Outside the Frame: Mommy Talk. Mommy Listen?

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.

I should say right off the bat that I don’t have kids. So what am I doing at Momversation, a video blog about the experiences of motherhood? Well, I’m an avid reader of Dooce, Heather Armstrong’s popular blog, and she’s one of Momversation’s contributors. She recently linked to an episode about handling political disagreements with loved ones — a relevant topic regardless of your parenting status — and I decided to check it out. I was intrigued by some of the other episode titles, like “Sex After Baby” and “Childbirth Choices,” and was surprised to find myself sucked in.
Dooce at MomversationsMaybe on some level, I was looking for insight into what almost every one of my friends is going through. Yes: one by one I’ve seen them marching off into mommyhood, and in some cases, I’m still waiting for them to return. In other cases — thank God — mommyhood turned out to be a place where non-moms like myself are welcome.

But for those friends who’ve disappeared… Well, I thought that this website, and these mini-documentaries of their lives — might help me understand what they’re going through and what it feels like to be in their shoes.
Watching Rebecca Woolf talk to me (she sits so close to the camera, it feels like that’s what she’s doing) about how motherhood changed her sexuality, or Daphne Brogdon talk about how judgmental people are of women who have C-sections, I did feel a connection to motherhood I hadn’t felt before. Watching these women talk to each other, and to me, I couldn’t help but relate with them — because first and foremost, their struggles seemed like the struggles of women, not of a special breed of human beings called “moms.”

At times, I wished they would let their guard down more; try less to be funny, or not always tie things up with a neat, “and the moral of the story is…” bow. That’s a stylistic choice, of course, but it made me think about how the material would be different if someone else was documenting them, rather than they documenting themselves. Instinctively, it seems like the project would lose some of its intimacy, but then, maybe not — maybe as individuals, we’re guarded in ways that only someone else’s camera can see through.

I was also disappointed that the bloggers don’t seem to participate in the Momversation forums. There are some very thoughtful exchanges tied to each episode, with users sharing personal stories and reactions to the bloggers’ commentaries. If you’re telling your story online, as these bloggers are — and especially if you’re doing it on a site with a comments feature, it reads as aloof not to engage with the audience. It says to me, “You should be interested in my story, but I’m not interested in yours.” I’m not suggesting the bloggers really feel this way, but it’s what their lack of participation communicates to this user.

Which, actually, is how I feel about some of my mom friends — like I should be interested in what they’re going through, but not vice versa. As much as I revel in seeing my friends discover this new part of themselves and as much as I enjoy — and even, in some cases, love — their kids, I miss the days when our friendship was more of a two-way street. I miss their support, and their interest in things other than Baby.

Everyone’s story is important — this is one of my most deeply held beliefs. Moms, non-moms, world leaders and the rest of us: our stories all matter. It’s great that the Web gives us space to talk, but what’s really powerful is when we stop, listen and respond. Otherwise, we’re just following the same old broadcast model on a brand-new medium — one that offers the potential for so much more.

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • http://wiredformusic.blogspot.com Jordan

    FOREIGNID: 18102
    “It’s great that the Web gives us space to talk, but what’s really powerful is when we stop, listen and respond.” So true, and so well put. Broadcasting is great, but a conversation can become something really meaningful.

  • http://www.pbs.org/pov ruiyan

    FOREIGNID: 18103
    The last line of your post, Amanda, made me think of the recently departed Studs Terkel, who believed that everyone had a story worth listening to. I wonder what he made of the internet, and oral history projects like StoryCorp, etc.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/summerbl4ck/ summerbl4ck

    FOREIGNID: 18104
    Thanks Amanda, I’ll definitely have to check out Momversation, sounds interesting. A few years ago as a new mom, I was very active in seeking out other new moms’ experiences. Now that I have more “experience” I still enjoy learning about other perspectives–but it’s such a loaded topic! I’m definitely more reluctant to share my thoughts/experience as it’s so often perceived as being judgmental. Which is a shame since we have so much we could learn from each other if we let our guard down.

