May 22 2018

Athletes, their children and social media

“Can’t wait for the adventures ahead with this little man.”
 
That’s the caption I wrote on my first Instagram as a mom. I posted it from the hospital bed as I held a seven-pound infant to my bare chest. I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours, couldn’t stand upright, but had been through the most profound experience of my life. It’s human nature to want to share these impactful moments.
 
Over the previous nine months, I had documented my pregnancy and everything that came with it on social media. I normally shared my adventures and athletic feats, it felt weird to veer from that course. But we share what consumes us, mentally and physically. As my body changed, I wrote about fears over losing parts or all of my life that I had held onto so tightly: my fitness, my job, and the transition to the uncertain role of becoming a mother.
 
Being in the public eye since my teenage years is something that I’m used to, although this aspect of my career has always made me uncomfortable. I have always kept my reputation and image guarded, to some degree, as I had seen and experienced how misinformation and misunderstandings could affect people in the same position as me.
 
At first, it was scary to share my naked fears about motherhood with the world, but the warm and genuine responses were encouraging. Hearing from women around the world who have experienced similar emotions and fears as me made me feel not so alone. When scared, feeling connected to others is comforting. I felt a sense of community I hadn’t experienced in years. Sharing raw feelings brought me closer to my friends and made it easier to feel like myself in the public. I dropped the sense that I needed to somehow present myself as a flawless athlete and influencer—who always climbs hard and never gets scared—which I had thought I needed to be in order for companies or people to find me valuable. My conversations changed from route beta and weather to hemorrhoids and bleeding nipples. I started to see that being open and vulnerable was actually a strength and an asset, not the weakness that I had always perceived it to be. Through conversations on this blog, on social media, and within the community, it felt like we as women athletes, climbers, and mothers finally had a forum to share both our excitement and nervousness about motherhood.
 
After spending the past month in Fontainbleau with a bunch of amazing climbing families and amazing moms, we ended up sharing a number of posts about our kids—playing in the dirt, climbing boulders, and having the times of their lives.
 
I’ll admit, people are far more connected, in good ways, thanks to social media. I think these platforms offer benefits as well as drawbacks, like most things in life I guess.
 
Theo is now four years old (how does that even happen!?!) and he has been a constant in my social-media feed. But lately, given that I have a public persona, I’ve been questioning how much of his life I ought to be sharing? When does using a child’s image start to cross into marketing yourself?
 
It’s not just a question about marketing. It’s also a question that, I think, all parents may struggle with: What is the right balance for sharing the lives of our children in such a public forum on social media?
 
I’m a strong advocate for women athletes maintaining their careers through pregnancy and motherhood. I think it’s important to have such role models for the next generation to see what’s possible. Women such as Serena Williams, Alana Blanchard, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kimmy Fasani are all women who have broken barriers in their respective sports and have children. I find their social media accounts inspirational, which feature both athletic and personal photos. They are going through things that all athletes and mothers experience, that we all can relate to.
 
But we also use our lives, personal and athletic, to represent brands. As both mothers and professional athletes, that means we’re also including another person in our professional careers. How do we balance being professional athletes with letting our children navigate their own paths and create their own stories? This is something I’ve struggled with Theo’s entire life.
 
When Theo was a few months old I was approached by a new diaper company to use Theo in advertisements and marketing. At first I was honored and flattered that they would want to give us free diapers. It reminded me of my first free pair of climbing shoes. But after I got off the phone, I picked Theo up from his crib and wondered if that is something that he would be okay with? Of course, at that age, he couldn’t even distinguish black and white from color, but I wondered if that was a role he would want to shoulder? In the end, I graciously declined their offer. I had no history or connection with this company other than that 30-minute phone call. Unlike with, say, one of my sponsors, with whom I’ve had a long relationship, I couldn’t immediately bring myself to trust that they would use his image appropriately.
 
I try to think hard about every picture of Theo I post, though sometimes I’ve posted pictures and had second thoughts, then removed them. I’m hesitant to completely document all of his experiences. I don’t want to emcee his life for him.
 
When I was pregnant, I was choosing to share private, scary information about my life and emotions. I consciously accepted that risk of putting myself out there. Do we as parents automatically get to make those same decisions for our kids—or should we be far more cautious? It doesn’t take very long for babies to turn into kids who have developed their own personalities, opinions, and feelings. I think back to my childhood, and, if the world had seen all my interests, excitements, hobbies, how would I feel about that? At points I was into juggling, ping pong and badminton—was it beneficial for me to be able to play without the spotlight of social media? Or did it not make a difference?
 
On the other hand, what if sharing our experiences helps encourage other kids or moms to get outside, respect the environment, take chances, and try something new? What if we don’t hide from the public and media, but learn to respect it and have it as part of our lives? Just as sharing has helped me connect to new friends and community, maybe the same can be true for others? Where is that line that we all draw?
 
Obviously for each person and family, the line will be different. My brother and sister-in-law aren’t on social media at all, and, by default, neither are their kids. In contrast, I follow people who document every single aspect of their lives and their children’s lives, from their relationships to their tantrums. All the highs and lows. I admit that I love following along, to see these moments, to feel connected through shared and similar experiences, to know “I’m not the only one…” Some people seem to have a healthy relationship and boundaries with it and pass that on to their teenage and adult children. But perhaps others just see it as a way to vent. Again, there’s an individual line that each family draws.
 
I have a (very mature) teenage friend who recently deleted all social media from her life, but not for privacy concerns. She made the decision after being on her own social media and her family’s. I asked if she minded if I posted pictures of her. “Not at all,” she responded. “I just found that social media wasn’t making me happy or adding positively to my life.”
 
