I sat with a friend a few weeks ago as she scrolled through photos on her phone of her college freshman daughter. She asked me what I thought of the images. This is a strong, intelligent woman with two well-adjusted and successful children.
"Doesn't she look good?" my friend asked me. "Doesn't she look happy? She looks OK, right?"
She looked happy, healthy and beautiful.
Her daughter had recently had a difficult time, which was now over, but her mother -- like all mothers would -- still worried, sometimes, that something might be wrong.
I was reminded of Miss Clavel, the character in Ludwig Bemelman's classic Madeline books, who just knew:
"In the middle of one night
Miss Clavel turned on the light
and said, "Something is not right!"
The blessing and curse of motherhood is always being alert in case something...something is not quite right. From the tone of the voice of a child calling home to the look on a face in a picture online, a parent can just tell.
For generations of parents, sending children off to college meant knowing little to nothing about how their children were doing. Other than the occasional letter or once a week collect call from a dorm room phone, children who had left home were mostly unseen and heard from infrequently. College kids could get into all kinds of trouble, change their hair color or gain the freshman 15 and their parents would know nothing about it until Christmas vacation or summer break.
Now, of course, that's not at all how it is. Parents of college students can spend hour upon hour examining photos on Instagram or (less frequently now) Facebook of their children - counting the beer bottles, assessing their outfits, decoding the body language of their friends or boyfriends or girlfriends (he has his arm around her -- are they a couple?). We look for hints of distress in their eyes, the way their clothes fit, whether they're really smiling or just sort of smiling. We worry when we see photos of parties on a weeknight (did she get to class the next morning?), we worry when we don't see any photos at all (is he lonely?).
I joined Facebook when my daughter left for college in 2008, and quickly found that looking at her pictures was the most fascinating thing about this new online toy. She added me as her Facebook friend, and suddenly I had a window into her life at school, 3000 miles away. Every picture was a clue to how she was really doing, not how she said she was doing. Even across the country, I could be a voyeur, almost daily, of her activities, her moods, her wardrobe choices. This is not a good thing for any parent. Our children need us to leave them alone. We should be kept in the dark about parts of their lives once they are 18, whether they still live at home or, like my daughter did, go to college far away.
College is a time of intense personal growth. Pain is an essential lesson for the emotional leap from childhood to adulthood. Mothers shouldn't be able to see photos in real time that capture their children when they're at their worst -- whether because of too much alcohol or too little happiness. We can, after all, sense when "something is not right," just from a photograph.
The blessing and the curse of social media is the ability to connect at any time with your child, no matter where he or she may be in the world. Facebook, Instagram and the rest are keeping our helicopters flying long after they should have landed.
Maybe it would be better for all of us to be a little less aware of the state of our children's lives once they leave home. Better for the children, and certainly better for the parents.
Previously published on Empty House Full Mind