I understood that I was, emotionally speaking, standing naked in front of the Internet, and that plenty of people wished I’d cover up.
In Boston, the last of the leaves are turning brown and brittle, dappling the sidewalks of Jamaica Plain. My daughter, almost 2, crunches and kicks them with her sneakers on our way to and from the playground in early evening, the sky darkening at 5pm, the temperature dropping. Everywhere I look, another metaphor. Cliché threatens at every turn.
These images make fall an appropriate season for mourning, though if I’m honest, I’ve always been grumpy around the holidays. I deal poorly with the pressure and travel commitments, and I hate to cook. The Internet has traditionally been a dangerous place for me this time of year, with its glossy promises of good will and family gatherings. When my father died of cancer in November 2012, two weeks before Thanksgiving, I thought, At least I’ll never have to fake holiday cheer again.
But in fact, grief has been one of the sea changes in my recent past that have made me—dare I say it?—happier, or more capable, maybe, of acknowledging deep pain as the price of deep love, of seeing that pain as privilege. I loved my father in an uncomplicated way. Watching him die was excruciating, but being anywhere else would have been worse. The birth of my daughter just over a year later did not fill the hole in my heart, but it did present meaningful challenges to rival those of grief, and when I emerged from her first year, I was changed, my heart broken a thousand different ways, but stronger and more open.
See? Clichés everywhere.
As a writer, I’ve mediated this journey in words, usually in personal essays, but also regularly on Facebook, where I’ve kept a rather detailed account—including my father’s diagnosis and quick death, my unexpected pregnancy six months later, and my daughter’s birth—along with my sometimes raw, sometimes thoughtful, and sometimes way-off-base ideas about what it all means. When Facebook expanded its post box a few years ago, I rejoiced—my posts went from updates to multi-paragraph meditations, confessions, screeds, outbursts, lamentations, remembrances, and reflections. Because my byline is already full of publications about my life, I often made these posts public, and treated them like notes for an essay I would be writing for the rest of my life.
With its timeline archiving and On This Day feature, Facebook’s current format lets me revisit these posts anytime I wish, turning my personal page into a kind of living history. For the past few weeks, as the three-year anniversary of my father’s death loomed on the calendar, I found myself fascinated by what I wrote two or three years ago—especially alongside the cute baby pictures of last year—and by the power of social media to capture, fragment, and distort the ongoing narratives we keep online.
But as Facebook and other online platforms become ever more important agents of social change, I’m equally fascinated by its power to illuminate through story.
I can admit now that my posts in the year after my father’s death were, perhaps, an unconscious social experiment. In those high-octane weeks and months where I swung dramatically between moods, I felt triggered by just about everything, and incapable of silence. I experienced what Emily Rapp describes in her grief memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, as temporary hypergraphia: the intense, overwhelming urge to write. Facebook offered a text box and the promise of connection. I compulsively used it.
On a near-daily basis (sometimes multiple posts a day), I described the evolution of my grief—the violent and quiet ways I missed my father, and, as an atheist, the lack of comfort to be found in our culture’s platitudes about better places and watching over. When I discovered I was pregnant later that same year, I posted fears about my life moving on without my father. I revealed the undercurrent of resentment I sometimes felt toward the baby growing inside me, insisting on her presence when I was still learning how to live with an absence. When I was angry, my posts were angry. When I was awash in gratitude or anticipation, so were my posts. I understood that I was, emotionally speaking, standing naked in front of the Internet, and that plenty of people wished I’d cover up. But a small minority of people followed my posts almost as obsessively as I wrote them. On any given day, my friend list fluctuated by as much as five people.
At that time, the research would have suggested that this kind of honesty online was alienating me more than unburdening me, and that’s certainly how it felt some days. The blunt pain of a vulnerable post met with virtual crickets underscored how isolating grief and pregnancy already were. Occasionally, I’d take breaks from Facebook mostly as a way to preserve my friendships, which felt strained by my experiences—at 30, I was still mostly alone in my real-life social circles when it came to the loss of a parent—but these fasts never lasted long. In a fit of either rebellion or desperation, I’d start posting again.
But lately, I’m wondering if we’ve turned a corner. In July, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan were praised for announcing Chan’s pregnancy in a post that also revealed their struggles with infertility and miscarriage. “Refreshingly honest,” the Washington Post called Zuckerberg’s post. And last year, author Andrew Ervin started a movement called Honest Facebook Day, which inspired people to peel back the veils of their representative selves online and “tell it like it is.” This kind of shared vulnerability movement has already happened on Twitter with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #yesallwomen. We’re realizing that individual experiences add up to representative experience, and that marginalizing experiences can be perpetuated by silence.
In French, the word essai means “to try.” The clichés and conventional wisdom that lead to positivity memes and platitudes might be answered through a willingness to “essay” our lives online. We can and should still share our highlights reel of adorable children and beautiful food, job and pregnancy announcements, real estate purchases, and yes, family holidays. But we can also write posts that take leaps into the intellectual unknown, that grapple out loud with the dread comedian Louis C.K. calls “that forever empty.”
C.K. thinks we need to put our smartphones down (particularly while driving), and keep them out of our children’s hands in the service of developing empathy, and his point is not lost on me as my daughter learns how to swipe through photos and videos of herself on my Android like a tiny Narcissus. But I’m starting to have faith that the next generation of digital natives could see the potential of that post box to build empathic bridges. It’s up to us to model the power of vulnerability online.
These days, I find myself returning to a more sanitized Facebook page—photos of my daughter at the playground, videos of hilarious moments in her language development, interesting and mostly innocuous links. I have mixed feelings about this. There’s no question that photos of my daughter garner more “likes” than posts, say, about the wrecking ball my love for her has taken to my life. Most people still seem to prefer simple joy to ambiguous contemplation. But I’ve noticed that I don’t get as much out of Facebook this way (and this is why my online mothers’ group is so important to me—that page is where most of my honesty ends up now).
So, in the spirit of sharing, here’s an uncomfortable truth I haven’t yet posted online: Some of the best parts of my mothering come from the resources I gained when I lost my father. As much as I miss him—and looking back on the grieving woman who wrote her heart out on Facebook three years ago, I am reminded of how deeply and truly I mourned for him, will always mourn for him—I wouldn’t trade who I am now to have my father back. For my daughter, I want to do and be so much more than I was before I knew grief’s strangely luminous places. I want to walk around this world with my broken heart open to love, and the inevitable pain that comes with love.
And I want to take a cheesy photo of my girl opening presents on Christmas morning. You can expect both will end up on Facebook.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.