pictures. On the other hand, if we want to enjoy a restricted group of friends for a while, well, Facebook helps keep us connected to the rest - provided our one-track conversation doesn't get us deleted...