by Sara Petersen
Beacon Press, 2023Buy Book
I’m a mother and I live in New England, which means that every fall, we go apple picking. I can’t remember the exact moment when picking apples lost its luster for me, but I can say that I’ve dutifully loaded my kids into the car many times since, even when they, too, seemed slightly bored of the endeavor. Last fall, as I stalked after the three of them down rows of Honeycrisps with my phone camera at the ready, I had to wonder: Why, exactly, were we here? Was it the perfect apple I was after, or the perfect Instagram-worthy photo of my children picking apples, their baskets overflowing, their faces ringed by autumn sunlight? I wanted that photo badly. Weirdly badly. Badly enough to make me question what was truly at stake for me in that orchard.
I thought of this moment many times while reading Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture, Sara Petersen’s incisive and engrossing exploration of the intensified pressure, in the age of social media, for women to perform “good” motherhood. Before reading this book, I’d never paid much attention to the phenomenon of the momfluencer, whom Petersen defines as “someone who monetizes her identity as a mother on a social media platform,” but I had paid attention to Petersen’s whip-smart essays for the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications interrogating the conditions that make contemporary motherhood so very challenging. I opened this book hopeful that it would contain the same qualities I’ve come to love in Petersen’s articles: sharp cultural commentary, honest self-reflection, and infectious humor. Momfluenced didn’t disappoint.
Petersen approaches her material as both an avid consumer and a skeptical critic of momfluencer content. It’s a relatable vantage point: who among us hasn’t found herself irresistibly drawn to that which, intellectually, she rejects? Petersen introduces readers to the momfluencers who’ve most captured her attention, conjuring the “push and pull between disdain and aspiration” she feels when scrolling their content. We meet the blonde and willowy Hannah Neeleman (@ballerinafarm on Instagram), who chronicles for millions of followers her impossibly wholesome life on the Utah prairie with her husband, seven children, milk cows, sourdough starter, and seemingly endless supply of calico clothing. We meet Kelly Havens Stickle (@kellyhavensohio on Instagram), whose red tresses cascade over her shoulders as she knits by candlelight and wanders with her children through wildflowers, encouraging mothers to embrace God’s will for women.
Stickle and Neeleman fall into the category of “trad-wife” influencers, who embrace, for public consumption, traditional patriarchal gender roles. As much as we’d like to think America has moved beyond the nineteenth-century “cult of domesticity”—which held that a woman’s highest calling was in service to her husband, hearth, and home—the rise of this genre of social media reveals just how much this mythology lives on. The self-sacrificing housewife, epitomized by Coventry Patmore’s famous 1854 poem “The Angel in the House,” has simply morphed over time. “We might all scoff at Patmore’s rendition of the selfless Angel wholly devoted to her husband’s needs,” Petersen points out, “but the notion of the selfless angel totally devoted to her children’s needs is not only still celebrated but also expected as natural and necessary.”
Petersen roots her discussion of the domestic goddesses of Instagram in her own journey as a mother of three. For her—and for me, and for every mother with whom I’ve ever ventured beyond small talk—the daily labor of mothering is far from perpetually blissful. As Petersen puts it in one of her moments of delicious candor, “I love my kids, but I don’t always love being a mother”—a line by which I scrawled an emphatic “AMEN!” The truth is that the tasks of motherhood are often exhausting, repetitive, thankless, and unbearably boring. Momfluencers provide glimmers of hope that, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be this way.
For the real-life mother, who is raising children in a country that provides shamefully inadequate social support for mothers generally, there can be an escapist pleasure in this illusion. This effect is hardly an accident. Momfluencers are, first and foremost, salespeople, paid by companies to get us to buy their products. The way they do this, Petersen outlines, is by convincing the beleaguered mothers of America “that relief lies not in structural change, but in a nap dress, or a better way to mother tied, at least in part, to one’s consumer habits.” Even with her savvy, Petersen isn’t immune to this seduction; it is way easier, she confesses, “to add a few pretty Swedish dishcloths to my virtual cart than it is to deal with my deep, deep despair when I consider what it means to be a mother in the United States.”
The business of momfluencing hinges on the message that there is one good way to be a mother—and a key ingredient of this “goodness,” Petersen emphasizes, is whiteness. She traces the racism embedded in the trad-wife aesthetic, as well as in the pristine, minimalist, white-washed settings favored by many momfluencers, to the nineteenth-century domestic Angel, which made an upper-class white model of womanhood the standard for all women, regardless of race or class. In one of the most disturbing sections of Momfluenced, she explores how some momfluencers, such as holistic earth mama Rose Henges (@roseuncharted on Instagram), use their platforms to spread white supremacist conspiracy theories such as QAnon, wrapping these in the palatable shroud of maternal concern.
Given all that’s deeply problematic about the world of momfluencing, it’s tempting to write off the entire enterprise. But one of the most admirable aspects of Momfluenced is its openness to complication. Petersen’s goal isn’t merely to judge or condemn, but to look at momfluencer culture from all sides and grapple in good faith with its complexity. She pays important attention to the fact that the profession of momfluencing is just that—a profession. An influencing mom is a working mom, doing her best, like all working moms, to support her family economically as well as emotionally. If, in our current capitalistic system, “identities can be (or must be) monetized, shouldn’t those identities be profiting the people they actually belong to?” she asks. “Why shouldn’t a momfluencer control her own narrative, as well as her own financial destiny?”
Petersen provides plenty of examples of momfluencers using their voices to forge alternative narratives about motherhood—narratives that “don’t prioritize linen jumpsuits or artful lunchbox compositions as the apex of maternal achievement,” but instead fight for the equity, dignity, truth, and bodily freedom all mothers deserve. She introduces us to Andrea Landry (@indigenousmotherhood on Instagram), who celebrates the beauty and richness of Indigenous motherhood while addressing the trauma, poverty, and racism her community faces. She talks with Imani Payne (@realgrowingpaynes on Instagram), who posts about her infertility struggles and pregnancy loss in an attempt to destigmatize motherhood’s less blissful aspects. And she spends time with Mia O’Malley (@plussizebabywearing on Instagram), who uses her platform to raise awareness around anti-fat bias in the healthcare and maternity industries. Reflecting on her conversation with O’Malley, Petersen artfully shows us, right there on the page, the seeds of change taking root. “Because of my thin privilege” she admits, “it had never occurred to me to draw a clear line between a lack of fat-positive representation in motherhood media and negative health outcomes for people trained to see their bodies as . . . undeserving of care, respect, or celebration. But now that Mia has pointed it out to me, I can never unsee it, never unknow it.”
Momfluenced’s greatest power lies in moments like this, which highlight how all of us, no matter our relationship with social media, have a hand in constructing agreed-upon ideas of what a “good mother” is. We do this through our words, our actions, and, if we are mothers, our decisions about what we reveal and conceal about our lives. In my own New England milieu, I’ve absorbed that a “good mother” is hands-on, outdoorsy, and at one with nature and its bounty. Just what was I after in that apple orchard last fall? Proof—to myself, and to the world—that I possessed this goodness. As Petersen aptly puts it, “We all perform motherhood, regardless of our platforms, to various audiences, for various reasons, every day. Momfluencers just have bigger stages.” Momfluenced helped me understand that what we do with our own stage matters, rippling outward to affect mothers everywhere.