It’s what you are, not what you do

The transition from being a family of two to being a family of three was one of the most challenging things my husband and I have done so far.  Those first months were full of doubts and uncertainties.  But then when Kiddo was a few months old, parenting seemed to get a little easier.  It was no longer this big, huge, scary cloud of millions of choices.  Things started feeling more natural.  My husband and I gained more confidence in ourselves and in our ability to shape this wailing creature into a functioning member of society.

Around that same time, my self-identity began to change as well.  If you had asked me in August 2009 to describe myself, I would have said I was a software engineer, married with a new baby.  A year later, I would have reversed that order and put the parenting part at the top of the list.  Of course it’s a context-sensitive thing; if I were introduced to our company’s CEO, I’d refer to my job first without even thinking about it.  But in casual conversation, or when filling out my profile for some social website, I’m a mother first.  (This does backfire if I don’t think carefully about my wording.  In a popular site’s blog directory, my first crack at my blog description said I was a “mom to a toddler and a software engineer.”  Kiddo is a clever young mister, but that’s pushing it.)

So, what changed that brought about this reversal?  In a nutshell, my attitude about parenting.  I’d finally internalized that parenting is not something to do, like reading or cultivating mushrooms.  It’s something to be.  It’s what I am.  I’m a Mother.

Think about the difference implied when someone you’ve just met says “I bake” compared to “I’m a baker.”  The first one implies a more casual association with the activity, putting it on par with all the other activities that fill up your time, including going to the dentist or going for a run.  The second phrase conveys a sense of authority and ownership.  It’s an integral part of who they are.  Someone who casually bakes could whip up a fine batch of chocolate chip cookies from a recipe.  Someone who’s a baker would be able to read the recipe, instinctively know that something sounds off with the proportions of butter and sugar, and tweak it accordingly to produce something even better.

Technically I was a parent from the moment we first found out we were expecting a baby (in fact, a few weeks before that).  But like any activity, parenting is something that takes some practice and some getting used to.  There are lots of mental adjustments, as you break hundreds of old habits and routines and lay in new ones.  It’s not necessarily as instinctive as we’d like; consider all the stories of people who have fathered or given birth to children but then end up neglecting them or worse.  But I’d like to believe that most parents have made a choice, albeit a subconscious one, to do the best they can in caring for their child.  It’s tough, and for many people there’s a lot of questioning and self-doubt.  But then one day, something happens or someone says something, and they realize that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, they’ve finally become Real.

Now, when faced with a mammoth pile of shirts in the toddler section of Target, I know which ones to get: the orange ones.  In less than a second I can tell the difference between his “I’m hurt” cry, which gets an immediate response, and his “I’m frustrated” cry, which might need nothing but the space to work it out for himself.  And when I’m reading books or scouring the internet for advice, I can filter out suggestions that don’t seem quite right for us, modify others to better fit for our family, or even go completely off-book if necessary.  I don’t expect that I’ll always have the answers, but I feel a lot more confident in my ability to search for them.



Violating my toddler’s privacy

Twenty years from now, my son will be an adult, forming relationships and seeking career opportunities.  My choices today and in the next several years might have an impact on how that goes.  I’m not referring to the old breast vs. bottle debates, or which school we eventually send him to, or how long we keep him rear-facing in his car seat.  I’m talking about how much of his personal information I share online.

When I was growing up, there were no social media websites.  No one had a blog back then; if you were really good at writing you might get an op-ed column in a newspaper or magazine after you demonstrated that you had the chops for it.  Finding out people’s information involved actually talking to them.  (Gracious me, I sound so curmudgeonly.)  Today, teens and adults voluntarily put that data out there for public consumption.  Gone, apparently, is the fear that an Orwellian government will track our every thought and move, because now we voluntarily broadcast those thoughts and movements, offering them up for anyone to monitor, archive and analyze.  Sharing photos has become second nature–just snap a picture with your phone and send it off to Facebook with the click of a button!  Web services like FourSquare let others know where you are, right this second!  Something on your mind?  Tweet it to the world!  Too ponderous to fit in 140 characters?  Sign up right here.

Those of us who opt to do this for ourselves are implicitly agreeing to deal with any fallout that comes from sharing (and sometimes, oversharing) our personal data.  But for my 1-year-old son and his classmates, there’s no opting in.  Some of their personally identifiable information is already being shared with the world–by us, their parents, the very people whose job it is to protect these kids.  We think little of mentioning where and when they were born, or physical characteristics like hair color, eye color, or scars.  We detail their health history when asking advice from online message boards.  More than that, though, are the photos.  Lots and lots of adorable baby and toddler photos, followed a few years later by back-to-school photos, Halloween photos, family vacation photos, graduation photos, et cetera.  Whether our kids like it or not, we’ve been putting information about them out there since (or even before) they were born.

Kiddo at the zooI spent a lot of time mulling over whether to publish photos on this blog.  In the end, as you can see, I decided in favor of it.  But I still wonder whether I’m doing my son a disservice.  I wonder whether I’m taking away his future option to control which information about him is publicly available.  But I also wonder, will he even care?  By the time our little Kiddo is old enough to understand that he’s a searchable term, it might be something we as a society have just come to accept, that all our day-to-day activities are going to get publicly surfaced one way or another, by us ourselves or by others with whom we interact.  I can’t even conceive of how the concept of Privacy will have changed twenty years from now.  Perhaps our son’s college exploits documented by his buddies won’t interfere with his getting a job, because everyone shares this information with everyone else.  Maybe it won’t be embarrassing that Kiddo’s new date can find his baby photos, because he’s already seen theirs too.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, my husband and I have the onus of deciding how much about our child(ren) to make public.  At first, I restricted my photo sharing to password-protected sites like Facebook.  I soon found that calling this option “privacy” is misleading, because all someone needs to do to get around it is copy the picture to their own computer.  Avoiding the web altogether and simply emailing the images is no sure thing either.  Last fall we forwarded a cute photo from Kiddo’s daycare teacher to a couple family members.  Next thing we knew, it was up on Facebook!  Once that picture or tweet or status update gets out of your direct control, you might as well consider it public property, because it’s just so darn easy for the people with whom you share it to pass it along further.

Is there a solution?  I’m not sure.  Even if we restricted ourselves to snail-mailing actual photographs, that still wouldn’t prevent someone from scanning them and uploading the images for their own digital collection.  We have to either choose to live unconnected to the social web, or accept that by sharing pictures and commentary, we’re releasing a snapshot of our lives to the public domain.

Let me be clear: I think social media is a great thing.  It allows us to have regular contact with far-away family members, and it facilitates virtual communities where we can connect with others like us.  Just like face-to-face friendships, we chat about our families and swap pictures and advice.  But somewhat ironically, the conversations we carry on in real life circles often are less permanent than those in the virtual world.  It’s each person’s personal business how much or how little they put out there about themselves.  As parents of children too young to decide for themselves, we need to be custodians of their personal information as well as our own.  Where’s the line?