What the popularity of "momfluencers" says about our isolated society

Social media's "momfluencers" thrive on the alienation innate to motherhood in the U.S., Sara Petersen says

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 29, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Woman making video about newborn baby handling (Getty Images/vladans)
Woman making video about newborn baby handling (Getty Images/vladans)

In the age of social media, motherhood is no longer a private affair. Many mothers and mothers-to-be turn the act of motherhood into a performance, documenting it and sharing it in a curated fashion on social media; the "momfluencer," as they are called, particularly thrives on Instagram. Scroll through the world of momfluencers and you'll find a seemingly endless stream of advice, tips, and tricks regarding motherhood. From newborn "hacks," to baby sleep tips, to breastfeeding or choosing the right formula, there is always a chronically online mom who has an answer for you, packaged in a deceiving way to make it appear as if said mom totally has her own mom-life together. 

"Many of us are desperate for a sense of hope that our experiences of motherhood will become better if we simply follow this script, or buy this magical baby sleepsuit or whatever."

Social media is performative by nature. We post to incur likes and follows. But influencer culture takes these performances to an entirely new level in motherhood. These virtual mom friends, with their massive social media followings, are performing motherhood in a way that is both captivating and unnerving.

In Sara Petersen's new book "Momfluenced," the author investigates what she describes as the "maddening, picture perfect world" of momfluencers. "Motherhood does not turn all people into a certain 'type,' and the reasons we follow momfluencer culture are just as varied as our experiences of motherhood," Petersen writes. "Understanding why we scroll is critical to understanding how we're all impacted by momfluencer culture."

Petersen's investigation isn't only about the allure of momfluencers, but also about what their existence says about the state of motherhood. In her book, she argues that momfluencers are not the enemy, but rather a symptom of a larger problem: a society that continues to neglect and undermine the unpaid labor of mothering.

In an interview with Salon, Petersen and I talked about the labor of momfluencers, how this pervasive culture affects the expectations of motherhood, the way in which products are being sold to moms, and the strange digital nostalgia for a 19th century aesthetic. As we navigate a new era of performative motherhood, Petersen's insights offer a thought-provoking analysis of the ways in which social media is shaping our understanding of what it means to be a mom today.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to write this book and dive deeper into the "maddening world" of momfluencer culture?

Yeah, it really stemmed from my own consumption of the culture. My experience of early motherhood in particular was really disorienting. I had assumed that motherhood would be a shortcut to greater self-awareness and fulfillment, but I was so shocked to find out that the labor of mothering is not a rosy glow Instagram filter, like the Madonna and child, that the media I had consumed as a kid led me to believe. Early motherhood was really tough for me.

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I started consuming certain accounts or following certain blogs in the early days, and these bloggers' performances and presentations of motherhood were so aesthetically beautiful and imbued with joy, light, and a sense of fun. It really felt like they were embodying the type of motherhood that I wanted when I set out to have kids. Though I never consciously said to myself, "If I do X, Y, and Z, I can be exactly like them," — of course, I understood there was a level of performativity. I found myself grappling with the realities of mothering, which has a lot of mundane doing, and motherhood as this archetypal image being sold to me online.

It was very relatable that you started the book by acknowledging that some of these momfluencers are your friends in a way. And you're not alone. I think about this a lot. So many of these momfluencers have had an impact on my motherhood journey — by offering products or advice — and they don't even know my name. And yet there have been days where they've taken up a lot of space in my mind. Why do you think that these momfluencers have become our "friends?" What does that say about the state of motherhood today?

Um, nothing good. I think it's completely understandable that many of us are desperate for answers, desperate for certainty, and desperate for a sense of hope that our experiences of motherhood will become better if we simply follow this script or buy this magical baby sleepsuit or whatever, right? Because the state of motherhood in this country is so, so broken and the vast majority of us do not have the support we need.

"We long for a way to mother that doesn't feel so exhausting, so frustrating, so difficult, because the structures and systems in our lives are failing us."

We can't access affordable quality childcare, we live in a country with no universal paid family leave, our bodily autonomy is under attack, maternal healthcare is completely flawed and incomplete. And also, our labor upholds a capitalist system, in which values are synonymous with money — then our labor is not paid and not culturally respected, despite being the most important job in the world.

So yeah, we long for a way to mother that doesn't feel so exhausting, so frustrating, so difficult, because the structures and systems in our lives are failing us. I think it makes complete sense that we're looking anywhere else we can look, and social media is always available, all the time, and there are so many more influencers with so many different levels of expertise — and it's far easier to purchase something with an affiliate link by a momfluencer, with the hope that it will make a significant difference in your day, even though deep down it won't, than it is to write a letter to your senator or become a full-time activist for maternal rights.

There are a million reasons that we are searching for any sort of solutions or support.

I thought you did a really good job like in the beginning of the book of setting it up to not blame momfluencers — they're part of a systemic issue. And being a momfluencer is hard work. Yet I thought it was really interesting how you pointed out that momfluencers are selling us products in a way that mirrors the mid-century advertisements that "deliberately portrayed the labor of caregivers big and housework as a combination of joy and feminine moral duty." How do you think this affects our expectations of motherhood today?

I think unfortunately, the ideals of motherhood that we hold near and dear in this country are still so firmly rooted in white supremacy, in gender essentialism, in class, and ableism. So the momfluencers who tend to have the biggest platforms and make the most money are the ones who fit that mold, who check the majority of boxes in terms of our Western maternal ideal.

