In some ways, the internet has been incredible for mothers.
Spaces online have provided solace and connection and allowed some women to have a public voice in communities that otherwise stifle them. It’s also a trove of practical tips. (Any solid guidance on installing a car seat is worth its weight in gold.)
The internet is also much of the reason I have a career writing about motherhood.Until I started working for The Times in 2018, almost every full-time job I had was for an online publication, and most of them were geared toward women. My work has allowed me to connect with all different kinds of parents through comment sections and social media, giving me a richer understanding of what it’s like to be a 21st-century American mom.
And yet when women write about how mothers can’t live up to the unreasonable and often nonsensical ideals of our culture, they often get flak for even mildly threatening the status quo. Whenever I’ve written about my struggles or those of other mothers to meet untenable expectations during the pandemic, I’ve received blowback about how we shouldn’t be complaining, because having kids was our choice and should be our full responsibility.
There’s a group of women on the internet who exist in contrast to the struggling moms who spent the Covid quarantines screaming: momfluencers, women with social media followings in the tens of thousands or even millions who offer tips and inspiration to their fellow moms. They’re often selling something through advertiser-sponsored posts — that’s how they earn money — whether it’s makeup, cookware or their own parenting courses or workout routines.
These mothers seem to be permanently happy with their children. Whenever they refer to mental health or parenting difficulties, those problems are in the past. Their postpartum depression or a family death or their child’s issues at school have been solved, juxtaposed with a beautiful image of open hands or a serene lake.
The influencers who show up most often in my algorithm often have a domestic or classically feminine inclination beyond motherhood — like beauty, clothing or home décor. They’re not infrequently blond. Some call themselvestrad wives. who emphasize traditional gender roles. Others combine information about babies’ sleep or feeding with perfectly curated imagery.
I know these influencers have problems like any parent and that their 2-year-old probably threw a tantrum right before that smiling photo was taken in front of a backdrop of majestic mountains. I also know that they are trying to sell me something. Still, I’m entranced and shamed. I see their photographs with their sunny captions, and some small part of me believes they are more naturally suited to motherhood. And I know I’m far from alone.
I spoke to around 100 contemporary mothers from all different backgrounds for my book, and many of them talked about their complicated feelings about social media. Particularly during pregnancy, these women felt they couldn’t live up to the ideal that they saw on Instagram, which one woman described as giving her the “perception I would feel ecstatic and joyous and I’d be a goddess floating on a cloud.” When she didn’t feel that way, she thought there was something wrong with her. Looking at these influencers’ posts is like picking at a scab — painful but somehow irresistible.
Unreal expectations for American moms go back as far as written history: In the colonial days, the ideal was a pious Christian woman who spun cloth with her baby at her heels and helped keep her children on the path to salvation. Over the next few centuries, new requirements appeared: a focus on creating stalwart American citizens, an education in scientific child-rearing techniques. One thing remains consistent, though. Despite the work that mothers do to keep families and societies together, our contributions are insincerely praised, ignored or demonized, depending on the time and place and the mother’s race, religion and social standing.
In our era, the perfect mother is embodied by the momfluencer, who seamlessly melds work, wellness and home. Even if you avoid social media, the momfluencers’ expectations can manage to worm their way into you. The mothers I talked to knew that it was not realistic for them to be the ideal worker, behaving as if they had zero obligations outside the workplace, and to be the ideal mother at home, making a perfect dinner and crafting herself to sleep. And yet they blamed themselves for not living up to this model, even while acknowledging the lack of structural support American mothers have when compared with moms in peer countries.
These expectations are not just unrealistic. They are also insidiously individualistic and superficial. They have nothing to do with your private relationship with your own children, your values, your culture or your needs.
But momfluencers, the purveyors of these pernicious expectations, are part of a multibillion-dollar industry, selling products to a market of millennial moms with an estimated $2 trillion to spend. Many are just trying to make money working flexible hours while spending time with their young children, in a country without paid parental leave or affordable child care.
Jo Piazza, the host of “Under the Influence,” a podcast about the business of momfluencing, broke down the economics of the industry for me: While a few in the top tier are making millions, it’s rare to turn momfluencing into a great living. Some women will spend more money than they will ever make trying to become successful influencers.
