Recently, Rebecca Schuman wrote an explanation of why she routinely flips off her sleeping baby, then posts pictures of the apparently gleeful act on social media for all to see. Schuman, an education columnist at Slate, holder of a PhD in German, and mother to a 7-month-old girl, attempts to defend this practice on both moral and self-interested grounds. In other words, she both enjoys flipping off her baby and thinks it’s right.
I, like many readers, remain unconvinced. I’m five months pregnant with my own first child, also a daughter, and though I’m sure I’ll make plenty of parental missteps, flipping off my baby will not be among them. For those who do not feel an instinctual (but justified) appraisal of tastelessness towards the photos, there are plenty of articulable reasons not to flip off your baby.
1. It’s Not a Feminist Issue
I can agree with Schuman in objecting that mothers are sometimes expected not only to sacrifice themselves for their children but to look and feel happy while doing so. But a little subtlety is in order, because you certainly don’t have to go to the other extreme of celebrating apparent maternal indifference to combat that expectation.
Struggling new mothers are just as likely to think Schuman (a relatively privileged, married white woman) is treating the issue blithely as thinking she’s genuinely trying to express solidarity with them. And it’s not a good look on any parent (male, female, or other), by the way. My husband is 6’4” and will be over 200 pounds larger than our daughter. Think his flipping off the baby selfies would go over well?
2. The Power Discrepancy Is Huge
Feminists, though, are at their best when they’re talking about power discrepancies. There could hardly exist a bigger power discrepancy than that between a sleeping infant and an angry-looking adult. The flip-off selfies obviously invite the viewer to imagine that Schuman is even more angry and ill-intentioned towards her baby than she ardently claims she is. It makes us squirm for a good reason.
3. People Should Feel Uncomfortable with Adults Looking Mad at Babies
I hate to state the obvious, then, but people should feel uncomfortable with adults looking mad at babies. This is a useful emotional impulse. The justificatory burden rests firmly upon anyone who would have us shed it to prove why that world would be better. Schuman has not met it.
Schuman still obviously cares about people thinking she’s a caring mom, or she wouldn’t also include tidbits such as that she and her daughter co-sleep. Extreme cases notwithstanding, wanting to be a good parent and to be seen as one is generally healthy and conducive to well-functioning families and societies.
4. It’s Not Art
Schuman, therefore, has a strange view of aesthetics, in which we are supposed to actively suppress our reasonable emotions towards apparent displays of malice towards babies, and take to heart her wordy explanations for them instead. But selfies presented routinely on social media aren’t really art. Although these things of course exist on a continuum, selfies are typically closer to selective but real depictions of everyday life. Put your half-baked attempts at subversion in an art museum, not on Facebook.
I do not mean to suggest for a moment that Schuman is literally an unfit mother, but she brought these pictures up for public assessment, and public assessment she’ll get. Why is Schuman so determined to defend an act that serves little purpose but flies in the face of good taste and good character?
The endearingly grumpy “bad mother” beat is certainly nothing new, and mommy bloggers have been assuming this persona for years and years now. Collectively, it has probably done some good for tempering our expectations of mothers and clarifying what day-in, day-out parenting is really like. But Schuman takes this theme to new, totally gratuitous lows with these selfies.
At the end of the day, if you do something meant to bring you small flickers of happiness, but it requires hundreds of words of navel-gazing self-indulgent writing and follow-up tweet storms to justify, and comes possibly at your child’s future emotional expense, you should probably just not.