How mothers can both embrace and reject the power of momfluencers

By Lindsey DeLoach Jones

It started, for me, with the mommy blogs

In the late 2000s, as a newlywed in graduate school, I ravenously read the blogs of Kristen Howerton (Rage Against the Minivan), Glennon Doyle (Momastery), and Heather Armstrong (Dooce). Although these writers almost universally despised the term “mommy bloggers,” the “mommy” part of their designation was—for me and many other 20-and-30-somethings—beside the point. What I was drawn to was less the mechanics of parenting and more the kind of raw, self-deprecating, irreverent writing I’d always wanted to do myself. 

I hadn’t known motherhood could be funny, marriage could be painful, or depression could be a topic of serious (or unserious) conversation. By flinging open their kitchen curtains in a way the mothers of 80s and 90s kids never had, those bloggers made me feel less alone on a journey I had not even begun. In much the same way people mistake Hollywood celebrities for friends, I had an intimate parasocial (in other words, imaginary) relationship with those writers. (I should note, though, that Kristen Howerton did comment on my own blog once, and I responded like I’d received a personal note from the President of the United States.)

In her new book Momfluenced, Sara Petersen traces the cultural trajectory from those early mommy bloggers to what she calls today’s “momfluencers”—women who offer up an aesthetically-pleasing, image-centric, carefully curated version of modern motherhood online. Although, as Petersen points out, the momfluencer aesthetic has expanded in recent years, the Insta feeds of OG momfluencers typically include well-lit photos of brown eggs hand-gathered from backyard chickens, bright white countertops, homemade pie crusts, vintage American flags, and pregnant-belly silhouettes. 

It didn’t take long, Petersen explains, for companies to realize that these women (and their attractive children and homes) made excellent backdrops for whatever it was they were selling. Banner ads tucked away on those early monetized blogs gave way to sponsored content (“sponcon”) on Instagram. As a result, social media motherhood is now inextricably intertwined with attempts to sell everything from organic dish soap to flattering jeans to macrame wall hangings. Who among us has not ordered a linen romper recommended (and casually sported) by a beautiful, thin mother with long beachy waves? From where we sit, these women seem exempt from the toddler messes, grueling dinner preps, and bad hair days that plague the rest of us.

It’s not just writing about motherhood or the stuff of motherhood that has been monetized; it’s motherhood itself. Motherhood is presented to us, Petersen writes, “as a thing you can buy. Right there on the other side of that shopping cart is cleanliness and attractiveness and joy.” In order to do all that selling, the moms themselves have to become a brand—a clearly recognizable, single-minded, uncomplicated brand.

I see nothing wrong with viewing momfluencer feeds for entertainment, inspiration, or even aspiration. The risk, though, for me and all women who spend any time on the internet, is our tendency to transpose ourselves directly onto the images someone else is feeding us online (then noticing all the ways we don’t fit). In a role as complex as motherhood, we crave, writes Petersen, an “identity template”—another woman just showing us how to live, a thing we can duplicate at home. The problem of course, is that we can’t duplicate it. Because, wiped clean of all the mess, it isn’t (entirely) real.

When I read those early mom blogs, I never felt like the money-end of a sales tactic. I felt more human because I could peer into the living rooms of those women, not less. I didn’t know it fifteen years ago, but as a woman living inside exclusively conservative, traditional spaces, I was terrified of the “gentle” versions of motherhood modeled in my real life. I had internalized what my Christian community calls “male headship” (if you haven’t heard of it, it’s patriarchy), so I thought of motherhood (and womanhood in general) as sainthood or martyrdom or, really, just invisibility. I have never been described as docile or subservient or even quiet. I wanted to be a mom more than anything else, but if gentleness was required, I was privately afraid I’d be terrible at the gig. Internet Moms gave me hope for a different style of parenting, one that included the beauties of a domestic life alongside snark and creativity and the occasional curse word.

I’ll admit it: I cringe-follow a few momfluencers whose shameless sales tactics or overly sentimental renditions of motherhood make my toes curl. But there’s a flipside, as Petersen points out, to all the interpretations we’re offered. The internet, by democratizing expressions of motherhood, offers us the whole range of experience, from saccharine sweet to bitter, from glossy and commodified to grainy and raw. Sometimes half the battle of determining who you are is knowing your options.

What I loved about those early bloggers, though, was that we didn’t have to choose between the sweet moms or the fashionable moms or the smart moms. Those women gave us the whole range inside one life, one motherhood—too personal and erratic to ever be called a template. As it turns out, I’ve had my own backyard chickens, made homemade bread with a three-year-old, and shown sweaty kids how to plant tomatoes. I have also stood in the front yard, hands on my knees, deep breathing while, inside, my children hollered and jumped and dumped pancake mix on the floor. I once painted my family’s piano with seven coats of bright yellow paint after glimpsing a yellow piano in the background of one momfluencer’s glossy, square photos. I have white walls and countertops. I am a feminist. I love gritty, authentic portrayals best, but I can also appreciate the permission the glossier momfluencers give me to love motherhood, full stop.

It’s not just me holding those tensions. All mothers are a little bit of everything, which is what makes the whole enterprise of raising children maddening and challenging and gorgeous. We’re all working out our identities as we go.

So when I scroll the curated accounts of momfluencers, I often feel desperately lonely. Deep down, I know none of us has it figured out. None of us has arrived. I also know that the influencer part of their job is to sell me on something. I know the woman on the other side of that iPhone is, at a least a little bit, a product herself.

And yet, in the scroll, I forget this. Along with everything else I buy, I buy the lie that motherhood can fit inside a tidy box (or a tidy photo square). Petersen writes, “The idealization of a certain kind of motherhood constrains us all.” We all benefit from pushing against those constraints.

About five years after my first child was born, a friend said, over coffee, that she didn’t know if she wanted kids because she didn’t seem to fit the mold for stay-at-home, gentle motherhood so common here in the south. I remember the panic in her voice, the same fear harbored by my younger self. 

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to do it that way.” 

“What way?”

“Any way you don’t want to do it. You can just do motherhood your way.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Yeah,” she said. “I completely forget that.”

I think about that conversation a lot, not because I think it made a dramatic impact on her but because it made one on me. Really, I was reminding myself what those early bloggers had taught me. If I’m going to scroll Instagram for a swimsuit recommendation, I’m also going to encounter pictures and captions that make my heart squeeze up with envy or shame. I can appreciate the mom part of momfluencers while tossing aside their influence on me. I can engage with various portrayals of motherhood without swallowing them whole.

“You don’t have to do it that way,” I say to myself while I scroll, again and again. “You don’t have to do it that way.”

Lindsey DeLoach Jones writes a Substack called Between Two Things, which explores the tensions we hold when living inside nuanced middle spaces. (In other words, she’s a mommy with a blog—but whatever you do, don’t call it a mommy blog.)

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