When I was a baby, my parents found me in the basement of the apartment we were living in at the time, playing with motor oil. A generous heap of it got caught in my hair, and stuck in that mess was a giant cricket. They bathed me for hours—liberating the cricket was easier than actually liberating the motor oil. It’s an anecdote that keeps resurfacing. Maybe there are yellowing photographs of me scowling as a toddler with that cricket atop my head, buried somewhere in my family home. But when I think about babies crawling around these days, having similar shenanigans, I think of how easy it is for their lives to become a shared experience.
In the age of camera phones and single-click sharing, I remain grateful that word-of-mouth is the only social media in which my dalliance with motor oil and ill-fated insects exists. I’m suddenly thinking a lot about insects and social media because I find myself drawn to the social media contributions of parents who are sharing similar stories about their children. Their stories aren’t epic and aren’t likely to bag them any lucrative blog-to-book deal, but with the amount of heart present in each observation, they offer a reprieve from the the more vapid recesses of the shareable Internet.
After we’ve overdosed on mind-numbing memes and the blogs of our secret archnemeses whose Tumblr we read secretly only to see what parties they didn’t invite us to, the narrative arcs provided by parents grounds us and serves to remind us that we’re human. It reminds us that once upon a time, we crapped our diapers. It’s humbling.
Beyond providing us with more sustainable reading material, however, these parents’ blogs end up serving a much bigger purpose: providing a sense of vicarious living for those of who aren’t ready to raise our own families, but who want to idly fantasize about what life might be like if we were able to raise children and instill in them our own values.
One of the first I started following was I Delete Me, a blog run by a Delaware-based mom of three. What struck me immediately was her ability to step outside of a situation and look at it from the outside, to underscore the idiosyncrasies in everyday life. What stirred me especially about her blog are posts like this one:
“I went to see Magic Mike and then I had big plans to visit Chipotle afterward, because I’ve never been there, and then I’d be able to cross off two new experiences on my list. But my mom texted me and was like come to this restaurant and hang with us when the movie is over. So I called when I got out, because I wanted to know how long they’d been there, since I was already feeling a little meh about being the fifth wheel, but she was like no, come, we’re getting ready to do a shot and I was like oh, cool! This really is like the beginning of a rom com where the older, single divorced lady leaves the movie about guy strippers alone and then hangs with her mom and her mom’s friends while they make light hearted fun of her for being an uptight asshole. (Except not really, because I choose my choice, okay? I’M LIVING THE DREAM!!) So I get there and it’s fine and I was even bold and ordered some horrific ginger drink that I couldn’t finish and got a margarita instead. And when I went to get a coaster, I was like neat! it’s an old school rotary phone! And then I looked closer and started sobbing. (Not really, but still!)”
I started reading I Delete Me’s blog because her identity as a parent hadn’t totally drowned out that sense of teenage magic that the pressures of growing up seems to stamp out of most of us — there is still this sense of experiencing awkward situations for the first time, of acknowledging less-than-ideal outcomes, of not succumbing to the impulse to become entirely jaded. But at the same time, none of it appears premeditated or forced.
Her children’s cameos were intriguing in their scarcity. “I had a couple of pictures of [my children] on Facebook for a short while, before taking them down and then finally deactivating my account,” says the blogger behind I Delete Me about fleeing Facebook. “I have become more and more limited in what I am willing to put out there about them. They are the biggest and most important part of my life, and it’s a personal Tumblr, so it would be difficult to never mention them at all, but they aren’t the focus. And I try not to gush, because the times I have, I’ve never felt good about it afterward. Like I’ve exposed them too much or given too much away, so I try to keep it general or I’ll quote little conversations here and there, so you get an idea of their personalities and the things I find funny or endearing, without giving everyone too much access.”
And perhaps it’s this curated glimpse into her life as a mother that finds traction in a readership of people who, like me, may not necessarily have children but find the balance any parent strives for, with raising kids and a outings like a screening of Magic Mike, the stuff of excellent stories.
