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Perspective: I tried to show the struggle of kids in masks. The internet shamed me as a mom, instead

Parents like me are the cautionary tale for anyone who dares to stray from the Pinterest-perfect narrative

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One of Bethany Mandel’s children came home from a day at summer camp with a soiled, brand-new mask.

Bethany Mandel, Twitter

Different people have different talents. Some folks can play the harp, others can juggle. My personal talent is finding myself at the center of internet “10 minutes of rage.” Over the weekend a tweet of mine was trending — the second time in as many years I’ve found myself the subject of the internet’s ire. This time, the spark was a photo of a mask my 6-year-old wore at summer camp for a full day, dirty and stained through to the front of the mask. 

Tens of thousands of people sent me public messages ranging from profane to bemused, and hundreds more sent private messages, almost all of which are not fit to print. 

The purpose of my tweet was to highlight how unsanitary it can be to force children to wear a mask on their face for the majority of their waking hours, and sometimes in sweltering heat. The issue has been an obsession of mine for a year — I spent the better part of the late winter and early spring using every connection I have in Washington, D.C., to talk the ears off of legislative assistants in congressional offices and local representatives, and I drafted emails to local school boards across the country trying (in vain) to get the powers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get on the phone with me. 

Those efforts resulted in a letter signed by two dozen members of Congress, spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., addressed to the CDC. Their letter requested “information on how the agency determined its guidance for children ages 2 years and older to wear face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” The letter asked for a reply by early May; the CDC finally responded on Aug. 9, just 15 minutes after I requested comment from Smith’s office about the agency’s lack of response to date. 

Over the course of the past year it’s felt as if I’m shouting at the wind, which is why, strangely, I was happy to find the internet’s attention squarely centered on this issue, albeit it for a short time. Frustratingly, the anger wasn’t directed at the policies that required my young son to be masked, despite a lack of evidence that any benefits outweigh the costs for children. No, the anger was squarely directed at me, a mother who sent her kid to summer camp. 

Thousands of people assumed the mask belonged to me, neglecting to read the full context of the conversation about masking young children. Thousands more decided I was sending my unbathed children wearing already dirty masks without any spares. The reality is one most parents understand: Despite sending a clean child with a brand new mask on his face and five new spare masks in his backpack, he still came home with a soiled mask. Because he’s a 6-year-old boy and it’s summer camp, not a sterile operating room. 

Even when all of that information was explained, the soiled mask (which was the result of an entire day spent away from home), the mother (me) was still to blame due to a refusal or inability to teach proper mask hygiene. Some might call that gratuitous mommy shaming.

The internet made crystal clear: If a child is dirty after a day at summer camp, it’s a five alarm kind of fire. A kid getting a mask dirty isn’t just the natural result of forcing a child to wear something on his face all day while playing. It has to be someone’s fault, and that someone was me. And the mother isn’t just to blame. No, a dirty mask is indicative that she is also so deeply negligent that her children should be removed from her custody. I received so many messages to this effect, I braced myself the entire weekend after the firestorm for a knock at the door from Child Protective Services. 

That knock never came, thankfully, but the message to me and other parents was clear: If your child struggles to keep their mask (or any other part of their body) clean, this is representative of deeply flawed parenting. Is it any wonder fewer Americans have kids when these are the standards parents (in particular, mothers) are held to? Your child has to wear a mask on their face all day with a smile (dutifully and without complaint hidden underneath) and they are expected, apparently, to keep it pristine. If they do not, you deserve the collective ire of a twitter mob. 

My experience isn’t an isolated incident. The internet is gifted at taking microscopic snapshots into someone’s home and deciding the only course of action is to call in the authorities. Last summer it happened to popular YouTubers Ruby and Kevin Franke, the parents of six children, after videos recounting challenges faced by one of their sons sparked an internet firestorm and led to them being reported for abuse. I never received that CPS visit, but the Frankes did. This is the worst-case scenario for anyone daring to parent in public in anything but a Pinterest-perfect manner, and the message from the internet rage machine to parents and would-be parents is clear: Keep your head down, and don’t trouble the childless adults. 

Why is it that social media, largely ruled by a mob in its early 20s, is the world’s most unreasonable and threatening mommy shamer? Because the expectations set by mommy bloggers and influencers is nothing short of perfection. Parents like me and the Frankes are the cautionary tale for anyone who dares to stray from the prescribed and approved narrative for parents online. Children are to be perfectly behaved and coiffed, they are to be seen only in color-coordinated matching outfits, and any deviations from that model are to be met with severe consequences.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.