Beware of Potty Crashers: Today’s Baby Shaming is Tomorrow’s Therapy Bill

Illo: David Saracino

Illo: David Saracino

Over the weekend, my friend told me about her 2-year-old son’s anal fissure. We were strolling through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, admiring the cherry blossoms as our kids scampered Frogger-style through three lanes of Bugaboos, when she confessed that he couldn’t poop without crying.

“Poor guy,” she sighed. “He won’t take baths, either.” Then she proceeded to describe the wound in detail, before adding, “It’s the kind of thing some people would put on Facebook.” I didn’t need to scroll through my news feed to prove her right. In the past week alone, I have seen photos of a grotesquely infected eye, a placental encapsulation and a “potty” full of urine. 

Posting cringe-inducingly intimate information for public consumption is nothing new (hell, Mandy Stadtmiller and Lena Dunham make careers out of it), but there’s something about the parental overshare that’s especially creepy, probably because in 99.9 percent of cases, it’s nonconsensual. It’s one thing to whore yourself out for media attention, mass retweets and blog page-views (I say this confidently, having reviewed a set of what can only be described as “vagina weights” for a website in 2011); it’s another thing to whore out your kids.

Take, for example, the idea of baby shaming, in which parents post photos of their (mostly) preverbal children holding signs outlining their various transgressions (“I hit Daddy in the face when he told me he loved me … and then I laughed!”). Upon grazing the zeitgeist sometime last year, this practice quickly expanded to include older children; however, the sight of a teenager standing in a busy intersection wearing a sandwich board filled with shortcomings struck a slightly less hilarious note, perhaps due to the obvious emotional abuse.

Now, the Tumblr blog “Reasons My Son Is Crying,” in which a father pauses to take a photo every time his young child experiences existential anxiety, is the shame meme du jour, and I personally can’t wait until the titular son grows up to start his own blog, “Reasons My Dad and I No Longer Speak.”

Outrageously confessional personal essays are another popular method of ensuring future therapy sessions for your knee-high family members. “I love my son more than my daughter,” a mom blogger named Kate wrote breathlessly on the parenting site Babble. Her post instantly went viral, attracting commenters who came bearing both casseroles and pitchforks. But that was in 2011. Now Kate looks like a total wuss compared to the scores of parents who readily admit, in print, with a byline, to not loving any of their kids at all. In a culture that values page-views over scruples, no tirade can ever go too far. Mommie Dearest has a HuffPo login, and she’s not afraid to use it.

At this juncture, I feel I should own up to the fact that I am, as an individual at least, a huge oversharer. I recently took it upon myself to inform the Internet that my menstrual cycle had finally returned after an 18-month postpartum drought, and I once wrote a blog post comparing my pubic hair to Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, which all but guarantees a stage in the not-too-distant future during which my son will refuse to look me in the eye. I try to heed the example of breeder-mocking blogs like STFU, Parents and keep my kid out of my deep emotional need for online validation, but this very column—which will live forever in page caches even if you end up using the paper version to line your cat box—will ensure that Sam will someday have a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail to the roots of his various neuroses.

It’s easy to become an oversharing parent, because as soon as the cord gets cut, your TMI meter essentially goes with it. Becoming a mother or father means bidding farewell to the days when the frequency of another person’s bowel movements could fairly be classified as “too much information.” Ditto the texture of their rashes, or their tendency to fondle their genitalia while bathing.

We gleefully report on the antics of our children as though they are not our own flesh and blood but tiny actors in the stage play of our lives, hired to entertain us—and, through our reporting, all of our friends—with their adorably naive bon mots. Something about the fact that it’s a child you’re talking about makes it seem okay to share things like “Have you seen Camden’s skin tag?” or “Tallulah stuck my toothbrush up her butt the other night.” It’s a tunnel-visioned affliction that assumes everyone else is as interested in the minutiae of your obsessions as you are, kind of like people who get an iPhone and suddenly cannot stop talking about their new apps.

The problem is that kids are real human beings who have every right to their personal privacy, even if they aren’t old enough to understand it just yet. And if the oversharing is extreme enough, their lives can be impacted in potentially serious ways. One mom blogger I read inadvertently got her 6-year-old kicked out of school for openly complaining about its administration on her website. Another was contacted by police when a (fully clothed) photo of her daughter was recovered from the computer of a pedophile. And then there are the online media ambulance-chasers who capitalize on big news stories by throwing their personal anecdotes into the mix.

Remember “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”? I’m surprised that no one released a “My Son Could Have Been a Boston Bomber” trend piece. And while I realize that these types of stories might help other parents feel better about their challenging or abnormal children, that’s simply not enough to justify exposing a teenager’s deep emotional issues to the world at large—a world that will someday include his or her future employers, co-workers, partners and children.

Who knows what my life would be like had my own mother had access to Facebook in 1980. My friend Salvador and I famously played a game we called “Look in Butt,” which would surely at least have merited a status update, if not also a tastefully censored photograph. And I’m not even going to touch the preteen years, during which I developed acne, struggled with insomnia that could only be cured by listening to cassette tapes of Garrison Keillor and lived through what I can only refer to as The Tampon Incident due to the residual shame. Becoming an adult is humiliating enough; there’s really no need to live-tweet it.

To that end, I set limits as to what I will and won’t share about my son. I won’t ever write out his full name online, to keep him from being Google-able before he’s able to control his own Internet identity, and I’ll never intentionally shame or humiliate him just for a laugh or a Facebook like. I don’t care as much if he’s embarrassed by what I write and share about myself, but I want him to feel like I protected him as much as I could.

But even the most protective mother would be hard-pressed to refrain from discussing any compromising details about her son in private, undocumented conversations—especially when she’s been drinking. Getting too anal retentive about this stuff never ends well. That’s how fissures form.

editorial@observer.com