I found myself drawn to the blogs of parents because there always seems to be a little more at stake. These aren’t individuals trying to ape their way up social ladders to further their careers by posting quirky content. The quality of their blogging shows that, too. Not that what the rest of us post is inferior, but it adds a different kind of voice to the social media conversation — one that sometimes gets drowned out in the white noise of careerist modes of social networking. Consequently, I found something liberating in how freely these parents choose to discuss their lives. I ended up following Sister Mary Martha as a counterpoint to I Delete Me. This blogger’s stories about family included more frequent conversations focused around her children, in addition to the slice-of-life anecdotes. But I also liked that it highlighted another approach to parent-blogging, one that utilized pictures than words. “I used to speak more openly about family issues,” says the creator of Sister Mary Martha, “but I have scaled a lot of that back on the off chance that a family member did see my Tumblr, I wouldn’t want to have that kind of conversation. I really don’t talk about work issues, and anything I put on Tumblr is real to my life, which means that most everybody is already aware. There isn’t anything I’d much have to explain.”
What I loved instantly about I Delete Me and Sister Mary Martha is the acknowledgement of a less-than-ideal world and a darkly comic approach to journaling — a perspective which understands that parenting in 21st century America is trickier than it might’ve been in the past. It’s a perspective that helped bridge my own worldview to those of people trying to raise their children the best way they know how.
It wasn’t until I began reading Steve Folkins’ blog that the genre of parenting blogs actually connected with me on a level beyond curiosity and voyeurism. As a writer and an openly gay father of two, Folkins’ narratives — across Tumblr and elsewhere — crack the door open for me to actually speculate about the possibility of raising children of my own. The following dialogue is indicative of the quality of observations that makes Folkins’ blog such an addictive read.
However, unlike other bloggers, Folkins is writing under his own name and putting aspects of his life online. Where would he draw the line? “I didn’t blog about my kids for a long time,” he says. “I think it probably surprised some people that were reading my blog for awhile that I actually had them. I know people who start following my blog now must still find it strange or surprising when they find out that I have two kids. I know this because I get anonymous messages saying that every so often. I decided to start sharing everything — well mostly everything — about my life. It was easier that way and felt more real to me and that included sharing certain things about my kids or stuff we did together.” Still, his blogging focus remains the process of documenting his life, not exclusively his role as a father. “I never really write about how to parent, because I’m not really interested in reading about that. I may write about things I do with my kids and if that resonates with people about my parenting style or how I am as a parent, then that’s cool.” Again, it’s indicative of a trend I’m seeing reflected among the parents I follow — child-rearing, while a major part of their lives, is not the focus of their online narratives.
I think many of us flock to the blogs of parents because something about their increased responsibility as parents makes their stories inherently more compelling. They are heroes that we’re rooting for, and the small quests they embark on — whether it’s an outing to the park or a shopping trip —are one-off scenarios that we feast on. The same reason that we might eavesdrop on a conversation between a mother and her young child while in line at a pharmacy drives our own curiosity about these strangers scattered across the world who are figuring out how to be parents every second, every minute, every day. I especially love parenting blogs that aren’t afraid to drop F-bombs or step outside the framework of “acceptable parent behavior” in general, because it’s like peering into an alternate world — one totally the opposite of my own upbringing — where parents are less Draconian and children enjoy a greater level of democracy in how they get to be brought up.
Ultimately, as these disparate bloggers tell their stories, any reader can see a broader tapestry roll out — the shared experience of becoming parents in the modern economy and culture. This is probably where I find the biggest breath of fresh air as my own views and outlook on culture becomes tempered by the expectation of individuals who are trying to cultivate a sustainable world so their children don’t end up stuck in a Hunger Games scenario. There is a humility and a modesty that I find compelling in the narratives these parents present that I know tends to be absent from what I and my peers blog about. It’s not that as childless bloggers our perspectives are skewed or indulgent, but that the pursuit of self-interest means that we tend to get stuck on a single-track mindset.
Late last year, the Pew Research Center reported that “Barely half of all adults in the United States — a record low — are currently married.” Also last year, the U.S. Census released a report that revealed a sharp decline in American birthrates. While it’s not determined whether these two facts are tied to one another or to economic conditions, there is the general perpetuation of the idea that starting a family is becoming a luxury commodity. As our economy gets more and more fragmented, the prospect of becoming a parent is increasingly becoming a luxury and for myself and many of my peers who still pursue creative ambitions in an economic climate that grows increasingly hostile to such.
What these trends mean is that for many of us, we may end up reconfiguring our own American Dreams so much that the idea of raising children will end up getting pushed out of our purview, existing only as myth. And again, therein lies the allure of parenting blogs as windows into would-be worlds for those of us who have yet to approach a point in our own lives that we can consider starting a family. So while this kind of audience clamors around parenting blogs, it’s necessary to dig into why some of these people felt the need to share their stories online.
