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September 20, 2016

Your little bundle has arrived and you’re embarking on a new life as a mum. Every milestone is a wonder and they’re just so darn cute, how could you not share it? Victoria Wells looks at what can happen when social media and motherhood collide.

When we are young we are taught that sharing is a good thing. But with the rapid explosion of social media over the last decade, sharing has taken on an entirely new dimension – particularly when it comes to parenting.

Our Facebook feeds are full of children (our own and others’) captured on outings, playing with friends or simply being adorable. It repeats on Instagram, but always through a more beautiful filter. And it’s hard to move on the web without stumbling over an online forum for parents, or a blogger laying bare her day-to-day experiences of motherhood. 

But just how much sharing is too much? In March this year the Rotorua Daily Post reported that Lakes District Health Board had banned photos and videos in theatre during C-section procedures and was considering its policy on video and photography elsewhere in its hospitals, citing privacy concerns for staff and other patients amid increased social media sharing.

The online world has become so ingrained in our daily lives that most of us don’t think twice about posting updates from our parenting lives. But should we? 

When it’s good to share…

One of the greatest benefits of social media is its ability to keep us in touch with others and this is especially true when we have children. It lets us share our parenting journey and show off our pride and joy, but also enables us to ask questions and feel less alone when the inevitable ‘new parent doubts’ come calling. (Although it pays to bear in mind that advice from other parents, while often useful, is no substitute for expert knowledge, so if you have a real concern about something then seek out someone qualified to help you.)

Rachel* (33), a mum of two, set up a closed Facebook group for her coffee group when they all had their first babies. “Facebook seemed an easier way for making arrangements to catch up and then it turned into a place to give help and advice for each other. I remember people posting at 1am or 2am… there was a kind of solidarity in knowing that other people were up at the same time. And people could ask questions about the sort of things we were all going through.” 

For Stacey, Facebook was a literal lifesaver. The 33-year-old is mum to Ollie (nearly three), who was born while Stacey and partner Jack were living and teaching in Saudi Arabia. Far from friends and family during her pregnancy, Stacey started a hidden Facebook group called The Yummy Mummies, with about 40 of her friends who were either pregnant or had children. “I used to post questions and ask for advice and then once I had Ollie I shared a lot just within that group – not to all my friends on Facebook.”

The group really came into its own when Stacey was diagnosed with rare post-natal psychosis about six weeks after Ollie was born, when she and Jack returned to New Zealand for a holiday. “I started feeling really bizarre. I went for five days without sleeping, I just felt really wired. In the end I was admitted to Middlemore and stayed there for five days.” 

Once back in Saudi Arabia, Stacey says The Yummy Mummies were there for her. “I was seeing quite a good psychiatrist, but being on medication and away from everyone just sucked. My Facebook group really helped me through it; although a lot of my friends didn’t really understand what I was going through, the fact I could post about how I was feeling or what I was going through – that was a really huge support network for me.” 

Stacey also uses Facebook as a way of keeping in touch with family in Perth. At
a recent family reunion in New Zealand, where many of the young cousins met each other for the first time, Stacey’s stepsister commented on how Facebook had brought everyone closer. “She was saying that it’s like we haven’t missed out on each other’s lives. We feel like we know our nieces and nephews, even though we’d never met before.”

For Karen (32), mum to Poppy (3½) and Louie (6 months), Facebook is an essential tool for keeping up with family back in the UK, after she and partner Sean moved to New Zealand several years ago. “It is everything to them – my mum isn’t the best technology-wise, but she has got her head around Facebook and so she can keep up-to-date with the kids on how they’re growing up and what they’re up to.”

Poppy also has her own Facebook page, which Karen set up and posts on every few weeks with updates from daycare and family outings. While she admits Sean isn’t overly keen on the idea, she says she is very careful about Poppy’s privacy. “It’s like saying I can’t go out to the park with her, because there might be someone there. I do my best to protect her – she’s only got about 20 friends [on Facebook] and I also check who’s friends with them.” For Karen, it’s intended as an online album for Poppy when she’s older. “I don’t have that many photos [from my childhood], whereas Poppy will have her whole life documented there.” 