I don't blame them for making money off of a toxic ideal. They didn't create this ideal. The ideal was created long ago by white men in power. But I do think that the more we are bombarded with an ideal that looks the same every time, the more subconsciously we do believe in an ideal, like we do think there is a right way to mother and we do think that a quote-unquote "good mom looks a certain way.

And that's where I think it becomes really quietly insidious, because these images are everywhere. We're absorbing them all the time in our media, like in our traditional print media and television media, and of course, on social media. So I think these accounts that capitalize on our understandings and maternal ideals do hold the norm, even if the individuals themselves are not setting out to uphold the norm. But I think the mere presence and power of these influencers does have that effect.

In different parts of your book, you bring up how so many momfluencers are drawn to this 19th century aesthetic. Like the nap dress, or baby bonnets. I don't see any babies wearing bonnets where I live, but I see them all over my Instagram feed. Why do you think that is, that this aesthetic is so popular in parts of white momfluencer culture?

I have no way of tentatively saying what has brought an increase in nostalgia for this aesthetic, but I do think it's interesting to track the rise of tradwife culture, alongside the growing social rage of mothers post-pandemic.

Mothers have much more language to talk about their frustration and the inequality and the inequities that we're dealing with than they did prior to the pandemic. And some of these accounts, they'll be pro-femininity, anti-feminist accounts —I do think that is a direct backlash to just the growing energy amongst progressive moms who want better for everyone and, you know, intersectional feminist moms.

It's very much about like, the quote unquote "good old days" when things were simpler. But like, simpler for who? It wasn't simpler for poor women who have always worked outside the home, regardless of whether or not they had children. Even for the rich white ladies, it wasn't simpler for them. Like they were still beholden to the men in their lives. They were not granted equality or agency. It wasn't, it was really only simpler for white rich men.

"Mothers have much more language to talk about their frustration and the inequality and the inequities that we're dealing with than they did prior to the pandemic."

On the topic of aesthetic, motherhood is messy and chaotic. Yet as you point out in Chapter 5, it's portrayed on social media as the opposite, and you bring up the minimalist aesthetic — obviously, there's a lot of talk about the "sad beige" trend. Why is this trend equated with being a "good mom" — spaces that don't look lived in, moms that don't have stains on their shirts, like I do everyday?

I think it has a lot to do with a desire to control the uncontrollable. I know for myself becoming a mother really just plunged me into so much uncertainty, self doubt. And it is just physically very messy. And again, we're sort of scrambling unsupported in our American society as mothers. So if, for example, I can just rid my domestic space of any unsightliness or, if I can perfectly color coordinate my kids sweaters in the drawer so that like a spark joy, it feels like a way to reclaim some sort of control.

Why is there still this pressure to perform motherhood today?

I think we're all performing motherhood throughout our days in our lives, and I think the pressure to perform is so great because the ideal of motherhood is so entrenched in our culture, even if we've never stopped to consider it. I think most of us, if tasked with that question, would be able to come up with a pretty Hallmark-esque answer. I even feel like wearing a motherhood costume when I'm picking up my kid from preschool. I just think the identity marker of a mother is so heavy, to a lot of us, and I think that impacts the inclination or pressure to perform even if we're not conscious of the performance.

I really liked the chapter on pointing out the intersection of white momfluencers and QAnon.

It is bleak. When I first started drafting the book, then when I went back to revise all the follower accounts of the moms in that chapter, they had all gone up since the original draft. It's so telling and upsetting.

Yeah, I think especially if the momfluencers are spreading QAnon or like anti-vax rhetoric, especially if their work is centered in the home. I think again, because of the lack of cultural respect and financial recognition of our work, it makes sense that we want some recognition. We want some validation. We want to be seen or worth listening to. We want somebody to look at us and say, what you're doing matters.

"I think the pressure to perform is so great because the ideal of motherhood is so entrenched in our culture."

And so I think a lot of these white moms fall into creating accounts based on being "truth tellers," because they gain cultural capital in ways that are more readily accessible in mainstream culture. You know, they're referred to as experts, they're looked to as insiders, they're looked to as mavericks.

I often wonder, if mothers whose work was solely based in the home, if we gave them the same cultural respect that we gave doctors and lawyers, could you imagine like how different society would be?

You end your book on kind of a hopeful note, showing people who are, as you say, "disrupting the feed." What do you think the future holds for momfluencer culture?

I mean, I don't know if I have a ton of hope about like momfluencers of color, queer momfluencers, disabled momfluencers, gaining the same financial privileges as momfluencers adhering to the American ideal. I don't know if I see that happening anytime soon, unfortunately. But I do think we're having more conversations about critically and thoughtfully consuming social media. And it does seem to me that we're having more thoughtful critical conversations about who the vision of the ideal of a mother harms, and who she upholds. And I hope that these conversations empower moms to examine their own narratives and make deliberate choices about things like, "I am taking this photo of my kid in the pumpkin patch because this brings me real joy? Or am I doing it because like every other mom is posting her pumpkin patch photo?" And just opting out of the supposed mom things we've been indoctrinated to assume are our norms when in fact they're not.

Yeah, I want to opt out. You've inspired me to opt out. I really enjoyed your book. Thank you!

Thank you!


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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