My son was tiny when he was born. Clocking in at a measly 5 lb 4 oz, he barely seemed to make a blip on the huge metal hospital scale, and by the time he'd been rinsed and dabbed and neatly swaddled in a blue flannel blanket, he looked even smaller. As they handed him to me in the operating room, all that high, motherly love I was supposed to be feeling was cut with pure panic. "How was I supposed to keep this flailing little body safe? What were the metrics for that? Where was the instruction manual filled with diagrams and pie charts?
Later that night, after my mother had left and my husband had passed out in the chair next to my bed, I placed my son in my lap and unwrapped him like some kind of curious Christmas gift. I stripped off the blankets, the hat, the too-big onesie, and stared in wonder at the skinny pink limbs flexed tight against his body. I gathered him up and pressed my mouth against his cloud of thin dark hair, breathing in his animal smell. I whispered something to him about keeping him safe, because in the early days of motherhood, when you're too tired to think up anything original or clever, those trite old phrases are your stock-in-trade.
But even if the words were clichéd and maudlin, I meant them. I still mean them today. Before anything else, my primary responsibility as a parent is making sure my kid is safe.
Up until now, ensuring my kid's security has mostly been pretty mundane. I keep him safe by taking him to the doctor whenever he's sick, and scheduling yearly check ups just to make sure he's on track. I keep him safe by making sure he's wearing the right clothing for whatever the weather is. I keep him safe by having him memorize our address. I keep him safe by telling him not to do backflips off the bed. So far, in four years of parenting I have done a pretty good job of keeping my kid safe.
And then I wrote an article for Vice about online harassment of women, and that illusion of safety was quickly stripped away.
In my article, I argued that we should redefine the worst kinds of “trolling” of women as gender terrorism. Of course I knew this wasn't going to go over well with a lot of people; I expected a backlash. I braced for the death threats, the rape threats, the tweets describing in detail where the knife would go and how much it would hurt. I even had a sort of sense of humour about it, a grim feeling of come at me, bros, do your worst. It wasn't the first time I'd been there. I was ready. I could handle it.
Then someone came after my kid.
Someone responded to my article with threats against my kid.
Some sad misogynist who pees his pants every time a woman opens her mouth started tweeting in graphic detail the stomach-churningly awful things he was going to do to my kid.
It doesn't matter how many different ways I write that out—it never seems more real or less terrible.
I don't know whether it's a good idea to write about this; I'm worried that I'll make things worse by addressing the threats that were made. On the other hand, I want people to be aware that this is how dire the consequences can be for outspoken mothers on the Internet.
There are people out there willing to weaponize children. There are people who will use threats of violence against children as a form of extortion. These people, when questioned, will say that it's a joke, or else they'll turn around and say that if you can't play in the big kid's playground, you should get off the Internet. They'll tell you this earnestly, as if the natural consequence for someone saying that women should be able to exist online without experiencing brutal, gender-based harassment is that their children will be threatened. That's just life on the Internet, cupcake. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Or else get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich. Whatever the right amount of “kitchen” is, you should figure it out—and if you can't or don't, well, you probably deserve anything that comes your way.
Those threats hit me exactly where they were supposed to, right in the soft panic spot deep in my gut. In the time it took to read that first tweet, I went from the general malaise of am I doing enough to keep my child safe straight to is the work I'm doing actively making my child a target. I was so paralyzed that at first I didn't tell anyone about the threats; I worried that people were just going to shrug and say, “What did you expect?” I literally thought it was at least partially my fault that an adult somewhere was making the choice to threaten a little kid, and as much as I tried to tell myself otherwise, I couldn't shut off the oh-so-persuasive voice murmuring you asked for this into my ear.
This is what it's like to be an online feminist who also happens to be a mother: they will come for your kid, and then they will make you feel like it was all your fault. Because in the fucked up system of values that governs certain parts of the Internet, anything is fair play, even violently threatening little kids.
My son is playing in the next room as I write this. I can hear him muttering something about Ninja Turtles; I think he's pretending to be Michelangelo. After I close my laptop I will go hug him and hug him and hug him. Later, I will stand at the end of his bed while he sleeps and quietly promise to keep him safe.