by Sara Petersen
Beacon Press (2023); 320 pp.; $26.96 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Sara Petersen has a complicated relationship with Instagram. When she scrolls through the feeds of influencers in the mom space, she has a lot of feelings and purchases a lot of products—from vitamins to stoneware jugs. Why does she keep returning to these momfluencer accounts? What is she getting in return for the hours she spends with momfluencers like Julie O’Rourke of @rudyjude (with her ocean views and handmade gifts) or Hannah Neeleman of @ballerinafarm (with her seven children, her dairy cows, her sourdough starter named Willa)?
In her new book, Momfluenced, (Beacon Press, April 25, 2023), Petersen details her quest to understand what compels her constant scrolling. She asks how Insta-moms experience their creation and sharing of content for others, how this is intertwined with the buying and selling of material goods, and how representations of mothering on Instagram both perpetuate and challenge broader cultural narratives about mothers. Her writing is characterized by Petersen’s signature playfulness (for example, see her stand-alone pieces “I Want to Be a Hot Mom,” and “The Future of the Bra is Up for Debate in the Pandemic.”) Profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper connected with Petersen via Zoom, where they talked about the “angel of the house,” the magic of Zoloft, the capitalist myth of feminine selflessness, and watching videos of their kids after they go to bed. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: Your book introduced me to the Instagram account, @rudyjude. You describe her as “the type of momfluencer most likely to make [you] buy something” because she has a beautiful, handmade aesthetic and “lives on an island” with an “obscenely hot partner” while projecting “an extremely appealing air of not giving many fucks.” Having now spent some time drooling over her feed, I agree on all points. But I wondered how my reaction was different from what I might feel when looking at mothers in catalogs or on TV?
Sara Petersen: With momfluencers, you have so many more ways to make connections. A layout in Real Simple Magazine with beautiful kids and a beautiful home, sure, that layout can inspire feelings of envy—you might aspire to wear whatever the mom is wearing—but she’s a nameless person. With @rudyjude, I’ve been consuming her content for so long. I know so many tiny, little, specific things about her life (which is not to say I know anything specific about her as a person with an inner life!). But I have consumed what she has chosen to share, and I’ll make connections and value judgments. I’ll align with her in this, or I’ll feel like, “Oh, I don’t really line up with her in this way, but I could if I buy this, or if I plan a birthday party like this.”
BAT: I remember thinking when I was in seventh grade that if I could only get a forest green roll-neck sweater from J. Crew, then I, too, could be a “cool girl.”
SP: But it’s the sweater, not the person that you’re remembering. You’re not comparing yourself to the model who was wearing it and imagining what her marriage is like.
BAT: Oh, ha! Right. What about similarities between momfluencer stories and family photo holiday cards? You spoke with Kathryn Jezer-Morton about how those cards might be a byproduct of momfluencing. In the book, you write that it is Dec. 9 and you haven’t organized family holiday cards yet, but you feel obligated to. To whom did you feel obligated? Where did that feeling come from? What did you do with it? Did you ultimately send the cards?
SP: I sure did. I looked for a pretty photo, the one I deemed “the best” based on whatever aesthetic parameters I was subscribing to. Full transparency: I love aesthetics. I love pretty house shit. It’s something I’ve always been into as a hobby. Not as an indicator of my fitness as a human being, a woman, or a mother. I’ve just always loved it. Also, we get a bunch [of these cards] from friends of the family, and I want to share mine too. I’m really only sending them to close friends and family who already know my house is a mess and that I’m likely to be profane when talking about motherhood . . . so I don’t think it is super insidious, but it could be. I am swimming in these waters. I think it’s really useful to ask yourself with this stuff, “Is it fun for you?” If it’s not, don’t do it.
BAT: Do it if it’s fun, but not to prove your worth as a woman or mother. I love that. You know what I do sometimes that feels compulsive? I scroll through images and videos of my own children that I have taken previously—sometimes while I am actually with those same children! What is going on there? How does this relate to your research on the allure of Insta-moms?
SP: It’s a more easily consumable way of experiencing the joy of motherhood. You can enjoy the image while not also making a snack and telling your toddler not to climb on the stool so he doesn’t crack his head open. It feels like a concentrated shot of maternal joy that’s just easier to access than the joy couched in all the doing and the moving and the talking and the answering. It’s like when someone loses a leg, they can feel phantom itching sensations. There are experiments where the person would hold a mirror and someone else would mimic the movement of the limb. If the person with the phantom itching saw this and envisioned a limb that no longer existed moving, then the itching would stop. I talked to Nicole Beurkens about this—she’s a psychologist. She said that me consuming these strangers’ tender moments—or looking at static photos of my kids when they can’t ask for things, can’t fight with each other, can’t whine—was similar [to watching someone itch a leg in place of their missing one].
BAT: What got you started investigating your experience with momfluencer content?
SP: I had been pitching pieces pegged to momfluencer culture for a few years before my Harper’s Bazaar article on the topic got picked up (“Momfluencer Content Enrages Me. Why Can’t I Look Away?”) The draft of that piece was 28 pages long! It felt so rich to me, had so many intersecting themes: performances of femininity, considerations of domesticity, whiteness, class aesthetics . . . so many things to dig into.
BAT: I loved your discussion of the difference between white feminism and intersectional feminism. You draw on Koa Beck to describe white feminism as concerned with the optimization of self, and define intersectional feminism as “concerned with access to pleasure, ease, accessibility, and equity for all people.” Could you talk about the implications of intersectional feminism for motherhood?