Rachel also uses social media for keeping friends and family up-to-date with her children but, as a teacher at a girls’ secondary school, is very conscious of who sees personal photos. “I post photos of the kids on Instagram but I have a private account. Even if someone I know requests to follow me
I ask myself: ‘Do I want them to see pictures of my kids?’ I’m quite picky in a way because that is where I put their photos. I do post pictures of them on Facebook, but only one or two every couple of months. I feel like they deserve some sort of privacy – their photos shouldn’t just be out there for the whole world to look at. On the other hand, they’re my children and I want my friends and family to be able to see them because I’m very proud of them.”

Keeping mum 

The security of images posted online is a tricky area. While Facebook allows you to control (to an extent) who can see your photos, Instagram is a more difficult beast to tame. In March The New Zealand Herald reported the case of a Dannevirke mother whose photo of her 14-month-old son was lifted from her Instagram account and used to promote a clothing product via an overseas-based online retailer. 

Given that people can repost Instagram shots almost instantly and share them with their own followers, the idea of a private account or blocking followers you don’t know is worth considering if you have concerns. Hashtags play a part too – a quick search related to ‘toddler’ or ‘baby’ brings up a huge range of images on Instagram, many of them personal accounts. When you don’t know who is looking, suddenly #babybathtime doesn’t seem like such a good idea. 

Rachel opts for a cautious approach. “I’m not worried if someone from my family or a friend posts a picture of my kids playing with their kids, but one time I did ask my sister to take down a photo because it was of Charlie and he happened to be naked. I don’t mind my friends and family seeing that, but I don’t know who her friends are on Facebook.” 

When ‘likes’ become a living

At the other end of the sharing spectrum are mums who are only too happy to post about their families online. Some create a beautiful view of family life, while others take pride in telling it like it is and there is money to be made on both sides. If they build a large enough following it’s not uncommon for PR freebies and advertising or sponsorship offers to follow, in exchange for brand mentions or product giveaways in their posts. 

Stacey and Rachel both follow bloggers renowned for their frank and funny commentaries of motherhood. For Stacey, the appeal lies in the fact they are honest about their life with children. “I guess I just like to know what other mums are going through – and if I’m having a bad day that I’m not the only one.” Juliet agrees: “They’re very real and make you feel much less guilty about things that you do.” 

Then there are the women dubbed ‘The InstaMums’ – mothers who post beautifully constructed and dreamily filtered shots of family life to Instagram. They offer a window to another world – a world where there is no food on the wall or overflowing nappy bin. Theirs is a world of sunset-kissed perfection, where beautifully dressed children frolic happily together on driftwood-strewn beaches. 

And who can blame us for coveting that sort of existence? We all know that in reality no one’s life can actually look like that 100 per cent of the time and that there is probably an enormous pile of dirty washing just out of shot next to that beautiful baby in its pristine onesie gurgling with delight on the organic cotton blanket.

Seeing these exquisitely framed lives pop up on our phones also raises the questions: How long did that mum wait with her phone poised until her baby smiled? Then how long did she spend editing the image, captioning and hashtagging before posting it?

Getting engaged

The truth is that social media has a lot to offer, like connection and information, but it can take away a lot too – like our time and attention. The trick is in striking a healthy balance between the two. 

However much we decide to share online also plays a large part in creating digital footprints – our own and our children’s – and for some it starts early, with mums-to-be posting digital scans of them in utero, through to shots of their first moments in the world. Generation X only had to worry about parents bringing out embarrassing photo albums when friends came to visit, but for those born after the advent of the internet, anyone with Google can trawl the image archives of their lives. 

Rachel says her teenage students’ views of online privacy are vastly different from her own, perhaps because they have grown up with social media. She says they’re proud of the 1000-plus friends or followers they boast online, but admit some are people they’ve never met, are “friends of friends”. 

“These are the mothers of the future,” she says. “It may be when they get older and with motherhood they get that protective instinct when it comes to their children, but I really don’t know if they will. [At the moment] they just want as many people to hit ‘like’ on their photos as they possibly can and that’s going to be really interesting when they have children, whether they change their ideas.”

*Name has been changed

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