catfished2

I am a blogger. I am a mom. Though this list is not intended to be exclusive, some might call me a “mommy blogger.” It’s true — I blog about parenthood, sharing stories about my children and, more importantly, about my experiences trying to navigate this messy path towards raising humans.

I take great care to not reveal identifying details about my children. I’ve used aliases for them on certain sites (or otherwise simply not used their names), and I am very guarded with pictures. These are my personal boundaries when it comes to my life as a “mommy blogger.” I do this because we live in a big city that can be scary sometimes, and I am concerned with their safety and happiness. I worry about strangers approaching them at the park, or I worry about them being teased later in life for the stories I’ve shared. Never did I think I would be faced with a situation where someone would be exploiting their likeness without my knowledge.

I woke up one Wednesday morning to emails and voicemails asking if I had seen the picture of my children that was making rounds on Facebook. Since my husband and I post pictures of our kids regularly I wasn’t sure what they were getting at, but my gut said it wasn’t a good thing. My gut was right.

My son recently broke his arm and his hot pink cast (his choice, because pink is his favorite color) got a lot of attention. The guy behind Humans of New York captured a really special moment between my son (in that cast) and my daughter, and I gave him permission to use the photo on his site.

Maybe that was my first mistake.

The picture got over 41,000 “likes” there and I should have suspected it would get shared further. What I didn’t expect was that someone would take the picture, claim it was their son and tell a heartwarming story about how this little boy chose that cast against the objection of his doctor (who said “pink is a girl color”) and in support of breast cancer awareness (of which my 4-year-old currently has no awareness).

That was my son! Not only that, but there was a lot of bashing in the comments for this mother who allowed her son to get a pink cast (you know they catch the gay that way, right?). There was also a lot of support for this mother who let her kids make their own choices. The only problem? The person these people were commenting to wasn’t THEIR mother!

I sent a message to the admin of this site. To say I was mad was an understatement. How dare you claim these are your children? How dare you expose my children to this kind of criticism? How dare you take credit for my actions? The admin was really cool, but she wasn’t about to take the photo down. Her average post gets 1,000 likes. This one had received over 230,000 when I contacted her. She said it was sent to her by someone else — that it was the other woman who asserted these were her children — and she believed the story was true. She also sent me the link to almost 40 other blogs that had used the picture and some form of the story.

I suppose she did this to make me not hate her so much, but the “look, everyone else is exploiting your child and attributing a lie to them too!” didn’t sit well with me. My anger went through the roof.

Every mother wants to protect their children to one degree or another. Those instincts kick in fiercely when you fear they are in some sort of danger, which was how it felt when I saw my kids in a context to which I didn’t consent. But in this case there was nothing I could do. I threatened (take this down or I will report you!), I sought empathy (you have children too, please) and I worried a whole lot.

She didn’t take the picture down.

Some people offered comfort by encouraging me to take this as the first of many lessons I can expect about how my children aren’t “mine” and belong to the world. No way. That old adage means I need to allow my kids the space to grow and become their own individual human beings. It doesn’t mean people can use them to suit their own purposes, whether they be as noble as raising awareness for breast cancer or as low as promoting their own site. To them I say, these children are mine.

To overcome my utter feeling of helplessness, I started to blame myself and used that as a way to take action. I will NEVER post another picture of my children again! I am shutting down my entire Facebook account. All social media, for that matter! I will never take my children outside again! If I absolutely have to, I will put a blanket over their head to protect them. OK, I didn’t quite go that far, but I was getting there.

I finally realized, just like my son’s broken arm, I had to accept that this wasn’t my fault. This kind of thing could have happened to anyone. No matter how much or even how little you share, you can’t protect your children from every possible situation. I’m learning that includes the physical world of the playground as much as it does the virtual world of the Internet.

(photo: VLADGRIN / Shutterstock)