cheerios

Unfiltered

After my daughter was born, my relationship with social media—and how I engaged with it—changed drastically.

Millennials are (finally) having kids. So what kind of parents will they become? These stories from our millennial parenting issue reflect six distinct experiences and reveal that generational divides aren’t always what they seem.

My Facebook post about the birth of my daughter—written while still flush with adrenaline from 12 hours of natural labor, taking sips from a 36-ounce Buckeye Baby cup of ice water—was the most gushing, earnest thing I’ve ever shared on social media. It lacked any sheen of irony, any of the sly meta quality of millennial self-representation. I included seven photos, some featuring the baby still slick with gore. (Yes, I was that person.) Then I disappeared into a tiny wooden cabin in rural Ohio.

I’ve come of age as a writer at a time when it is no longer enough just to write: A writer must also promote her work and, in the process, promote herself as a person of interest. Social media is a skill set as necessary for my generation as typing was for my mother’s. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminist and pop culture bloggers, the easy outrage, the clubby camaraderie. I learned to distill my agreement and disagreement into concise, digestible fragments.

Yet after my daughter was born, I found I could no longer engage with social media the same way. It began with the Facebook birth announcement and photos, which I uploaded out of both a sense of duty and an almost advocatory desire to celebrate the gritty rawness of birth. I became abruptly resistant to snark. Vacillating between the sleep-deprived poles of genuine awe and unspeakable terror, I found that I needed to believe in motherhood. I didn’t want it eroded by constant ironical observations, abraded by a posture of defiant unsentimentality. Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer-type could ever be taken seriously were she to cave to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.

For a long, green summer in that Ohio cabin, I baked enchiladas. I read Buddhist theory. I nursed and nursed and drank water and nursed some more. I woke and slept in delusional fragments of time. I had spent my 20s working, traveling, and living on five continents, eating coconuts in the backs of trucks and summiting remote mountains; I had spent my early 30s in an MFA program, writing in a blur of coffee and ambition, sitting on the rooftops of run-down apartment buildings and dissecting New Yorker essays. Now I looked no further than this Midwestern front porch at dusk, rocking my warm, downy baby while red-winged blackbirds called from the pond. I did not see myself as a figure in a story. I lived without presenting my life to an audience. I no longer had the desire for small talk, the need or occasion to be a witty conversationalist. In those first months, I wanted only the bare elements of the quotidian—milk, sun, spaghetti—and the big, unabashed questions about the meaning of life. I could actually say things like “the meaning of life” without dissolving into cynical giggles. (I still can, though I cloak them in loftier language.)

Sarah and her family at her parents’ Ohio farm.

The transition to parenthood tends to diminish self-involvement and self-fascination, and for me this was reflected on social media: My online persona seemed laughably flimsy compared to the overwhelming physical realness of my presence as a mother. The contours of my life melted into the baby’s breath, heartbeat, eyes; I had no interest in anything that felt fake or posed or detached. I didn’t have space or time. Even when small windows of time emerged, I did not want to use them for anything other than the most important work. I did not want to waste a second on anything that felt less than urgent.

Parenthood gifted me a clear vision of my own insignificance. I didn’t care so much about immediate success as measured in contacts and shares and influence as I did about whether I would ever create any work of substance. It began to seem shortsighted to engage in the struggle for recognition and accolades online, like ignoring a meteor shower to go put on some lipstick.

I didn’t disappear entirely. Gradually, the din of social media crept back around the fringes. I thought I had to get back in the game, so I began to tweet at 3 a.m. I posted Facebook photos of the baby with sunflowers and a hound dog. But my posts were both duller and more heartfelt. My Twitter became a way to recognize and support the work of fellow artists, a purely professional tool, not a presence I tried to cultivate. I allowed my voice to be the equivalent of a drab, low tan heel: practical, business-like, comfortable, requiring no strain or extra energy.

So much of a parent’s work is minutiae, but framing it for social media gave it power.

Meanwhile, I started an Instagram account. For years I resisted Instagram as the ultimate example of the soulless commodification of everyday life—can’t I just eat this burger without documenting it in the perfect filtered light?—but I found myself suddenly embracing it. There was my daughter holding a warty toad in the fall sunshine. Grimacing at sweet potatoes. In a fuzzy fox hat and bright red boots on the gravel drive. Clutching the mutt hound Little Dude. On her Pee Paw’s back in a forest of beeches. I kept my phone with me all the time; I wouldn’t let my husband put away the Play-Doh until I’d captured it at just the right angle.

So much of a parent’s work is minutiae, easily dismissed as thoughtless chores or ignored as boring, but framing it for social media, I realized, gave it power. It said: This life is worth admiring. This life is harder than anything I have ever done: harder than graduate school, than writing a book, than taking buses across South America. I had never anticipated this. Of course, I’d heard how difficult parenting can be, how tedious and frustrating, but I was surprised to discover how spiritual and rewarding this same tedium proved itself at times. This might be the greatest shock to millennial parents: Parenting sucks in all the ways we’ve been telling each other it sucks, but it is great in ways that we and those who came before us haven’t been able to adequately express. Millennial parents have excelled at tackling the saccharine and gendered myths of parenthood and unveiling its sometimes oppressive miseries, but we haven’t been nearly as accomplished at celebrating its transformations—perhaps because we’re so wary of falling into the traps of convention, sentimentality, and the status quo. Yet not exploring and embracing its quotidian power keeps it largely hidden, or debased as a subject not worthy of creative explanation.

My Instagram is in some ways a struggle to bring motherhood into the (filtered, very carefully curated) light, to acknowledge it as a subject worthy of attention. It is a way to say to the world I am a writer and I am also a mother and here is how I struggle and fuse the two in the everyday. These struggles have long been hidden or repressed; on Instagram, my mothering is front and center. It is not intended to glorify stay-at-home-motherhood or any other social category that exists largely to divide women, or to render motherhood idyllic or picturesque, but rather to take as a starting point my life as an artist, a considered and creative life, and then acknowledge that much of what this actually consists of is scattered Cheerios and bubbles on the patio. Social media’s most radical element might be transparency, and for mothers it allows us to be transparent about the everyday work of mothering, so long taken for granted, both profound and painfully dull, mundane and also the stuff of epic transformation.

Instead of constructing a persona, I construct memories. I sense in each square frame of the baby leaping from a log, peeking from behind a Lego creation, my life gone by. I use the little time I have apart from her to write into this knowledge, and the rest of the time I struggle to seize with the click of the camera: upload, brighten, fade, wait for the red hearts to bloom.


Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts. Email her at sarah@velamag.com.

Still life photography by Desiree Espada, portrait by Justin Clemons

Originally Published April 2017