That ability to find an engaged audience for the stories you want to tell—unencumbered by editorial expectations—is the driving force behind why the blogger behind I Delete Me was finding an outlet she could channel frustration stemming from a difficult period in her life. “I was really depressed at the time and fairly isolated,” she says. “I guess I was looking for ways to cope.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the blogger behind Sister Mary Martha, a mother of two based in suburban Philadelphia. She offers, “I was getting out of a terrible relationship and I spent a lot of time on the Internet. It was a good outlet for me.” Even Steve Folkins emphasizes the ability for expression on a platform like Tumblr: “I find that it’s a good place to write what I am thinking and know that other people can empathize with your thoughts and feelings.”
Again, we go back to the idea of an audience championing these mothers and fathers as everyday heroes — whether it’s through likes, reblogs, comments, or even emails that take them away from platforms like Tumblr and onto other media. It’s this interactive audience that Folkins says has inspired him to keep blogging. “I started using Tumblr when a friend told me about it and how easy it was to use, so much more so than Blogger or WordPress,” he says. “I could go to any other blogging platform and post the same stuff that I do now, but the experience is not the same. I don’t think I would have met so many of my really good friends if it weren’t for Tumblr. I definitely would not have made as many connections to awesome people — strangers basically — that actually care about you and what’s going on in your life.”
The blogger behind Sister Mary Martha reiterates this built-in network of support. “I had a difficult time in the beginning adjusting to breastfeeding and also dealing with the hormonal crashes post-arrival,” she says, “so it was really awesome to be able to vent and cry and reach out to other mothers and parents for support.”
Every audience-creator relationship is not without its kinks, however. From the perspective of a bystander, I take a little delight in seeing these creators interact with one another. Again, there’s something humanizing in finding a parent blogger apologizing for a strident outburst or asking for empathy from the very network that reads their work. The creator behind Sister Mary Martha talked about a culture of one-upsmanship that seems to be perpetuated among parents who blog. “I can’t say that it’s made parenting difficult, but occasionally I fall into the comparison trap when I see people bragging about their child’s skills –- that maybe my child hasn’t achieved yet. To be honest, I mostly react to that stuff with, ‘You lie.’” This post by the blogger behind I Delete Me fits that bill to a T, while managing a little humor.
When my parents tell me about stories from their formative years, we’re talking on the phone or assembled in the living room. Much to my relief (and theirs, too, I’m sure), little exists from the time they were raising me apart from the odd written note or old, browning photograph. This is something that is rapidly changing as parents blog and look for an outlet to channel their experiences while tapping into a network of loyal followers. But things are different for these parents who blog, assuming they aren’t quick to delete their blogs.
So what might parents tell a child who comes across their blog? Folkins says, “I will tell them this is what I was into, what I was feeling, and what it was like to be me, your Dad, in 2012 or whatever year it happens to be. It’s like when I look at photo albums my mother has when I was younger — this is my photo album.” The blogger behind I Delete Me is still figuring out how she might respond. “I’ve been thinking about this more and more, because I had mine young, so the oldest is going to be a teenager soon, and if I don’t delete it, I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I decide not to give it up, I’m going to have to talk about it. Not direct them to it, but make them used to the idea of its existence.”
While my own parents raised me in an offline culture, and I beat them to the chase in understanding the Internet, social media, and general netiquette, I was curious about what some of these parents — whose social media assume the role of scrapbooks and photo abums—have to say to their kids who might end up running laps around them in the long-run vis-à-vis their mastery of digital culture. The blogger behind Sister Mary Martha: “No nudes. Everybody hates an oversharer. Or certain kinds of oversharing, anyway. I really think it’s important to filter some of your thoughts. Some people talk too much, constantly, about absolutely nothing. Don’t be that person. And finally, don’t tell me your screenname if you’re going to talk about things I might not want to know about, as your mother.” Discernment seems universal as Folkins would urge his own kids to “be smart and remember there is nothing you put on the Internet that can’t be found.” Although chief among his advice would be, “Oh, and don’t be mean to people on the Internet, I’ll have Google alerts on your names.” But in parental advice doled out to kids as they start their own blogs, it’s perhaps this takeaway from the blogger behind I Delete Me that resonates: “Source your fucking quotes, kids!”
Photo via Tumblr