SP: One way to think about motherhood from an intersectional feminist perspective is to destroy archetypes. Any archetype, no matter how thoughtfully constructed, is going to exclude some. It completely negates so many people’s experiences and circumstances. I wish we lived in a culture where more moms were entering into motherhood feeling free to create their own narratives for themselves. That would certainly be an improvement. Talking to momfluencers who have monetized accounts solidified my suspicion that we’re all hampered by our abstract ideals of motherhood—even those of us who are capitalizing on the existence of those ideals.
BAT: Because the ideals constrain our idea of what’s possible and good?
SP: Even those of us who can check as many of the “ideal mother” boxes as possible . . . those boxes are still shrinking [the options for our lives]. The challenges of traditional motherhood can be made more extreme by varying layers of marginalization, but it’s a net negative for everyone, even those who have as few layers of marginalization as possible. I think many of us are trying to find our own maternal identity in opposition to the ones looming so largely around us. It would be nice if we didn’t have to compete with ghosts of those “angels of the house” idolized during the cult of domesticity in the late–nineteenth century. You know, the mythical privileged white lady who was the perfect wife and mother and lived only to serve.
BAT: That seems important to recognize—the idea that an unjust system can be harmful to everyone involved—even the people who enjoy privilege within that system. Why haven’t we destroyed the archetypes already? Why are we still competing with ghosts?
SP: Because our capitalist culture still relies on caregivers in the home, and many caregivers are still primarily mothers and women. Our “ideal mother” concept was created as this selfless domestic goddess to ensure that men could go out into the market sphere and make money while the mothers stayed at home and raised their children to be good little capitalists. That concept was also created explicitly to harm and marginalize mothers who didn’t fit all of those boxes: non-white mothers, disabled mothers, queer mothers . . . When we look at the construction of a maternal ideal, we have to look at who created it in the first place and why. Moms did not create it. So we’re fighting against many years of somebody else writing a narrative for us.
BAT: A narrative designed to extract more labor for fewer resources.
SP: Yes! Because if the mother is naturally suited to caregiving (gender essentialist nonsense), then we don’t have to give her any help. Once you start connecting the dots, we were all doomed to fail, obviously. Our organizing structures around work and home in capitalism presume that one parent will be home, which is absolutely, patently absurd. If we’re operating from an assumption that one parent—the mother—is at home, and she’s naturally blessed with the ability to raise children there (or some shit), or she believes she’s morally corrupt if she doesn’t like it . . . then we don’t need to support that person. We don’t need to support that work. We don’t need to respect that work. It will radically shift how we think about work and home if we start paying caregivers for their labor. If you’re selling us Mother’s Day cards telling us that our job is the most important job in the world, then pay us for that job! We live in a capitalist culture that equates value and worth and work with money, so then, where’s the money?
BAT: You wrote a lot of Momfluenced during a time when our country was being forced to look at that work in a new way—the early days of the pandemic. I loved how you included details about what your kids and your interviewees’ kids were doing during the interviews in Momfluenced. For example, at the end of your interview with Jo Piazza you write that she left the call saying, “I have to go. My baby is trying to eat matches.” Could you talk about your choice to include those bits?
SP: I was conducting so many of these interviews when my kids were at home because of pandemic school closures, which . . . I still can’t believe that happened. It feels like a fever dream. I don’t know how I did it. I also wanted to distinguish the interviews from one another. If we didn’t know any backstory about these characters, I could see the reader potentially glazing over. I wanted to ground the reader in time and space. And I love any way we can bring our mothering lives into our professional lives and show the intersections.
BAT: I thought those moments were a good example of you allowing yourself and other moms to be fully human, like Jessica Grose encourages in Screaming on the Inside, or Dr. Farfán-Santos suggests in Undocumented Motherhood. Could you talk about the part where you wrote about your own mom? I wonder if writing this book helped you to see her as more fully human?
SP: If we grow up with a mother, they are the first, most intimate role model of motherhood we have. Your mom is the first momfluencer that you encounter, for better or worse. My mother definitely informed my concept of a mother as a creative person, and home as the center of creative expression, as a kind of stage. I absorbed those messages throughout my childhood and adolescence without interrogating them fully. I think that’s why I had such a tough time—tough time is the worst phrase—but it’s likely part of the reason why I completely melted down after I had my first kid. I’m prone to depression and anxiety, so my postpartum depression was partly physiological, but I think it was also partly informed by me thinking motherhood was just going to be this magic wand that transformed me into a totally fulfilled, totally self-actualized person, which it was not!
BAT: You write about your postpartum depression in the book. What helped you most during that time?
SP: Getting on Zoloft. Even taking the first pill, which obviously was a placebo effect, but just taking that step forward felt so good. Finding mom friends hugely helped. I remember having a Facebook messenger conversation with someone I had just met. She wrote something about how motherhood made her feel like she was being shoved through a keyhole; it made me feel so seen.
BAT: You write, “I want proof that I’m chafing against motherhood not because I’m innately selfish, impatient, and bad, but because motherhood makes me this way, makes us all this way.” Have you found this proof anywhere?
SP: I don’t know if I can say, “I’ve found the proof and this is it,” but I’d like to think there are so many more conversations—on social media and off—about how the straightjacket of American motherhood does really set us up for failure. We’re all perennially burnt out—some much more than others—and unsupported people are going to lose their tempers more. We talk so much now about maternal rage, and I am comforted by the fact that we have a much better understanding of where that rage is coming from. Mothers are angry for concrete reasons, and our anger is very valid. It would be absurd if we weren’t angry.