I was there when Amber Fillerup Clark turned her mommy blog into a hair extensions business. I devoured Twitter threads about Taza fleeing Manhattan during the peak COVID-19 breakout. And now, some of the first Insta Stories I watch as I nurse my baby at 6:23 a.m. are by Hannah of @ballerinafarm, a new face to the momfluencer stratosphere, but one of many conventionally beautiful, straight, white women who perform a version of motherhood that feels like pioneer cosplay hit with a dash of Brooklyn hipster aesthetics. Hannah presents her life as a utopia of yesteryear when women cooked hot lunches for their hardworking men and smiled whilst serving them. She announced her sixth pregnancy with an actual pirouette. Her account has upward of 145,000 followers.
A post shared by Hannah @Ballerina Farm (@ballerinafarm)
How, then, is consumption of motherhood media, which completely and wholly ignores the horrible realities of 2020, thriving?
Most of us regular mothers are numb with fatigue and overwhelm after nearly a year of pandemic life. Every day can feel like a return to a hamster wheel of remote learning, domestic work, and our own career responsibilities. Motherhood, for most of us, is a grind, not something to glorify through an Instagram filter. How, then, is consumption of motherhood media, which completely and wholly ignores the horrible realities of 2020, thriving? And if my own personal relationship with momfluencer culture is fraught, how is momfluencer culture impacting us on a broader cultural scale? On Instagram, one can find QAnon conspiracies, anti-racist board books, and instructions for creating paper stars, all mixed together in a lovely, confounding stew of ideology and performance that is momfluencer culture.
I yell for my two older kids to watch their baby brother because I have to pee. Behind the haven of the locked bathroom door, I look at a picture of a beautiful mother burying her beautiful face into a baby’s soft neck and click through to the sponsored link for organic body oil “safe for mama and littles.” My own “littles” bang on the door. I shove open the door and commence with the labor of mothering, none of which is particularly photo-friendly.
I asked Jorie Lagerwey, head of Film Studies at University College Dublin, to diagnose my problem. Why do I consume content that I know portrays an idealized fantasy of motherhood at odds with the lived experience of motherhood? Lagerwey cites literary critic Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism” to explain: “When you see a pattern (like these unbelievably perfect moms) over and over, you expect that pattern. You expect to see it unfold in your own life, and you aspire to it, even if you know it’s bad for you. So it’s optimistic in that it’s an aspiration, but it’s cruel in that what you want either doesn’t actually exist, or does exist but is actively harmful to you.”
On my bleaker days (it’s winter in New Hampshire and not one of my three children attends school IRL, so things are pretty bleak), it’s a nice reprieve to hope that maybe motherhood could be less bleak if I just buy the right crib sheet. My personal insecurities about motherhood (and wholly justified anger and frustrations with the lack of support for mothers in this country) manifest in my participation in a vicious cycle of aspiration, consumption, and self-loathing. I want what I know is unattainable. I want what I don’t want to want.
And if I’m honest with myself, I’m also doing what some call “hate-following,” and which Elizabeth Nathanson, associate professor of Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College, unpacks with much more eloquence via email. “The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated so many inequalities that have long been festering, and perhaps we feel a sense of gratification that we can take pleasure in deconstructing such patriarchal, white, wealthy, consumerist visions of motherhood,” she shares. I might be buying the products momfluencers are selling (I found an adorable hand broom shaped like a hedgehog this way), but I take perverse pleasure in using my feminist understanding of motherhood to critique their accounts. This is the definition of hypocrisy, of course, and not that it’s a particularly valid excuse, but I’m usually too bogged down with more pressing needs—like the location of missing sight word flash cards—to give it much thought.
At first glance, @roseuncharted looks like every other momfluencer with well-placed highlights and a cute copper tea kettle, but you can no longer see this yourself unless you followed her before she set her account to private, which happened around the election. The first post on her feed features a recipe for “perfect pot roast.” In another, she romps with her children through a field of wildflowers. But if you keep scrolling, you’ll find a millennial-pink infographic of a mask, which equates mask wearing with a “path paved to fascism and hell on earth.” A photo of Mount Rushmore will lead you to a video of former president Donald Trump where you’ll read about “the global network of elites … ushering us into a satanic new world order.” You will see that @roseuncharted doesn’t just believe in the benefits of bioenergetic essential oils, she also believes that Trump has been “divinely appointed” to “lead us out of slavery.” @roseuncharted has more than 127,000 followers.