  • rugg

    FOREIGNID: 18105
    Great post! Being on the Soon-to-be-Dad side of things I can say that information about becoming a mom and changes are critical to both parents. Fathers have little to do, especially in the beginning, and tend to police everything that goes into mom’s body. I read early on that was a bad habit to get into and it saved us both a lot of drama.
    There is a lot to know and everything is a potential threat to your unborn (depending on who you ask), just knowing other people are going through same things makes it easier. The web is great for that.
    You do have to be somewhat careful though, for every site that says X is ok in small doses there are 10 that say X will lead to autism. Not mention anything made for babies over a year ago is a choking hazard that leads to spontaneous combustion. So make sure you balance advice and information you come across on the web with care.

  • Jennifer

    FOREIGNID: 18106
    I’ve visited the site a few times, but always leave quickly. I want to see deeper conversations and not always by the same people. Boring. And you’re right, there is no conversation going on between the vloggers and their audience which is just odd. There is no engagement with the users which blogging and vlogging is all about anyway.

  • Theresa

    FOREIGNID: 18107
    Amanda, great post! As a fellow non-mom with tons of mommy friends, I totally get where you’re coming from, particularly the bummer that is the loss of the two-way street friendship. My favorite mommy talk on the Web isn’t a video, but good ol’ fashioned type, in the form of Margaret Warner’s weekly NYTimes blog: Domestic Disturbances. She is a mom and writes about parenting in way that I find incredibly entertaining and thought provoking, and the comments are great, too. I often find myself emailing columns to my mommy friends because they relate to discussions we’ve had, and are usually smart and enlightening. I highly recommend it. And I will check out Dooce!

  • Letty

    FOREIGNID: 18108
    It seems impossible that an event as profound as child rearing wouldn’t affect a friendship. But maybe I’ve lucked out. As a non-mom, I can’t say that I’ve felt the two-way street has changed much with my mom-friends. [Actually, in the case of one of my cousins, it's opened up since she had kids; in large part because, I think, watching her daughters grow reconnects us to our shared childhood.] I’m equally comfortable around parent-friends and non-parent-friends alike. My concern is that when we have kids, our non-parent friends will drop us like hot potatoes.
    As for the “neat bows,” observation: when I read this the second time around, I couldn’t help but wonder if that may be some subconscious Mommy thing. To be a fixer. To be perfect. A dad can change a diaper and he’s the most superior Superman ever. A mom does everything else and no one notices, and if one hair is out of place in her mothering, her whole child-rearing ability is called into question. She is a BAD person. (See how the public reacts to the mothers of children who make patently poor choices, like Jamie-Lynn Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Bristol Palin. There is never any ire for the father.) I see traces of wanting to perfect and fearing maternal failure at every turn in virtually all my mom-friends. I see it in my mother still and I’ve been out of her hair for the better part of 15 years. Maybe the “neat bows” are symptomatic of that: “See? I’ve completed the product and packed your proverbial lunch and it’s 100% nutritious; check the label. I’m a good mom.”

  • Letty

    FOREIGNID: 18109
    By the way, thanks for the links. I look forward to exploring them, more.

  • http://www.creativedc.org Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18110
    Thank you to everyone for the very thoughtful comments!
    Theresa, several non-moms have responded like you did — it makes me sad but is also comforting to realize I’m not alone in this experience. Also, I followed the link you sent — I thought, “how interesting, that Margaret Warner from the NewsHour writes about parenting”…turns out the author is Judith Warner ;) You have PBS on the brain, my friend! But seriously, it looks like a great blog, thanks for the tip!
    Letty — REALLY interesting point about mothers feeling the need to be perfect, and this stemming from a feeling of being watched and judged. You made me wonder how much this is gender versus motherhood issue. I’m sure it gets heightened in certain ways for moms but do you think it might relate to gender roles in general, as well?
    I’ve been surprised by the strong reaction to this piece, not just here but in emails and Twitters I’ve gotten since posting it (my Twitter is @creativedc by the way). It’s definitely the most personal thing I’ve written for this blog. Not to get too “meta,” but it’s interesting to observe that my more personal storytelling seems to resonate on the P.O.V. blog, given the POV emphasis on first-person storytelling….(did I just blow your mind?!)
    Over and out…