To make enough money to compare with a decently paid full-time job, you need to have at least 150,000 followers on Instagram, with a high engagement rate, Ms. Piazza told me. The typical payment formula is simple: They make $100 per 10,000 followers on a post sponsored by a brand. And you can’t just buy followers and fake it; you need to have real fans. Ms. Piazza estimates that these women are working 50 to 60 hours a week, for a job that provides them no benefits and no safety net. It may seem more glamorous than driving for Uber, but it’s still precarious gig work.
Ms. Piazza also said it’s an “open secret” that influencers need perfect blowouts and fake eyelashes in every picture and “the perfect white kitchen and bedroom.” She added, “You’re not getting paid unless you’re showing the aspirational view that brands have been peddling for 50 years.” She said that she’s talked to 500 influencers for her podcast, that the majority of them find the performance really difficult and that they feel “there’s a part of it that crushes their soul every day.”
That aspirational view is, more often than not, one of white motherhood. The inequities in who is compensated for the performance are the same as everywhere else online. While there isn’t clear data about compensation, Black creators have staged boycotts over the lack of credit and compensation they receive for their work compared with their white counterparts.
As Denene Millner — the founder of MyBrownBaby, a best-selling author and the publisher of a book imprint focusing on Black children and families — rightly pointed out to me, the people at the companies who decide how to spend their marketing budgets are still mostly white. “You go for what you know, and you go for what you think will sell to the widest audiences, and people think the widest audience is the white audience,” a biased and lazy assumption, she said.
The impact of influencers on mothers’ psychological health troubles Ilyse DiMarco, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood — and Relax Into Your New Self.” She treats lots of mothers who cite social media as one source of their anxiety, jealousy, shame, guilt and mood issues.
What strikes her is that some of the moms who spiral from looking at the influencers on Instagram don’t even like the influencers they’re following or share their values. “My mom patients feel such shame and guilt and anxiety seeing what’s going on with other people, even though they don’t particularly respect them,” Dr. DiMarco told me. But even as she helps mothers cope with the negative feelings they get from social media, she is not immune to those feelings herself. She has two boys, 10 and 7. “It’s still seductive,” she said.
She said she tries to impress upon her patients that “if you can find an influencer whose values you share and who provides you with helpful tips, great,” but that if you are taking cues for living from influencers you don’t respect, that’s “like going to a doctor who you think is a quack, whose training you think is subpar, and then following their medical advice.”
And maybe there are better online models of motherhood than the ones supported by the biggest advertisers: Like Emily Feret, who goes by @emilyjeanne333 on TikTok, has 1.1 million followers and 36.4 million likes as of this writing. She’s a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom of two, and she makes delightful videos that send up the unattainable perfection found elsewhere on social media.
Ms. Feret said she wants to “normalize normal” and she’s done a series of videos taking the viewer on a tour of her house, showing “life without the filter.” Her kids are always in the background. “Levi, son, dear God, get out of the trash can,” she says with a smile in one. “Please stop going in there. You’re disgusting.” Then she shows us her lamp, which is still in its original plastic, and announces, laughing, “There’s dead bugs stuck in there!”
I’m glad Ms. Feret is normalizing normal. She makes me smile and she makes me feel seen. (I have a mountain of unfolded laundry sitting next to me on my bed as I work on this essay.) What is so valuable about her is that she’s not trying to get us to be like her or promote herself as someone who has it all figured out. Even if we have motherhood in common, the details of our lives are different, and we are often making the best of a set of unsatisfying choices.
I know there’s not a single way all people should raise their families, but if there’s one takeaway from my reporting on the history, sociology and science of American motherhood, it’s that the ideals as they are created may serve industry but they do not serve us or our families.
Anytime you feel guilty about not meeting some sort of insane, unachievable demand, ask yourself, “Does this help me improve my relationship with my children? And does this help my community?” If the answer is no to either one, push back. Refuse to feel the guilt and failure that plague so many of us when we’re just trying to raise our families under this broken system. Instead, use that energy to fuel something different: the possibility of a more humane and supportive future for our children.
Jessica Grose is a writer for Opinion and the author, most recently, of “Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood,” from which this essay has been adapted.
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