Though the QAnon moms exist on the extreme end of a spectrum and openly spread harmful misinformation, the hundreds (thousands?) of white momfluencers who celebrate nostalgia in the form of gingham aprons and SO MANY orange-slice ornaments strike me as more quietly insidious. Hannah from @ballerinafarms doesn’t hide the real work of mothering, but she presents it as joyous. Sped-up videos of her tidying (six!) kids’ rooms makes the truly exhausting grind of mothering look like a lark. She concludes many of these videos with a jaunty thumbs-up to the camera.
A post shared by Hannah @Ballerina Farm (@ballerinafarm)
Nathanson worries that passive consumption of imagery, which celebrates an idyllic past that never actually existed for any women and was completely antithetical to the experience of marginalized women, can be harmful, because such imagery presents motherhood free from the blight of capitalism. Motherhood rendered lovely because the unwinnable fight for balance between career and childcare is happening somewhere else outside of Instagram’s perfect square frame. “Because, of course, not all women are able to navigate that balance,” she says. “Single mothers, women of color, working-class mothers struggle in ways distinct from the ideology of heteronormative, white, upper-class women who can celebrate freedoms from time constraints. These momfluencer images can hold women responsible for this freedom without addressing the lack of familial and social supports such as government-funded childcare, which make ‘having it all’ impossible for so many.”
Their audiences want escapism, not awkward questions about feminism and politics.
I emailed at least 30 white momfluencers who adhere to the typical white momfluencer aesthetic: white walls, ochre onesies, no plastic. Very few responded to my interview requests, which initially surprised me. After all, publicity is publicity, right? Author and journalist Jo Piazza, who spent a year researching momfluencer culture for her forthcoming podcast Under the Influence, was unfazed, explaining that certain momfluencers (mostly white, many Mormon) have nothing to gain from mainstream press. Their audiences want escapism, not uncomfortable questions about feminism and politics.
A post shared by katy rose prichard (@katyroseprichard)
Katy Rose Prichard isn’t Mormon, but she resembles many of the most popular Mormon momfluencers (she’s white, straight, conventionally attractive, and married). She recently announced that she was taking a break from sponsored content and has shifted her attention to highlighting social justice issues (scattered throughout otherwise typical momfluencer content like posts about nursery prep). On December 4, she held a Q&A with LBTQ consultant Ash, and on December 8, she posted about “problematic influencers,” which she told me via phone led to so much vitriol that she was forced to set her account to private. In the post, she didn’t mention any particular momfluencers by name, but before she shut down comments, @roseuncharted came up more than once.
“It’s such a transitional time in momfluencing,” Pritchard says. “Everything is political. Emotions are high, everyone is burnt out, people are still getting sick. It’s just a very wild time.” Pritchard attributes white momfluencers’ lack of political engagement to the fact that before now, many of them never felt pressure to step outside their comfort zones. For Pritchard, despite losing “both friends and followers … I’m trying to find a happy medium of protecting my mental health but still standing up for what’s right and making a difference.”
This might also contribute to her decision to step away from promotional content—big brands tend to prefer images of smiling mothers and swaddled infants over calls to defund the police.
A post shared by katy rose prichard (@katyroseprichard)
Shanicia Boswell, author, entrepreneur, and founder of the Black Moms Blog, was clear via email about why so few white momfluencers engage in social justice and political outreach. “I don’t expect for our issues to supersede their religious values, their husbands’ salaries, or their comfortable and plush lifestyles,” she wrote. “More Black momfluencers and minority influencers engage with politics, activism, and use their platforms because these issues actively affect our lives. They affect our children, our husbands, our fathers, our brothers, and us. It isn’t performative, because it is our real life.”
