On Saturday I’ll be speaking at a conference on maternal mental health in the Muslim community sponsored by the Muslim Wellness Foundation in Philadelphia. We’ll be covering infertility, miscarriage, and postpartum depression; I’ll specifically be talking about infertility. In preparation for our conversations, I’ve been speaking with Muslim women who shared with me their own stories of infertility.
One thing that strikes me about these experiences is that social media is a common source of pain and frustration. As we watch our friends lives scroll by, it can seem that everyone is getting pregnant, everyone’s kids are having birthdays, everyone’s marriage is perfect, that other people’s careers are taking off, that other people live in beautiful places we’ll never visit, that other people just… have it together.
A study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that Facebook use is associated with depression when people engage in “social comparison.” That is, when we look at other people’s photos and compare our lives to theirs, our lives can look pretty crappy against a few deliberately shared moments of sunshine. Another 2003 study correlated Facebook use with loneliness, isolation and depression. And yet, we know that Facebook is not an accurate depiction of life (at least, I hope we know that). On my newsfeed today I see posts about a popular Instagram user who decided to quit the platform, calling her posts “contrived perfection made to get attention.”
Facebook is not a pretty place to be when we’re going through something alone. I spoke with a woman today who struggled with infertility for years and now has two children. She worries that people see her life and think it’s perfect, and have no idea how much effort, how many tears, how much stress, went into those pregnancies. She’s worried because she used to feel the same pain when she saw other people’s photos.
Here’s the flip side to that isolation. When we assume that other people’s lives are perfect, it makes it harder to reach out for help. When we assume that other people aren’t struggling, we feel alone and isolated in our experiences. It’s challenging enough to be vulnerable. I know from experience, however, that when we choose to be vulnerable we give others we trust the permission and safety to be vulnerable with us. And then, wow, the stories come flooding in. (If you haven’t watched Brene Brown talk about vulnerability, then check this out).
And really, social media itself is not the devil. Social media can also be a powerful platform for women to connect. Supportive groups and message boards make a huge difference to those suffering with infertility everyday, especially when women don’t feel supported by their families or communities. And, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t share our joy — joy is good and it’s wonderful to celebrate our lives together. But, it might be wise to remember that many, many people are watching. I’m not responsible for how other people feel, and I also choose to share my joy with people who share it back and are here for me when I share my pain, too.
And if we are struggling — and we’ve all got struggles — then we’re not doing anyone any favors by curating a blissful life / Barbie body / ideal family / baking skills on Instagram or Facebook (ok unless you’re Christine McConnell).