Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take, I’ll be watching you
The Police: Every breath you take
Yesterday, I was driving to visit an acquaintance, and my daughter was sitting in her car seat in the back. We normally take public transit if it’s just the two of us, so she doesn’t have a lot of experience of being alone in the back seat. This time, however, circumstances favored us taking my mom’s car.
Normally, she really likes it in the car. It hums, the scenery changes, and most of the time there’s someone next to her, keeping her company. This time, though, she was alone in the back, and I don’t know if it was that or some other reason, but she was really unhappy and voiced it very loudly. Since I’m pretty averse to letting my child cry for lengthy periods of time, I pulled over and went to the back seat, tried to calm her down and gave her the pacifier. She settled down for a moment, and just as I was starting the car again, she began to whimper. I started singing a simple lullaby that we’ve been singing to her since she was a few weeks old, and that seemed to calm her down. I ended up singing the song over and over until we arrived at our destination.
Apparently the sound of my voice and the familiar song were strong enough messages to convince her that she was not alone and that I was close by, even when she couldn’t see me. As far as I understand, developmentally she is yet to realize that things exist even when you can’t see them.
“I’ll be right there!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about presence ever since I read an article on a study concerning babies’ stress when they are ignored. The babies in the study were six months old, and in the study, their mothers played with them normally, but “froze” for two minutes at a time every now and then, staying in the baby’s sightline but ignoring the baby and staring at the wall. The babies showed elevated stress hormone levels on the following day, when they were brought back to the research facility, even though there was no ignoring on the second day.
I found out about the study on an online message board, and there was (unsurprisingly) some discussion as to what the practical applications of this study are. Some people thought it more or less chains mothers and infants together and lays a guilt trip on anyone who dares to go to the bathroom with the door closed if their child is left alone for that time. Others saw it as a defense against “just let the baby cry it out, it’ll be all right” type of advice.
Personally, I do think that babies need their mothers close by. If a child voices a distress and it systematically gets no response, it will eventually stop voicing its distress because it’s just no use – no-one will answer anyway. However, a response may well be something along the lines of my car-ride lullaby. If my baby hears my voice, it knows I’m not far away. I haven’t disappeared from the world, even if I am currently invisible.
Furthermore, she knows she is not invisible – I can hear her, I can vocally respond to her cries, I can take eye contact when I get closer and I can pick her up when I see she’s in distress. My presence and interaction with her convince her that she exists.
The online presence
In many ways, the online world reflects this “someone please tell me I’m not invisible!” line of thinking. Establishing a presence online – whether in Facebook, on message boards, in the blogosphere, on Twitter – really requires time, effort and reciprocity. There are a few online contexts where I’ve managed to create a presence, and others where I’m really only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it face in the crowd.
Creating that presence takes time. Reading (because most of the presence is in text form) what others have contributed, finding interesting tidbits to share, regularly coming back to see what others have added since your last visit. It takes effort. Figuring out your opinions (on more serious matters), grafting your message so it’s easy to read, wording your jokes, timing your responses so you stay on the pulse and don’t comment on ancient topics.
And it takes reciprocity. Commenting on what others have already said, taking it a bit further, reading the responses you get and possibly repeating the whole cycle again. It’s the online equivalent of the eye contact: “Yes, I can see you, there you are, you exist in this world.”
Degrees of presence
For our daughter, I’m probably the number one presence in her life. The head honcho, the one who hardly ever leaves her side. My husband is a close second. After that, there are the grandparents, the godparents, our friends, and so forth in descending order.
It’s interesting to see how the degrees of presence show in her behavior towards us. Since I’m nearly always there, my presence borders on boring. It’s safe, but it’s also something she doesn’t make a big deal about. The few exceptions are the times when she wakes up from her nap, and sees me coming in the room if I was somewhere else. The smile on her face says “Awesome, you were gone and now you’re here!” My husband, on the other hand, seems to get all the giggles. 🙂 He is a safe presence, but not quite as predictable as I.
Then there are the interesting visitors, the ones who ring some kind of a bell but aren’t daily contacts, people like my mom and some of her godparents. There has to be a grace period of her reacquainting herself to these visitors from the safety of my or my husband’s lap, before she is secure enough to cuddle with them.
Online, the degrees or presence became evident on another message board, when there were several cases of sad news in a short while. Since the people in question were “big names”, it seemed that everyone knew what was going on in a heartbeat. Similarly, “big names” leaving or taking a break would be a huge deal in an online community – just because so many people are so used to their presence. It’s safe. You can count on their “it’s okay, honey, I’ll be right there”.
When a small-time presence disappears for any length of time, you hardly notice – until they return, or until someone points out they are gone. I’m fairly confident there were less than a handful of people who wondered why I’d been a lazy blogger, and most of those people were real-world friends. 🙂
A shift of sorts
Since creating an online presence (and a real-life presence, too) takes time and effort, you can realistically have a limited number of really influential presences in different social communities. At the moment, my most influential presence is in the context of my family, but there are other, smaller ones in the background.
I’ve noticed I need the feeling of being a strong presence in social communities. Possibly for the “someone sees me, therefore I must exist” reason. This is probably why I’ve originally liked being a group leader or a teacher – there are more pairs of eyes to strengthen my existence. 🙂 Being a quiet onlooker in the sidelines has not been a suit that fits.
I don’t know if it’s the arrival of the baby or something else, but there has been a change in my relationship towards social situations, whether live or online ones. Before, I’ve felt like I need to open my mouth, to contribute, to be a presence in order to “buy” my foothold in the community. Contributing has been the currency of being seen.
Now, I feel like contributing has become the primary force. I want to contribute when someone needs help, thoughts, entertainment or ideas. Or when I have an idea that needs voicing. If someone sees it and benefits from it, wonderful. If they comment, even better. But I don’t feel like my contribution was a failure if it’s met with silence.
Furthermore, I enjoy just observing a situation without feeling the need to contribute. If something comes up, I’ll express it, but I don’t feel like I’ll be thrown out of the room (or off the Internets) simply because I just observe. I love going to a moms-and-babies meetup, sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and just listening. And my worth as an online community member is not determined by my post count. 🙂
As is appropriate, the writing of this blog post was interrupted a few times by the cooing of a napping baby who needed my presence. 🙂
Thank you so much for popping by again! If any thoughts came up (and you feel the need to contribute 😉 ), feel free to share in the comments! If not, it’s okay to just sip coffee and observe, and possibly catch your own insightings!