I don’t expect for our issues to supersede their religious values, their husbands’ salaries, or their comfortable and plush lifestyles.
Lagerwey echoes Boswell, saying, “The distinction is that white people are the only people able to be outside politics. It is a privilege of being part of the dominant class to be able to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.’”
A post shared by Shanicia Boswell (@shaniciaboswell)
Boswell eschews what she calls the “white standards of influencing” (heteronormative family structures, blonde hair, blue eyes, Sunday-night dinners). Her colors are vibrant and bold, and she uses a variety of filters, fonts, and styles. Boswell laughed when industry experts told her she would increase her numbers by using one particular preset or one particular color story. “My focus is not a perfectly curated and aesthetically pleasing unrealistic home or pristine children,” she says. “My focus is on the women who are focused on me.” Boswell’s success indicates that the safe [for whom? would cut] aesthetics of apolitical white motherhood are not universally appealing. The Black Moms Blog Instagram account has 486,000 followers and counting.
Carolina Andes, whose bio stands out for its mention of both Black Lives Matter paired with a reference to Matthew 25:40, says that momfluencer culture on Instagram has recently become “very weird.” Many white Christian women, she says, refuse to publically say “Black lives matter,” because they believe that the official Black Lives Matter organization is affiliated with Planned Parenthood or otherwise “supports abortion.” Arguments like these highlight why Trump very deliberately targeted white Christian women in both his choice of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court nominee and his claim that now president Joe Biden is “against God.”
A post shared by Carolina Andes (@carolinaaandes)
Andes, who is, in her words, a “white-passing Mexican woman,” thinks it will take a variety of approaches to change hearts and minds of supposedly apolitical white Christian women. “Why is Instagram the only place where social justice matters?” she asks. “Shoving infographics down their throats isn’t going to change the root problem, which has to do with the trauma of being raised in a culture that only values your role as wife and mother.” She echoes the viewpoint of many women I interviewed for this piece, that if momfluencers are divided into two monolithic categories—the social justice warriors and the QAnon moms—everyone will remain in their respective echo chambers.
This article was initially 20 pages long, and my deep dive into momfluencer culture has only revealed how murky the waters are. Momfluencers are savvy businesswomen, skilled artisans, and expert content creators. Piazza says, “Many of these momfluencers are delivering exactly what we would have consumed in Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, or even Vogue. They give us recipes and product recommendations and parenting tips with beautiful photos and short captions. That’s a magazine.” The potential danger for consumers lies in a misunderstanding that the monetization of motherhood as identity is not only selling women chunky knit cardigans, earth-friendly diapers, and Solly baby wraps; it’s also selling us the myth that any one of these things or any combination of these things impacts why you or I might be angry, depressed, or completely disillusioned with the labor of motherhood itself.
I’m still bothered, though, that the particular flavor sold by the most successful momfluencers is one conceived by patriarchy…
Piazza praises momfluencers for figuring out how to monetize the unpaid labor of motherhood, and I do too. Full stop. I’m still bothered, though, that the particular flavor sold by the most successful momfluencers is one conceived by patriarchy: a beautiful mother made happy by her beautiful children in her beautiful home.
I still follow @ballerinafarm. I’d rather watch her Insta Stories about milking her beloved cow Dandi than do almost any mundane mom chore. And I still have complicated feelings when I see her happy performance of motherhood, but they have everything to do with me and the world we live in and nothing to do with her, a human I do not know and likely never will.
All mothers exist within a capitalist system that sells us the idea of motherhood itself before going on to sell us all the props that go along with the job. If momfluencers weren’t selling me Beauty Counter concealer to mask my sleep deprivation or Branch Basics cleaning products to make me forget about how much I hate cleaning, someone else would. At least in this scenario, fellow mothers are reaping the benefits of a system that assures mothers we will always need to be something else, buy something else.
Maybe the challenge is not “figuring out” my fraught relationship with momfluencers but accepting that I might never fully extract myself from the system we’ve all grown up in, a system that tangles motherhood and performance and beauty and consumption into a mess of knots impossible to untie.
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