kids

Mia Freedman: "What I’ve learned about posting photos of my kids after 19 years of motherhood."

Let me kick this post off by telling you what it’s not.

It’s not a lecture. It’s not a judgement. It’s not a criticism.

And it’s certainly not an attack on anyone  – that’s a message to the headline writers at other sites who like to pit women against each other every time we express ourselves.

This isn’t even an opinion. It’s just information I’m going to share with you about my experience. You may or may not find it helpful.

So put your fists down, I’m not here to fight.

I first became a parent 19 years ago and like anyone embarking on motherhood, it’s the steepest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. I’m still on it.

Today, my kids are 19, 10 and 8 and I have learned so, so, so many things.

Most of them have been through trial and error, but I’ve always gravitated towards reading about the experiences of people who are further down the parenting road than me.

It’s why I wanted to read about pregnancy before I had a baby, about birth when I was pregnant, about having two kids when I had one, toddlers when I had a baby and so on and so on. Chicks LIKE TO BE PREPARED FOR THE FUTURE and we learn that most by hearing from other women who have already been there. No judgement. Just sharing.

This Glorious Mess is the podcast where all aspects of parenting are discussed. Post continues… 

One of the most difficult, frustrating things about having kids in 1997, so long before my friends and peers and so long before the Internet was the lack of information about what my future might look like.

The past week in particular, I’ve watched the often passionate discussion around ‘sharenting’ – how much is too much to share about your kids online. This is an important conversation to have and one that must not be shut down with censorious calls of “don’t judge” which really means – don’t express an opinion different to mine. Or any at all.

That’s absurd.

We’re the first generation of parents in history who have had to navigate the intersection of parenting and the Internet. We have a lot to discuss!

The baseline is this: anyone involved in a debate about how safe or sensible it is to share photos of your kids is already a great parent.

Because the shitty parents are not worried about such things. They are too busy abusing or neglecting their children to worry about the potential negative effects of posting pictures of them on Instagram.

Here’s something else to remember: open discussions about parenting have value and are indeed necessary as we all try to work shit out for ourselves. The way women have always done this is by TALKING, gathering information and then sharing it. But the kids at the centre of these debates – the kids of celebrities for example – are not the kids in the world whose well-being we should be worried about. They’re fine. They have decent parents who love them. They’re not in actual danger.

ADVERTISEMENT

Do you love that I haven’t even started writing about what I want to tell you yet? And you’ve already been reading this post for three hours?

That is how fraught discussions about parenting can become. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them because how the hell else are we meant to figure stuff out?

OK, so here’s what I want to tell you.

Because my kids are so much older than my friends’ kids, I often send them little missives about what they can expect in the future.

For example, on New Years Day a couple of years ago, I wrote on my private Facebook page:

“Dear Parents Of Little Kids, here’s a note from your future: this morning, we slept in. The kids all got up and made themselves breakfast and now they’re pottering around and we’re sitting peacefully on the beach sipping cool drinks and marvelling at how much easier things get when you don’t have babies or toddlers anymore. Hang in there! This will be you one day soon.”

There are so many parenting issues that I’ve experienced before my friends; around alcohol and leaving school and what to do when your son wants his girlfriend to have a sleep-over……

Stuff.

When my first child was born, as I said, the Internet didn’t exist so I didn’t have to make any choices about whether I shared images of him publicly. Although I sort of did because I was the editor of Cosmo and I had a regular monthly editor’s letter where I wrote about my life. Having a baby was a pretty massive part of it.

However, for reasons of privacy (his and mine), I made the decision not to mention I even had a child for the entire seven years I edited the magazine. Looking back, this appears remarkable – you could never do that now – but my readers were oblivious to the fact I was a mother.

By the time my daughter was born 10 years ago, the Internet had kicked off in earnest and when I had my second son eight years ago, it was in full swing. I even had my own blog, although social media was still a few years away.

Here’s where things get tricky: when I tell you what I decided to do, those of you who made a different decision may interpret that as a criticism.

IT IS NOT.

If my favourite flavour is chocolate, I don’t think that people who like strawberry are wrong. Just different. Put down your fists.

So. I decided I wasn’t going to publish images of my kids on social media. Or on my own website.

And I’ll tell you why. Since before I had kids, I’ve been in the public eye. And I decided I didn’t want my children to be subjected to the spotlight I’ve chosen because sometimes it’s way too bright for me as an adult and it burns my eyes. I wanted to protect them from that.

Would I make the same decision in 2016? I honestly don’t know.

ADVERTISEMENT

Anyway, that’s what I decided. There have been a few occasions when I’ve consciously decided to allow my kids to be photographed or released images of them to go with an interview I’ve done, or published the very occasional photo here on Mamamia. I knew full well those images, once I’d provided them or posted them, would be out of my control forever. And theirs.

Here’s an example of one of those images, taken for a magazine article in 2010:

(Image via Australian Women's Weekly)

Then, just last week, while driving (it's always while driving), my 8-year-old had something to tell me. Unprompted.

"Mum, did you know if you Google "Mia Freedman's kids", there's pictures of us?"

