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A few days after my daughter was born, I posted a picture of us on Instagram. In it, I am cradling her against my chest and smiling, and only the back of her head is visible. My husband had taken the photograph, and I was pleased with how flattering it was: I looked like a blissed-out new mom, high on the achievement of bringing a new life into the world. After more than a decade of regular social media use, I recognized that the picture upheld a certain familiar aesthetic standard—rosy, well-lit, convincingly candid—that made it worthy of Instagram.

My post accumulated the desired congratulations and heart emojis from close friends and acquaintances. You can’t tell, though, that the picture was taken only hours after I experienced a traumatic and bloody delivery, which resulted in postpartum hemorrhage and a third-degree tear that an obstetrician grimly described as “complicated.” But, of course, you’re not supposed to know all that. Instead of sharing that story with the picture, I wrote a caption about how my daughter “enjoys napping, eating and grunting like a charming little piglet.” Images of motherhood on social media never tell the whole story.

Posting a picture of your new baby has become almost compulsory for modern parents. A Refinery29 survey of 500 Canadian mothers found that 95 percent post photos of their children, one-quarter of them daily. Parents use social media for the same reasons everyone else does, but Instagram has become a useful resource for brand-new parents thanks to the popularity of professional accounts offering advice and information. Whether you are looking for insights on sleep, tantrums, breastfeeding, or any other fraught topic, you can find help packaged into images and video formats and accompanied by digestible captions from a parent just like me. In the comments of these posts, parents exchange messages of encouragement and solidarity and swap survival tips and advice, offering one another genuine and invaluable support.

As one of the most popular social media platforms, Instagram has become multifaceted in its value to parents. It is no longer just a social network even though that’s still how it’s commonly seen when we share videos, comment on posts, or “like” our friends’ photos. Instagram is now a shopping and advertising platform. This year, Instagram is projected to generate more than $18 billion in ad revenue, double the $9 billion it made in 2019, according to Statista (all figures US). And at the intersection of the platform’s social and consumer axes are “momfluencers” selling aspirational visions of motherhood to their followers, one post at a time. But, during the most tender, isolated months of new parenthood, these influencers model a standard of parenting—picturesque, assured, shoppable—that is impossible to reach no matter how hard you try.

Last autumn, I saw an inexplicably high number of family photoshoots in pumpkin patches; the previous spring, everyone was at a berry farm or a field of tulips, as if they had been recruited into a stealth campaign by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. In recent years, more and more parents on my feed have documented the arrival of a newborn with a professional photoshoot and followed up with monthly photos of their babies arranged on blankets with numbered accessories to denote their age.

“The types of photos that you come to associate with milestones of your children—like the ‘cake smash’ photo for the one-year-old, with the baby in a high chair eating the little cake with their hands—it was the influencers who started that. And that was adopted by regular moms,” says Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a PhD candidate in sociology at Concordia University who studies “mom-preneurs.” Her research spans the post-2012 era when the number of influencer moms exploded on Instagram and began to impact the ways regular moms documented their lives and their children.

Influencer moms have been part of the Instagram ecosystem since the beginning. The app’s debut, in 2010, coincided with the peak in mommy-blogging culture, when millions of readers—mostly women—flocked to the intimate, confessional blogs of mothers like Heather Armstrong, Joanna Goddard, and Naomi Davis. Many of these bloggers had audiences in the millions, followers who trusted their recommendations and envied their lifestyles, and a clout that made them desirable partners for brands and corporations. They acquired sponsors and began sanding down the rougher edges of their content and refining their voices in order to achieve wider appeal. The simple format of early Instagram, with its flattering filters and focus on aesthetics, was ideally suited for this evolution. Bloggers began to migrate from their websites to the sleek platform, and they brought their audiences and brand partnerships with them.

Today, “momfluencer” can be more broadly defined than it was in the early aughts, encompassing women who have built a brand explicitly on being moms as well as influencers for whom motherhood is a secondary, complementary identity to what they share online. The latter category includes celebrities such as Emily Ratajkowski, a model who tagged her first baby product, a special “Zeitgeist Baby Carrier” by Artipoppe that retails for $813, after giving birth in March, as well as author and sustainability advocate Erin Boyle, who lives in Brooklyn with her three children. Regardless of whether motherhood is their primary or secondary identity, the vast majority of these influencers are thin, white, straight, married, and made even more beautiful by Instagram filters.

Instagram has a prevailing aesthetic where everything looks good in the same way. Ordinary people artfully photograph their trendy books, take selfies in front of murals that they learned about from other people’s selfies, and even tag brands in their posts for no reason. The result is a digital ecosystem in which every image looks more or less like an ad—or, more accurately, nothing looks more like an ad than anything else. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with inspiring others to bake elaborate cakes for their one-year-olds to smash or stage family photos with seasonal produce, but influencers are persuasive in other ways too. Their job, after all, is to convince you to shop.