Clearly Theo is his own person—but he’s also a major part of my life. Motherhood is the only other role that has defined me so clearly as climbing has. I know there are many different ways to handle kids and media, from not including them at all, to creating separate private accounts (but switching from account to account seems time consuming and that’s definitely not my forte these days), to sharing only a few select posts, to going all in. We are in a new age of being able to share so widely, and I’m unsure if anyone knows what is right or wrong, especially as each person will react so differently to publicity. I want to try my best to allow Theo to grow up to be his own person, not someone who fits neatly into my persona.
 
Being in the public eye for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned how to deal with it for myself. But now that people follow me for being a mom, I struggle with how to draw a boundary not just for myself and my own presence on social media, but for that of my son.
 
What do you think?

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4 Comments
  • susan dicks

    First of all, I’ve never been first to post a comment on anything before! ha ha. Maybe someone else will get in as I type. Thank you for your insightful comments. I think the balance is tough because we want to share our lives with friends and family, plus we ARE proud of our children. For me, part of it all is the thought that I want them to choose their own online presence (someday.. too young now), in addition to safety. I DO post pictures of my boybarians, and I use strict privacy settings. Two other tricks I use are to not EVER use their first names (I sometimes use their nicknames), and I am on social media under my maiden name vs. married name. Thus my kids actual names are never represented with their pictures. My little probably paranoid work-arounds for their privacy. I am not nearly as big a public and inspirational figure as you are, but I do work in controversial endangered species endeavors under my married name (with occasional media), so extra privacy for them is good I feel. And finally, I try not to judge other mom’s and their choices of course. Thank you for your thoughts– from another Ridgeback doggie aficionado person by the way, Susan

    May 22, 2018 at 4:29 pm
  • SuAnne Caccamese Loeb

    Wow, what an amazing relevant blog post for this crossroad we as parents find ourselves today. I myself and an older mom (45 yrs old with 4 & 6 year old boys). I did t start climbing until I was 27 years old but the climbing community where I was living in NM quickly became my family. I identified myself as a climber and for a while thought that children may never be part of my world. I now live I Pittsburgh, PA where I am from and where I went to grad school (no climbing Mecca but it now has a growing community). I have had my own struggles with finding “the right” balance betwee work, family, and my desire to continue to climb. Without sonding like I am bashing dad’s, I have often made mention of the fact that I think it is more of a challenge to find that balance for a climber Mom than a climber Dad, but this could just be my situation.

    In any event, I have taken great comfort in you blog as you have so generously shared and articulated a mother’s perspective on climbing with the family circus. (Such an appropriate metaphor….I have often sung the Ringling Brothers circus music after recounting any number of tales of my families misadventures!). As social media was having it’s exponential rise in popularity and use, I was consumed with my transition into my role as a mother at age 39. I still find myself suspect of anyone who puts their full faith and trust in Social Media. On the other hand I have to admit when I was feeling quite isolated as a Mom of two very small children and I feared a former climber, your voice and stories made me feel once again connected to both the climbing community and this new tribe I had joined.

    I guess Mothering may be relevant in social media as we try to emulate for our children’s how to responsibly use it and protect ourselves (body, mind, and spirit) from that dark places it can go….like we tell our kids, make good choices. Try to steer clear of those who don’t. Be good. Be nice.

    Thank you Beth…all my best to you and your family circus!!!

    May 23, 2018 at 5:51 pm
  • Christine Hoffman

    Thanks for writing about this topic! Social media and technology is such a good subject when it comes to families. I think it is like anything – it is what we make it out to be. Online communication is our future and I believe if we teach our kids how to use it and be wise, it can be a great asset. I don’t think shielding our kids from things is a way to protect them, but I understand that many people find it best to cut out social media entirely. While I’m not an advocate for showcasing everything about my life, I am an advocate for embracing things we don’t understand and learning how to navigate the unknown (much like an adventure – eh?). Like with anything we learn, it takes practice and many mistakes to figure out what works for each individual. Luckily, we can still choose our privacy settings, delete posts, and block users through most social media sites. Known or unknown, we can educate ourselves through discussions on topics like this! Keep up the challenging dialogue! 😊

    May 23, 2018 at 6:54 pm
  • Sanja

    I appreciate how thoughtful you are about your role as a mother, climber, and sponsored athlete. There is a lot to think about with this issue. I stopped sharing photos of Zeke and I also cut back on social media drastically about a year ago (or who even knows.. time flies. he’s almost 4!!). I’m thinking about how I can get back into it in a way I feel comfortable with. I am feeling a lack of a certain kind of connection it provides. I have gotten into olympic weightlifting and have started using my personal insta for that ( can’t deal with 2 accounts either ) and it’s really useful to get support from the online community. This is all on insta as I still can’t deal with facebook.

    The main reason I stopped posting is that I began to see social media as a platform where I was representing a persona and as I got further into motherhood the persona diverged further and further from my reality. I didn’t really know how to post the bad parts (like a post of me passing out exhausted on the couch?? would that work? ) yet if I post only good things then it’s not authentic. And I know everyone does that but it felt more important to NOT do that with myself as a mother and with my son.

    I’m still trying to figure out a way to share my life in a way that feels authentic. It was really good to read that you were able to open up and it wasn’t so scary, nothing bad happened. We are all trying to find a balance. In social media there is a sense of marketing as well as connection and there is a draw to posting what gets noticed (kids & dogs!!!). But as long as we can show what’s really going on, especially for us mothers I think it can be really powerful.

    May 25, 2018 at 12:56 am