The other day I posted a photo from my recent wedding on Facebook. Unlike many couples, whose 450 shots are plastered and tagged the day after the vows have been uttered, I have shared very few. This is, to be frank, because of my husband. Before meeting me, he had 11 Facebook friends and his profile picture was of a bookshelf. A few months into our relationship, when we were already quite sure we’d marry, I mentioned that I hadn’t been able to “friend” him on the site. “I’m not sure we’re ready for that step,” he said.
David had the good fortune to marry a writer who willingly shares of herself for a living. Despite my protests, he insisted we not post our wedding photos, wanting to keep some semblance of the sacred to ourselves. Not sharing our pictures meant that strangers wouldn’t even get a glimpse—we had 15 people at the ceremony and no one but the photographer had a camera in hand.
As a compromise, I posted one photo of me in my dress. It was taken through a mirror from quite a distance, but two things are clear: I look very, very happy; and my left palm is resting delicately on my slightly protruding belly.
A few hours after the shot went live, a friend chatted me up: “Are you pregnant?”
I haven’t spoken to this person since the sixth grade, when we co-choreographed a dance to the New Kids on the Block and performed it at the school’s lip sync competition. We lost touch more than 20 years ago—until, like so many of my generation, we found each other again through the long tendrils of the Internet.
In typical chat form, the question appeared as is, without pleasantries. There was nothing to buffer the stark fact of it, which, at 34, even asked by the closest friends in the best of circumstances, is fraught. (Let me add that this friend has two beautiful kids I’ve only seen online and will surely never meet.)
Why I couldn’t ignore such an inquiry by a virtual stranger in a medium that demands nothing of me will give you a glimpse into my psyche, but I worried (I worried!) about being rude. After all, she had “liked” so many of my posts over the years, congratulated me on my engagement and wedding, reposted many of my essays. I felt tethered to her in some real way, as I do to so many of the hundreds of people I read about regularly but haven’t seen in decades. “No!” I wrote. “Just fat, I guess!”
“Noooooooooooo,” she insisted. “It’s the hand on the belly.”
I took a peek at the image in question: yes, the ever-so-slight roundness could be misconstrued as a three- or four-month-along pregnancy. I reassured her that it was just…my body.
“Is it in your plans?”
In a world where people post photos of their fetuses, keep us abreast of their labor (“already 2cm dilated!”), share news of their dying parents and ask for love and support in their surgery or mourning, isn’t it natural to ask someone—a person you once upon a time loved very much—whether they’re pregnant, or wanting to be? Why not, when you’ve “shared in” so many otherwise private happenings in their lives?
Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to walk away.
It isn’t news that in our increasingly public world many of us don’t know where to draw the line. Perhaps because I have recently moved abroad and feel my isolation more acutely, these online friendships have taken on a weightier significance—they have, at least temporarily, had to stand in for my complex flesh-and-bones relationships. Logging on once felt like checking in with a warm, extended family—fun, often informative, but basically innocuous. Now, the one-dimensionality of these connections feels bizarre and dangerous, like taking a slice off someone’s face and calling it a face. Whether this face is beautiful and successful, or failing and suffering is irrelevant—both are the distortions I falsely believe I am getting to know, one click and comment at a time.
Lately, when I hang out with friends I have had more contact with online than in our three-dimensional world, I feel myself pushing through a wall of information to get at the truth, the muck of it under the veneer, the actual person with a delicate heart. And I likewise find myself pulling back from commenting on acquaintances’ darkest troubles, reminding myself that it should never be that easy to insert yourself into a narrative that has more dimensions than the format could ever contain.
This pregnancy inquiry was, of course, a somewhat isolated incident—not everyone asks such things online, but increasingly they do. Because of what we publish about ourselves—and I am as guilty as anyone—we assume a level of comfort and familiarity that is not only potentially insulting, but misses the real point of connecting: to be privy to the intricacies and nuances of another’s life, the mess of trying to be a human being in a world with other human beings; to cultivate relationships where you earn the right to ask, and even seemingly simple answers can never simply be “liked.”
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