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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Instagram, My Daughter, and Me

I got divorced in September 2012. My first Instagram post was in January 2013. (As anyone who has been through a breakup in the digital era can tell you, it’s amazing what you can get up to online when you find yourself with unexpected free time on your hands.)

My daughter was just 3 years old when the marriage ended, and the first eight pictures I posted were of her. Like many parents, I saw Instagram as a way to share pictures of her with my family, particularly my mother, who lives 500 miles away.

But I was also posting them for myself. I only have my daughter with me two out of every 14 days, and I miss her every single day that she is not with me. It’s painful. What Instagram has allowed me to do is to employ a kind of digital physics, to warp my experience of space and time in my favor. In the offline world, I spend precious hours with her and then she disappears. But online, she is with me again when I post, and then again each time I receive a notification that someone has reacted to that post. It’s like the universe sending me an echo of the moment.

When I post about her, I’m also doing a little parenting-by-example. Duff’s First Rule of Instagram Posts says that the caption is as important, if not more important, than the picture. You know, surface plus depth. If I have communicated anything to her as a parent (besides try to be a decent human being) it’s that, if you’re going to ask someone to give you their attention, you should try to make it worth their while. Try to be interesting. Or funny. Better yet, both.

To that end, in mid-2013, I began referring to her in captions as “The Lady.” I wasn’t creating an alter ego for her or anything. I just called her “the lady” once, without capital letters, and then maybe another time, and then I capitalized them, and then I decided that it was a thing that I was doing.

We all think our 4-year-olds are cute and adorable, of course, and now that the cost of taking a photograph is essentially zero, we take pictures of them all day long and post them all over the place. Personally, I used to consider the fact that I rarely post pictures of myself as proof that I was successfully resisting the siren song of social media narcissism, that I kept my ego more in check than those who seem to use Instagram as a photographic shrine to themselves. And then I read this passage in Adam Gopnik’s book Angels and Ages: “There's no stronger or more confounding emotion in the world, one that brings the mystery of reproduction and sex more brightly to a man's attention—than the existence of a child of the opposite sex who resembles you, no bigger emotion than the love a father feels for a girl child in whom he nonetheless sees not her mother but himself."

That’s when I realized that by posting pictures of my daughter, I am arguably just posting selfies, once-removed. Fine, guilty. But it’s also more than that. Because I also hear myself—or at least the familiar beats of a good joke—in the things that come out of her mouth. The Lady knows how to get a laugh. In time, my posts about her began morphing toward what they are now—something approaching a comedy routine between the two of us.

When it comes to Instagram, then, I am a packager—of her cuteness and sense of humor, along with my own (humor, that is). We hear a lot about the psychological peril of people posting idealized versions of their lives and themselves online. I understand the concern—people bemoan the chasm between what is really happening and what we want people to believe is happening. But I would argue that it’s less performance that I’m engaging in than production. She plays herself, in her own life. I just match up the photos with words (hers or mine) that I hope will make people smile. It’s only a performance in the way that life is a performance. These aren’t manufactured moments; they’re just some of our Greatest Hits. As Bob Dylan said in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue, "Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything, life is about creating yourself."

For five years, The Lady had a presence on Instagram through me, but she didn’t have her own account. In mid-2018, though, the 9-year-old Lady got an iPad, and soon she was on Instagram herself. Before she was online, Instagram was a way for me to send love out and have it bounce off of other people and back at me. Since she’s been online, it’s for those moments when I just want to say, “Hello there, little Lady. I love you.” When she registers that message with a like in return, she’s basically saying, “I heard you, Daddy.” It’s an additional channel of shared experience that we’ve carved out of the digital ether.

Is that real? What is more real than love? How often have you wished that someone who wasn’t there with you could understand how much you love them? Instagram allows us to make that happen, to send a message of love through the cosmos with full knowledge that its target will receive it. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a large part of any relationship takes place in your heart or your mind anyway. It is not simply two people in proximity, it’s what those two people choose to make of their entanglement. Sending someone a message of love doesn’t distort your reality—it augments it.

A few years ago, my brother Steve published five beautiful coloring books. He later told me that while he’d begun the endeavor a little unsure of the wisdom of it all (“Do real artists make coloring books?”), one unexpected outcome focused him on the sheer awesomeness of it all. Under various hashtags on Instagram, people have posted hundreds (if not thousands) of his drawings, colored-in by them, and some of them are downright stunning. “That’s a whole different kind of connection with fans of my art, in which they’re participating in the making of the art with me,” he said. “I’d never felt something like that before.”

The Lady and I aren’t coloring in each other’s drawings, but we’re definitely adding color and texture to the picture that is us.

All images courtesy of Duff McDonald.

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