After being acquired by Facebook in 2012, Instagram began rapidly evolving into a commercial space, offering new ways for companies to reach audiences through paid promotions, ads, and eventually, in 2019, in-app shopping. This commercialization led to an explosion in influencers. While the numbers of men and women on Instagram are essentially equal, influencing is a female-dominated industry: 84 percent are women.

The growing number of influencers is driven largely by the rise of the “microinfluencer,” who may have between 1,000 and 100,000 followers. Microinfluencers are appealing to brands because they’re cheaper, sometimes working in exchange for free products, and because they’re an effective channel for reaching a specific audience: a mom with a few thousand followers who posts frequently about motherhood is very likely to be followed by other moms. From certain angles, influencing resembles a pyramid scheme: a few high earners at the top and a much larger number at the bottom who are working just as hard on their content but for much less money. To stay in the game, they have to find ad partners, link to products, and most of all, keep their followers coming back for new content.

Parents, particularly moms, have always been desirable to advertisers. In 2012, The New York Times Magazine published a story about Target statistician Andrew Pole, who analyzed customer data in order to develop a “pregnancy prediction” model for the retailer. Shoppers who suddenly began purchasing unscented lotion and multivitamins, for example, were likely to be pregnant. The model could even determine how far along they were. This data allowed the company to target customers with ads for maternity and baby products at the precise moment when they were most likely to need them.

At the time, the idea that a corporation might know you were pregnant before your family and friends did was unsettling. Target made efforts to downplay its insights: it mailed customized catalogues to customers who had been identified by the model but placed targeted baby products, like cribs, next to random-seeming items, like lawnmowers, so customers wouldn’t realize what was happening. Nine years later, this coyness seems almost quaint. If you have ever looked at a product online—a stroller, a pair of jeans—then you have most likely been trailed by ads for that product across the internet, a marketing tactic known as “retargeting.”

Whether or not you ever post a photo of your ultrasound on Instagram, the app knows if you are pregnant and adjusts the ads and content you see accordingly to offer products that you’re likely to purchase. The precision of advertising can be so acute that many people believe social media companies are eavesdropping on them through the microphones of their mobile devices. (Facebook has denied this.) The technology podcast Reply All investigated the theory and ultimately concluded that Facebook doesn’t need to eavesdrop—you already give it all the information it needs. Facebook possesses enormous amounts of data about users: search histories, personal relationships, ads a person clicks on, and even the ones they just linger over for a moment before scrolling past.

Ads remind us that we want things, but they do so in a way that can feel pushy, annoying, and obvious. That’s why influencers are so effective: you follow them by choice, and their product recommendations hold a veneer of credibility. The ornaments of their lives—the clothes they dress their charming children in, the linen sheets rumpled on their sunlit beds, the makeup that explains why they never look as tired as you—are tagged, linked, and available to purchase. They share these items like pieces of wisdom, passed from one helpful mom to another, each one a promise that your life can look and feel a little more like theirs. But the economics of Instagram require that they conflate their happiness with the products they’re selling, entangling the promises of consumerism and motherhood.

My Instagram feed: a chic Brooklyn mom with a cherubic infant, beaming in the sun, the stroller and apparel brands tagged; a beachy Australian influencer with her favourite brand of natural, eco-friendly cleaning products and a discount code for her followers; an earthy Portland influencer with a high chair starting at $600, which is “sturdy, height-adjustable, safe, and looks great in our kitchen”—she has a discount code too. Every post offers a way to be the mother you want to be: stylish, responsible, surrounded by all things organic and sustainable. One imagines the purchases fitting together like puzzle pieces, eventually forming a complete picture of a fully realized, perfect mother. But, no matter how many organic cotton bralettes or enriching wooden toys you buy, there’s always something missing.

What we buy is an important piece of how we understand ourselves as parents. Baby shower registries are often a way for parents to articulate their ideals and values around having a child: Will my baby sleep in a bedside Moses basket or a sleek Scandinavian crib? Do we want neutral onesies or deeply gendered clothing? Are we going to bottle-feed or exclusively breastfeed?

“Shopping is increasingly becoming a form of self-expression,” Tatjana Takseva writes in How Contemporary Consumerism Shapes Intensive Mothering Practices. “The products we buy for our children or for our work of care as mothers are thus not just products, but have symbolic value as images of ourselves; they help construct a persona of the kind of mother we see as ideal.” Takseva is a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and her research specializes in cultural representations of motherhood. Her writing on the commercialization of contemporary mothering practices also appears in the 2014 book Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood, which explores the concept of “intensive mothering.” The term was coined in the 1990s by American sociologist Sharon Hays, who observed that the cultural ideal of motherhood had become “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive.”

