The year I turned 37 years old was the year my mother finished my baby book. It was also the year she started it, a fact I no longer hold against her. As a kid, I held a lot of grudges against my mom, which I documented aggressively in my daily journals.
Who: Margaret McInerny
What: Received the Meanest Mom Award
Why: For always—ALWAYS!!!—taking Patrick’s side. For neglecting her second daughter and BLAMING HER for everything!!!
I was the third of four children, sandwiched between two brothers, the youngest of whom was obviously my mother’s favorite. Any attention I got was simultaneously too much and never enough, and whose fault could that be other than my mother’s? Several of my friends had stay-at-home moms who welcomed us home from school with pitchers of Kool-Aid and frozen sliders fresh from the oven because they were a family whose driveway was graced bi-weekly with a Schwan’s refrigerated truck delivering all kinds of high-priced, highly processed frozen foods. My mother shopped in the bulk section of the grocery store and usually ate a dinner of Fritos dipped into cottage cheese, which she enjoyed while hunching over the kitchen counter as her ungrateful children took turns whining over whatever meal she’d made after a three-hour round-trip commute to the small town where she laid out catalogs for seasonal tchotchkes for eight hours.
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The baby book, who includes photos as well as childhood ephemera like broken baby teeth (tucked into an envelope labeled “probably yours”), is evidence not only of my childhood, but of her motherhood. When she left that rural photo studio, her professional work was done. All that lay ahead was an hour-long drive back to a house where she could sink into the second shift of packing our lunches, hounding my brothers about homework, and making sure we were generally nourished, bathed, and ready for the day ahead. Without this book and the few boxes rotting in a storage unit somewhere, my childhood would not exist outside of my memory and the memories of my family. I’d forgotten about my favorite sweatshirt’s white crewneck with a purple image of a stegosaurus emblazoned across the front until I saw a photo of 5-year-old Nora wearing it. I’d forgotten about our dad’s George Harrison phase in the ’80s, where he let his hair grow out long and wavy.
Am I a part of the last generation to have a forgettable childhood? Not an uneventful childhood, but a childhood that has the ability to be forgotten, to be tossed into a dumpster or burned in a fire. A childhood that isn’t backed up to the cloud, archived and available for download.
When my son Ralph was born, we were prepared. Two weeks before my husband Aaron stood at my feet and attempted to catch the baby (he missed), I was sitting beside his hospital bed while a catheter threaded up his femoral artery to his brain and pumped in poison designed to kill an aggressive brain tumor while hopefully not killing him. Under the thin cotton of my Old Navy maternity T-shirt, our child pushed against his father’s touch. Aaron was 33; I was 30. In the last 15 months, he’d had two craniotomies and was starting his second round of radiation. The baby inside me had been conceived with an act of medicine between me and a kind-eyed nurse who’d set an egg timer and wished me luck after inserting a syringe into me, hopefully sending Aaron’s thawed sperm toward the eggs that had been released with the help of a needle jabbed into my stomach the day before.
A happy, healthy family. A happy, healthy family, was the prayer I mentally telegraphed out to the universe while Aaron’s thin fingers rested on my belly. “What’s the baby’s hashtag?” was what I said out loud.
Aaron and I were Internet People. We’d briefly met years before we’d connected on Twitter, but bantering online is what gave us the courage to meet again. We were in this same hospital the day we found out about his brain tumor, and we’d spent the liminal space between his CAT scan and his diagnosis staging photos for this new app called Instagram. Aaron posed in a wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I captioned it “my personal FDR.” It was fun and funny, because we were young and stupid. Besides, the only people who saw our photos were us and the few friends who’d decided to use the app. Everyone else was on Facebook, and once something was on Facebook, it was real.