He was incredulous. Not in a good way. It turned out he and his sister had been Googling while at their grandparents' house.

"Yeah, I know," I replied neutrally. "That's a bit weird isn't it?"

He nodded solemnly.

"How does it make you feel?"

"Well, Mum, there's a picture of me in a nappy so it doesn't make me feel very good...."

He was upset.

It turns out the image he saw wasn't actually him. There are no images of him in a nappy but there are a few photos out there. Maybe four or five.

Still, his point remains. What if there had been photos of him in a nappy? Or asleep? Or nude? Or with food all over his face? Or video of him falling over or saying silly sentences or singing silly songs? Or crying?

All the adorable things kids do that are entirely unremarkable and ordinary and innocent. Things that parents share all the time - with family, with friends and now, with the world via social media. We do this with love in our hearts. We share them because they make us happy and proud and we want others to feel happy and proud too. It's also an ego boost, if we're being totally honest. I MADE THIS KID and now he's just amazing and LOOK WHAT I - I MEAN HE -  DID!

ADVERTISEMENT

We come from a good, good place. A happy and proud place.

And I am not going to talk to you about Internet predators or pedophiles or anything like that because there are lots of places you can read about that. All of those things are valid points and worth knowing about and considering but that's not the purpose of this post.

Here's what you need to know though: the things that embarrass your kids in the future will surprise you. The horror or mortification they feel for past, younger versions of themselves is something you cannot predict. Nor is it something you should dismiss.

Kids do not have the wisdom of hindsight. In fact, they have neither wisdom nor hindsight. Once they reach a certain age - school age usually - they often become embarrassed, even mortified by the babies and toddlers they used to be. No matter how adorable those images still seem to you. There is no greater insult to a kindergartener or school kid than calling them a baby.

So what happens when they realise there are maybe hundreds or even thousands of images of them as babies and toddlers and pre-schoolers on the Internet and everyone can see them? Maybe they won't care. Maybe this generation will be like, meh. Maybe they will be thrilled! Or maybe they won't.

We don't know yet. And by the time we do, we won't be able to get those photos back.

One of the world's most iconic parenting bloggers, Heather Armstrong, from Dooce, always said that she felt the first couple of years of a child's life belongs to their parents. All kids pretty much do the same thing, she would say, so it's not really a big deal. I'm not sure if that's true.

My generation used to refer to funny photos and videos - say, your kid running around the garden in the nude with a bucket on his head or talking about her first crush  - as "something to pull out for their 21st". Meaning, won't this be funny to reflect on when he or she is grown up.

My parents used to have a photo of me having a tantrum at my 5th birthday party stuck into a photo album along with all the nice smiley photos. They thought it was hilarious. Today, I agree with them. But for many years when I was younger, I would feel the sting of shame every time I saw it. That was a private moment and they took it from me, I thought. To laugh at and share with people. The emotions I felt every time I looked at that photo? Humiliation. And betrayal.

The thing is that now we post these kinds of photos of our kids on social media without thinking about those intensely painful, private, awkward tween and teen years when many kids want to assert their identities as separate to their parents. Those are the years when kids try to take control about what images and information about their lives are shared online. "Don't post that without asking me," they say. Or just "Don't you dare post that."

ADVERTISEMENT

Kids become hyper aware of the images their parents share and that's a good thing. We teach them to do this! We teach them to be mindful of what they post and to be aware of the fact that once it's out there, you can never get it back. That's our job.

And yet.

Are we breaching their privacy ourselves by deciding what's going to be out there forever attached to their name?

This is a genuine question not a rhetorical one and certainly not an accusation. Fists down, remember?

"Sharenting" is something parenting bloggers, celebrities, people in the public eye and first-person writers like me have been wrestling with for many years. It's part of the reasons many parenting bloggers are forced to stop writing about their kids: at a certain age, when they become aware of it, the kids flatly refuse. I've been on the wrong end of this myself many times when I've breached a boundary I hadn't even perceived was there and written something about them that I thought was funny or cute or interesting or helped me make a point or tell a story.

I crossed an invisible (to me, not them) line and they reacted with horror. They felt betrayed.

One of the saddest parts for me about my son's tween and teen years was that I couldn't write about him (or mothering) anymore because he wouldn't let me. SO MUCH GREAT MATERIAL! ALL OUT OF BOUNDS!

Here is that teenager now - he's 19 and has given me permission to post this image of us together:

Mia and Luca (Image supplied)

There is no rulebook or roadmap for any of this. We are the first generation of parents who have to decide how much of our children's lives are made public. We must choose how exposed they're going to be. How much of their story we're going to write through images of them and words about them before they're old enough to decide how  - and if - they want to be portrayed to the world.

These are very big decisions. And who knows how this is going to turn out.

All I can tell you is how my kids feel about it now that they're old enough to talk and understand the Internet.

And how I've realised that the idea of 'dignity' can be subjective. What I think it cute can be, for them, a painful loss of dignity.

They want their privacy and they want the power to control the way they're portrayed. Your kids might feel differently when they're old enough to tell you. But if they want those photos taken down, what will you tell them?

Let's all keep talking about it.