This ideal holds true today. Compared to those of thirty years ago, Canadian mothers now do more paid work outside the home and more unpaid work within it. Since 1986, mothers have doubled the amount of time they spend on child care each day. And, while fathers are also doing more child care than they used to, the gender gap has grown wider. The demands of intensive mothering have been codified in public health guidelines. The Canadian Paediatric Society, for example, advises that mothers breastfeed for at least two years and minimize screen time for young children unless a parent is “co-viewing quality screen content” alongside them. These recommendations may be good for children, but they can be hard on mothers, who often feel shame or guilt when they fail to live up to them.

Instagram is both an outlet and a reinforcer of these ideals. Posting cute pictures of our kids and capturing the effort we’ve expended on their behalf—the things we’ve bought them, their cute outfits, the pumpkin-patch photoshoots—is a way to be seen and recognized for the often-thankless labour of parenting. At the same time, it perpetuates a cycle of insecurity: How many times have I looked at another parent’s photo and felt a stab of jealousy that it looked so easy for them? How many times has someone felt the same way when looking at mine?

When my daughter was very small, I often spent hours on social media, which was the only thing I could do one-handed while she slept and nursed endlessly on me. I was desperate to figure out how to be a good parent, a prospect that seemed feasible when my child was hypothetical and unfathomable now that she was real and always crying. The sensible parenting books I tried to read, bleary-eyed with sleep deprivation, contained inscrutable phrases, like “wake windows” and “non-nutritive sucking,” that meant nothing to me. On Instagram, the recommendations were clear and concrete: buy this sleep sack, that breast pump, this bassinet, and all will be well. I could see what the happy parents had and try to re-create their apparent confidence from the outside in. If nothing else, I would look like I knew what I was doing, and maybe someone would reply to my Instagram story with much-appreciated praise.

“Our identities are very much shaped by the language and the discourses that exist around us, which we use to help us label parts of who we are and who we would like to be,” Takseva says. “If you take this idea and put it in the context of the capitalist marketplace logic and economy, which is driven to constantly expand the consumer market by aggressively selling products, it’s producing needs—creating and manufacturing needs that are very much linked to some basic human drives that have to do with our experience of happiness, of identity, of who we think we are.”

For the momfluencers, the anxieties can be acute. “People expect them to bring freshness to their content at a pretty rigorous rate,” says Concordia sociologist Kathryn Jezer-Morton. “And these moms are under pressure to find new ways to frame their experiences because talking about how much you love coffee or wine or whatever gets old.” And, while travel or fashion influencers can occupy a fantasy, a unique expectation of momfluencing, she adds, is the demand for authenticity. Moms are still expected to be “real” and to bond with audiences over their common experiences as mothers, but they also have to look good. “Of course it’s not real, and it’s never going to be, because then it wouldn’t look good,” Jezer-Morton says. “It wouldn’t be marketable. So there’s this built-in contradiction that’s just impossible to escape.”

The consequences are measurable: research has found that looking at influencer content negatively affects both mood and body image, and a recent UK study found that looking at momfluencer content increased anxiety among mothers who reported low self-esteem. This pattern of unfavourably comparing oneself to others based on their social media presentation extends to all users, not just moms. But being a new parent is a particularly fragile time: one-quarter of new moms report postpartum depression or anxiety, factors that heighten the sense of inadequacy and make the pain of comparison more acute.

“If you’re a poor mother, if you’re a welfare mother being bombarded by the images of supermom,” says Takseva, “it has the potential to contribute to great feelings of inadequacy and guilt over not being able to provide that which is seen and reinforced through various social discourses as the ideal way to love your child.”

While one solution is to opt out—just delete the app—that ignores the social and emotional value offered by social media. These platforms have grown so vast that they have supplanted other forms of communication and connection and have become sometimes the most prominent ways to stay in touch with family and friends. This is especially true during a pandemic that has further isolated parents from in-person sources of support.

Perhaps the only solution for this trap is time. “When you have little kids and you’re on Instagram, you’re a vulnerable population,” says Jezer-Morton. “For the first years of your kid’s life, there’s more pressure and you just feel more emotionally impacted by it. And then, as your kids get older—and maybe it’s just exposure to the platform, but it wears off. You develop a kind of immunity.”

Every stage ends eventually. Takseva notes that intensive mothering was preceded by “custodial mothering,” the kind of lax 1980s parenting that I remember from my early childhood. “It was very much a hands-off kind of motherhood in the sense that children would be sent out to play in the street with their friends for indeterminate amounts of time,” she says. “There was never any expectation that adults were responsible for entertaining children.” Perhaps a new parenting philosophy will rise up, one that isn’t predicated on making mothers feel as though they are perpetually lacking by leveraging their anxieties and insecurities to sell them on the idea of perfection.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.