At our wedding, we asked guests to post photos to Instagram with a hashtag (#purminerny). The wedding took place just two weeks after Aaron’s official diagnosis of stage IV brain cancer. There wasn’t time to wait, and there wasn’t money for a traditional wedding. I ordered a red dress on the internet and kept the tags on. Aaron got coordinating Nikes. We stocked up on Costco champagne and set up a livestream for anyone who couldn’t make it, which was most people on just a few weeks’ notice. This was nearly a decade before COVID-19 would make Zoom the most popular wedding venue of 2020, and the notion of putting your wedding on the internet was so novel that the New York Times interviewed me for a piece called “More Guests for Less (Wi-Fi Required),” where I’d apparently said, “The fact that guests were attending by the internet and computer screen didn’t make it any less touching to us.”
Later that night, lying in a hotel-room bed with our friends, Aaron and I scrolled through Twitter and Instagram, double-tapping photos from the night and screenshotting the evidence that our wedding was a local trending topic on Twitter.
Ralph Purmort arrived in the world in January 2013. He had 10 fingers and toes, a car seat that we didn’t know how to operate, and a hashtag (#Ralphiegrams) ready to deploy on any and all photos of him from that day on. By then, Instagram had over 152 million users who posted over 65 million photos a day, but few of them batted an eye when it was announced that Instagram owned every photo you posted and could use them for advertising purposes without compensating you. Who could possibly make money off my filtered photos of dismal desk lunches?
I’d given up on the idea of making Ralph a baby book before he was born. There was no need, because we’d taken the time to set up a blog for him on Tumblr.com, where every Instagram photo posted with his hashtag would create a blog post on his own personal Tumblr. We imagined this little corner of the internet collecting all the photos our friends and family snapped, thousands of photos and memories all available for him to access anytime he wanted, forever.
There were—are—thousands of photos of Ralph on the internet. Internet acquaintances took his funniest photos and turned them into memes. I reveled in watching photos of him gain likes and comments while also pretending to be ambivalent about it. It feels good to be liked online; it feels just as good to watch your children be liked online. Anyone on Instagram could click #ralphiegrams and be taken to a chronological display of our child’s life. But to see it on Tumblr? Oh, you needed a password for that. What was that choice, if not a small whisper of the natural urge to protect our young? How quickly was it shouted down by the natural urge for validation and attention?
I always had a line for the kinds of photos I would share. Obviously there would be no nude photos and nothing embarrassing. I cringed at parents who posted photos of their kids smeared in their own excrement, just like I cringed writing the word excrement because it really is a much more upsetting word than poop, isn’t it? Instead, I posted photos of him sitting beside his dad during Aaron’s chemo treatments. I posted a photo of him screaming, purple-faced, after his MMR inoculation. When Aaron entered hospice care in our home, I posted a photo of 22-month-old Ralph, standing in overalls and tippy-toes peeking into his father’s hospital bed.
In 2015, I stepped off the stage at a local benefit for the American Cancer Society, where I’d been a keynote speaker for their “younger demographic.” Ready to disappear into anything other than this bleak reality, I opened my phone. I was tagged in several Facebook comments and tweets by friends and acquaintances thrilled to show me a BuzzFeed listicle titled “10 Pranks All Dads Need to Try Once.” The thumbnail image was my own fatherless child, drool dripping from his tiny mouth, with a set of messy eyebrows penciled onto his face. It was, in fact, not his father who had “pranked” him, but me, during an afternoon with my sister while Aaron was in bed sleeping off the side effects of his chemo.
I was annoyed, but then I noticed that the listicle wasn’t a typical BuzzFeed listicle, but a piece of branded content created by an automobile maker we’ll call Nissan because that’s their name. Now I was pissed the heck off. It was Super Bowl weekend, and they were promoting a hashtag called #withdad, developed to complement their commercial. The last time Ralph had been #withdad was the day his father died in our guest room. It had been just three months, and while I had just been onstage trying my best to be inspiring, I was really a black hole of rage and unresolved PTSD.
I tweeted to @NissanUSA from the dance floor, beneath a projected image of my dead husband. Two nights later, I was tapping out an email, having received an anonymous tip from a Nissan insider that the communications team was aware of my tweet. My tipster provided email addresses for all four men (obviously) in charge of the campaign, and I wrote a scorcher about using other people’s content without their express written consent.
