When Slate education columnist Rebecca Schuman wrote “Baby Bird,” in which she evaluated the ethics of flipping off her daughter during naptime, she expected some negative comments. What she did not expect was people openly wishing for her and her baby to die, threats to call Child Protective Services, or a multiday flood of abuse and condemnation on her Facebook page and personal website. Here, Schuman speaks with her editor Jessica Winter about how she’s faring against the attacks, the gender dynamics of parent shaming, and the most constructive way to engage with trolls.
Jessica Winter: Hello, Rebecca!
Rebecca Schuman: Greetings from Day 5 of my captivity.
Winter: A few weeks ago, I sent you the following fateful email: “When I am back from vacation, you should file a piece about how you give your adorable baby the finger on social media.” You wrote the piece and we published it. What happened next?
Schuman: For the first few days, nothing. The regular Slate readership had mixed feelings, but nothing that was out of the ordinary, and I didn’t get anything sent to me directly. I got a lot of very funny feedback, both positive and negative, from friends, relatives, and strangers. Then I went on with my life.
But then I started getting a lot of messages on my professional and personal Facebook pages. They were really angry: “Die bitch.” “Do us all a favor and off yourself.” “I hope God takes your baby away and doesn’t give you another one.” It got to the point where I was getting five or six hate messages sent to me directly per hour, many of them invoking the demise of either myself or my daughter.
One of my readers tipped me off: The story (and the photos) had been picked up, taken out of context, and repackaged by some conservative media outlets. I don’t deal with this crowd often—they tend not to be the demographic for my higher-ed pieces—so I had no idea what I was in for. And it just keeps coming.
I had to lock down my personal Facebook page. Facebook has been the opposite of helpful. Apparently a drag performer who wants to go by Queen Awesome will get booted for not using her birth name, but 50 messages of “die bitch I hope you get ur fingerss broke” do not violate “community standards.”
Oh, this just in: “You think it’s ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ to treat your child like an inconvenience? You have no idea what damage that can do to a kid! I hope everyone saves those screenshots so she can grow and see what a disgusting piece of crap her mother is! If kids are that much trouble, keep your damn legs closed, although I’m surprised anyone wanted anything to do with you in the first place!”
Winter: Sometimes I think the Internet was invented to give people a more efficient delivery system for the message that women should keep their legs closed, except for when they should open them.
Winter: Given that each of us is the owner-operator of both a vagina and a baby, I’m curious about the gender aspect of parenting critiques. If you were a bro kicking back with a beer and giving your snoozing baby the finger, would you have come in for this kind of vitriol? Or would it have been a celebratory you-go-dude Go the Fuck to Sleep situation and Werner Herzog would have re-enacted the photographs in his next documentary?
Schuman: The latter, absolutely. Mothering is a zero-sum game. Either you love your child and every single moment of motherhood is a blessed blessing from blessed God—even when the kid gets projectile diarrhea at 4 a.m.—or you never should have had kids because nobody said it was easy. There is no room for a middle ground of “I love my child more than life itself, but also, it takes a lot of time and energy to put her to sleep, and I would like to make a joke about that.” Instead, the language and tone of acceptable mothering are strictly policed, and because I don’t conform to that, people jump straight to: You’ve got postpartum psychosis; you’re awful; your child is in danger.
I thought there was room for my mothering language, because I had been a reader of Heather Armstrong’s Dooce blog for years, and I recently read a very powerful novel by Elisa Albert called After Birth. Armstrong is hilarious and Albert is relentlessly lyrical and honest, and you could file their work under the label “subversive mothering.” It is a well-worn genre for me, but I guess it’s not familiar to everyone. In the months after my daughter was born, if I hadn’t had After Birth, Heather Armstrong, Jen Mann, Tracy Moore, and a sense of humor, I’d have been miserable. But I’m not. My baby and I are two peas in a pod, completely head over heels for each other. Anyone who reads 30 seconds of my work—even “Baby Bird”!—can readily see that.
