I'll tell you what my identity is, Katie Roiphe

Apparently, it's feminism and parenting week for me here at bleakonomy. I'll get back to gender neutral blogging soon! I've been meaning to post for some time about how silly this article by the often level-headed Katie Roiphe is. Her thesis: the fact that many moms use images of their children as profile pictures indicate that parents have subsumed their own identity into that of their children. (Full disclosure: my current facebook profile photo is a picture of me holding my son. It's the both of us, not just my son, but I'm not sure if Roiphe would object. My husband briefly had a picture of just our son as his profile picture, now also has one of our son).

Here are some problems with this thesis:

1) It's not only women who use their children as facebook profile pictures. Plenty of my male friends do. Also, plenty of my single friends use their pets, or cartoons, or what have you.

2) I think she's taking a little too literally what a facebook profile picture is supposed to communicate. I did not look through my pics trying to decide which one best represented the totality of my many facets. I picked one where I thought I looked okay, and had my son, who is awfully cute. I don't imagine my friends who post pics of their pets think that their identity consists entirely in that pet.

3) The part of me that uses facebook is not the totality of me. I take my job very seriously, and it is a big part of my life. I am friends with philosophers on facebook, of course, but our communication on the site is largely limited to jokes and our personal lives. We don't discuss serious philosophy on wall posts. I have a serious history-reading habit, and that's a fairly large portion of my life, but I don't think I've ever posted on facebook about it. No one else I know is all that interested, and it's a solitary pursuit, anyhow.

To all those of you who are not thirty-something mothers of toddlers, let me tell you what we use facebook for: to discuss mommy stuff, post pictures of our kids, and coo over pictures of other people's kids. Facebook is not a good forum for discussions of philosophy, or for habits that are not particularly social ones. It's an excellent forum for parent talk! If you are friends with any of us on facebook, then you may have noticed that we have constant updates such as: "Liam's nose has finally stopped running! It was his molars, not a cold." You may have wondered who cares. The answer: other parents do. Facebook easily mimics playground chit-chat. If it weren't for parent talk, I wouldn't use facebook half so much as I do.

So facebook is something that only part of me really uses. So please do not draw conclusions about what I value from facebook postings.

4) When Roiphe lists what makes up one's identity, she lists everything apart from children. As it happens, I LOVE being a mom. I have been prouder of nothing than my son, nothing else has fulfilled me so much, nothing else has made me so complete a person. I have parts of me that are not related to my son, and I value them, but my son is a huge part of my life, and I see no reason to apologize for that. Roiphe says:

The mystery here is that the woman with the baby on her Facebook page has surely read The Feminine Mystique in college, and The Second Sex, and The Beauty Myth. She is no stranger to the smart talk of whatever wave of feminism we are on, and yet this style of effacement, this voluntary loss of self, comes naturally to her. Here is my pretty family, she seems to be saying, I don’t matter anymore.

Actually, I have not lost myself. Here's what I'm saying with my pictures: here is my pretty family, and they are what matters to me. It is my self that values my family. I have read those books, yes. I have been gratified that we have gotten beyond the implication, especially in the first two books she lists, that motherhood is part of a trap that disallows full self-actualization. Roiphe has apparently not gotten beyond that.

5) Roiphe conflates this idea she has of loss of identity with the idea that parents are too involved in their children's lives, and that family dynamics are too child-centered. I actually agree with this: the long-term interests of everyone (including children) are not best served by making sure that children's needs always trump parents' needs. This, however, is a separate issue than the supposed loss of identity of mothers of our generation. One need not suffer a loss of identity in order to feel pressured to hover or do more for one's child than is necessary.


  1. Perhaps Katie has been reading too much psycho-babble. Mothers are proud of their kids--period!

    If I lost my identity during my child-raising years, I'd do it again in a second, since I'm awfully proud of the way my sons turned out!


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