But legally, they didn’t need my consent. The photo had been posted to a Flickr.com account my sister had forgotten was uploading all of her photos from her phone for safekeeping. Some years ago, she’d clicked a button that listed that photo as “creative commons,” meaning it was legally fair game.
It did not feel fair. It did not feel good. And it didn’t feel good to spew my anger lava all over a bunch of corporate men who did eventually reply with an email so generic, I wondered if it had been written by a bot. What did I want out of that interaction—an apology? A free minivan? To taste the sweet nectar of Being Right and Righteous? Because after that email, did my posting habits change? No, they did not. My son’s childhood continued to unfold in the feeds of countless strangers, as my own Instagram following grew to more than 100,000.
I shared Ralph’s life as if it were my own, and I defended myself to imaginary detractors with an essay about this practice in 2017. The headline: “My Son Is a Hashtag.” At the time, Ralph was turning 4 and had started hissing like a cat when people who followed me on Instagram addressed him publicly, referencing parts of his life that he had foolishly assumed were between the two of us. I paused momentarily after each interaction, struggling with how to give him context about how a stranger would know about his imaginary brother, Gary. But I didn’t stop posting.
It’s not that I had no evidence that my posting habits weren’t great for my son. There were hundreds of little moments, like him holding his hand up like a badgered celebrity, shouting, “No photos!” as I picked him up on his first day of preschool, or leaning in to the camera for a selfie with me and then asking 10 minutes later, “How many people like it?” It was his impression of me at age 4 when he found an old iPhone in his toy bin and picked it up. “Hold on, I’m on Instagwam.” he said in his little elfin voice. There was the nagging feeling that instead of documenting his childhood, I was displaying it, defining it, robbing him of the chance to tell his own story. Ralph was a character in my one-woman show, where I played the role of mother.
I no longer had a partner to bore with the minutiae of my day, nobody to lock eyes with as our child attempted to stab a mac-and-cheese noodle with his dull plastic fork, no real-time witness to the miracle of a growing child. Along with dopamine and validation, Instagram stepped into the role of witness for Ralph’s and my life. Every post was a call for attention, every like and comment a response: you are here, we see you.
When I remarried and Ralph became a youngest child, the simplicity of sharing his life online was more complicated. Not posting the children I acquired by marrying Matthew felt like I was omitting them from our life. It felt like that for them, too. They were old enough to google me, and old enough to ask why I hadn’t posted photos of them. The answer was tangly: Did they want me to? Did their father? Their mother? A new awareness of boundaries with them made me question why I felt so free with Ralph’s image.
When I gave birth to my youngest child and Ralph became a middle kid, I created a new and only slightly rational boundary: I’d withhold our baby’s real name and only post photos of Ralph and the older kids with their consent. For a while that worked to assuage my guilt. “They see everything that’s posted before I put it up,” I said to myself, as if a person who still hadn’t learned to define his left and right feet could possibly understand the terms and conditions of an app that I myself had blindly accepted.
One night I spent hours going through my feed, deleting or archiving every photo with Ralph’s face in it. “I’m not posting photos of the kids anymore,” I told Matthew. The declaration didn’t seem to hold any gravity with him, which disappointed me. Didn’t he see how morally correct I was? How I could see the error of my ways and was now superior to so many other mothers? He did not.
I rarely take photos of any of the children anymore, not because I’m more present and living in the moment or limiting my screen time, but because without the dopamine reward of likes, the stimulus has lost its magnetism. When I do take photos, I’m reminded not only what a crappy photographer I am but that I’m also just like my mother; these photos won’t sit in envelopes inside boxes in a basement for decades, they’ll sit in the cloud until they’re randomly deleted. And if my generation is ever able to retire, maybe I’ll get a second wind and sort through the boxes in my closet filled with his drawings and birthday cards and undistributed school photos. Probably not, though.
Who is Ralph? That’s for him to discover and define. But I can say with certainty that he is definitely not a hashtag.
Copyright © 2022 by Nora McInerny. From the book BAD VIBES ONLY: And Other Things I Bring to the Table by Nora McInerny to be published by One Signal Publishers, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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