Winter: Well, that’s one of the hallmarks of Internet discourse—people commenting passionately on pieces they haven’t read. I do wonder, though, if part of the reason some people had trouble with your piece is an issue of context. I read everything you write, we email all the time, we swap cute and funny stories and pictures of our babies. So if I see a picture of you flipping your daughter the bird, it's one tiny tile in a rich mosaic I know as Rebecca. But if you were a stranger and I saw that picture ripped out of any surrounding fabric, maybe I would react differently.
Schuman: Perhaps. It depends on how you are predisposed to think about mothering already. You have a sense of humor about it. Also, I assume you’ve seen that famous Louis C.K. stand-up routine and didn’t call for his head. Although he’s a man.
Winter: Ah yes, his great “My daughter is a fuckin’ asshole” bit.
Schuman: Nobody called CPS on Louis C.K. I should have realized that that sort of discourse is 100 percent not allowed if you are a mother. It’s also infuriating because it has wider implications. There is actual pernicious violence and harm to minors in this world! If only this crowd would get as worked up about that.
Winter: But part of what makes the Louis C.K. routine so funny is what makes your piece and pictures so funny: Both of them do make me slightly uncomfortable. There is that little jolt of Oh my god, he called his 4-year-old an asshole! Oh goodness, she is giving her baby the finger! That frisson of shock is part of what makes it hilarious. Laughter is at least partly a function of surprise.
Schuman: Definitely. What I didn't realize (and maybe you didn’t either, when you assigned the piece) is that to a large chunk of America, giving the finger is a Big. Effing. Deal. It honestly is not in my house. It doesn’t mean anything bad. When we do it, we laugh. We have contests to see who can do the best and most elaborate variation. But to a lot of people, it's apparently the same as hitting someone. (Even though, especially the way I do it, it is not.)
Winter: A lot of the concern trolling you’ve received has been based around your daughter getting old enough to Google herself and feeling sad when she finds these photos. How do you respond to that?
Schuman: The idea that these photos will somehow be a surprise to my daughter is hilarious. The narrative of her as a spirited, “high-need” sparkler of a baby will begin as soon as she is old enough to talk. I will show her the pictures myself when she’s about 7 or 8, and I will contextualize them. She is already very silly and funny, so I am hoping she gets it. If she’s hurt, I will explain to her that I was not flipping her off in rage. I was simply celebrating her nap in an unconventional way.
Babies feed off their mothers’ emotions all the time. That’s the irony here. When I took those photos, all I felt was exhaustion and elation. I have a very expressive face and I enjoy acting, so the “rage” or “hostility” or “hatred” or “contempt” that people have been so sure they see is staged. In each case, my daughter was snuggled happily up next to me and remained that way for the duration of her nap—fiercely loved and immaculately cared for.
Winter: As your editor and as a reader of Slate, I dearly hope that you will continue writing about parenting for the magazine. But has this experience changed your outlook? Will you think twice before being a mother on the Internet again?
Schuman: On the contrary. I will not let a bunch of people with no sense of humor and abusive, regressive ideas about what mothering means dictate the honesty of my parenting narrative.
When I started writing bluntly about academia, I got a lot of pushback because I had punched some sacred cows in the face. But I also got gratitude: Thank you for saying what I’m afraid to say, lest I be deemed a failure. I take this approach with everything I do. I am relentlessly honest about being a flawed person. I make fun of myself because I think that is the most responsible way to be a humorist. If people choose to take me out of context and pile on, that’s up to them.
At this point, it’s all for a good cause. For every “threat” to call CPS I get, I make a donation to a crisis-care nursery in my hometown where I did volunteer work as a teen. I want to use the idiocy of the Internet to help children in actual volatile situations.
Winter: That’s a fantastic idea! Usually when a writer of mine is getting trolled, I have one piece of advice that I repeat like a mantra: Do not engage. Do not engage. But this seems like a brilliant mode of engagement.
Schuman: If readers would like to get in on the fun, they can donate here. I asked my parents if they would match my donations and they said, “I don’t know if we can afford to.” Maybe I’ll hit up Louis C.K.
Winter: People at Slate’s New York office see him around the West Village all the time—we’ll keep an eye out.