Virtue signaling through our children
Making sure everyone else knows you're doing a good job
Like many people I know, I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram that oscillates between intense inspiration and resentment about its grip on my lens of the world.
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about what we’re really seeing and what we’re really posting about when we post on IG. There’s lots of talk of virtue signaling when it comes to activism—did you or did you not post a black square in solidarity during the George Floyd protests? Have you taken a public stance on climate change? The war against Ukraine? Did you support women on International Women’s Day? What are you saying today and tomorrow—as Roe v. Wade is threatened to be overturned?
Brands rightfully get a lot of the flack for egregious examples of corporate-virtue-signaling-activism, but there’s another flavor of it that I believe is primarily driven by mothers (of a certain class/demo), that I find more noxious and more grating on humanity than Pepsi making an soon-to-be-forgotten Earth Day commitment.
I call these micro-virtue-signals, and these exist in the misplaced punctuation of a humblebrag or the quietly impeccable living room of a mom-of-four behind an otherwise innocuous comment. They’re saying in a casually performative way that your kids only have 30 minutes of screentime a week, or suggesting you have both a toddler and an effortlessly impeccable white rug. It’s your low-key sharing about how much they love to practice site words and spelling on their own, and how they clean up their toys at their own volition. It’s suggesting your kids are grateful and gracious by nature, that they play with their siblings without bickering, that they love to practice the violin all on their own, god bless them. The micro virtue signals are everywhere and they push us to hold each other to unreasonable standards, and even when we know this is an intensely curated narrative that was somewhat exploded by the pandemic, it’s still both ubiquitous and jabs us other mothers in the side, making us question and compare all that we do.
What’s perpetuated in this commentary and storytelling is a sense of superiority-slash-morality in having figured it out. But what it really reflects is having enough resources to outsource a lot. It’s having the money-time-choices to make it seem easier and deserved, as though you’re incredibly efficient, more thoughtful, more prepared—as though there’s some meritocracy you’re just crushing. But the white rug is probably clean because you could afford to have someone else clean it. You have time to cook dinner because someone else is watching your kids. Or buying your groceries. They only watch 30 minutes of screentime because it’s either a lie or it’s intensely monitored, both of which require heavy parent involvement.
I am not immune to the behaviors I also scrutinize. The other night I posted a picture of Ada playing a chess app when she wouldn’t go to bed and then cringed at myself hours later. Of course I showed her playing something edifying, and not watching mindless baking competition videos on Youtube Kids, which is my own learned or practice narration around something—that even when it’s not going well it’s going ok and that’s because I had a hand in it. She’s learning!
But here’s a selection of what I didn’t show you in the last 2 weeks: how Ada locked the entire family out of the bathroom yesterday morning and I screamed at her while desperately needing to pee and trying to pry open the lock with a steak knife. How I paid someone to clean my extremely dusty house last week. How pitiful the kids’ dinners have been while Jacob has been out of town. How I screamed at my parents (who had come to help me) in irritation when they kept giving the kids potato chips at 6 a.m. as a “morning snack.”
I don’t think the answer is that we all just show our “real lives.” There’s a reason we choose to document what we document and even capture in the first place. But the micro virtue signals are you, the parent, putting your choices and your efforts on view. They are validations of your decisions, your money and your time. And because parenting well is considered virtuous, this becomes a reinforcing cycle. You’re just making sure everyone knows you’re doing the best for your child, because if you did the best but nobody saw it, did it even happen?
But lost here is also self-awareness, subtlety, surrounding yourself with people that force you to be more empathetic and aware, discomfort, or being ok being called out for being tone deaf, accepting that your child can both exceptional to you but doesn’t need to societally validated as exceptional. Lost is humility—not priding yourself on your one-time activism, not issuing yourself an implicit pat on the back for everything your children can do or the solutions you can afford, and ultimately, not using your children and their preferences, proclivities, and prowess as a statement of your own virtue. There’s a difference between sharing parenting joy and wins, and constant self-aggrandizing signaling. Knowing the difference between the two will help us all feel better about this massive job we’ve each undertaken.
Better breakfast: Putting tahini in your oatmeal is a revelation, which I learned about via recipe developer Rebecca Firsker’s instagram. The kids like their steel cut oats with toasted coconut, maple syrup and raisins.
To read: Molly Wizenberg’s essay about taking risks as you get older, and the the aspirational athleticism of others she felt as a kid (highly relatable). Subscription required — worth it!
To listen: The A24 podcast (in general), but specifically the convo between Ocean Vuong and Bryan Washington, which is from December 2020 but honestly just so delightful and not dated. I also loved the one with filmmaker Kogonada and Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast).
Book talks: Books are Magic has a great lineup of upcoming events. I’m excited to see Angela Garbes talking to my friend Jess Grose and Elif Batuman with Rachel Aviv.
To read: “It’s Time to Rage,” Roxanne Gay’s incredibly powerful and personal essay about the leaked draft of the Roe v. Wade ruling.
What I’m reading: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem by Julie Phillips and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
Donate: The Cut has a roundup of Abortion Funds you can donate to in states that are the most hostile to abortions. Put your money where your mouth is!
Thanks for reading, your thoughtful comments, and for sharing this newsletter. Let me know what you’re doing this week that’s bringing a bright spot amidst the heaviness. I could use some light!