In Momfluenced (Beacon, Apr.), Sara Petersen delves into the public performance of motherhood on Instagram. Petersen, whose writing on feminism and motherhood has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere, spoke with PW about her preoccupation with moms on the internet and emerging from under their influence.
How did you become interested in this subculture?
I felt a disconnect between what I was consuming online versus what I was experiencing in my day-to-day life as a mother. So many of our cultural constructs of motherhood hinge around joy. You should be delighted by all the funny things your kids say. You should find it fun to play make-
believe for hours on end. I wasn’t—and still am not—the most joyful mother. That always made me insecure, like I was doing something wrong. I thought maybe momfluencers held the key to something I was unaware of.
What’s your central thesis?
People will say, “This is a feminist win: these mothers are profiting off unpaid labor of childcare and domestic work.” They’re actually profiting from a retrograde version of self-sacrificial motherhood and femininity, often wrapped up in white supremacy. They’re also profiting off of performance. Mothering isn’t something that looks good on a social media feed. Sure, you could do the whole “hashtag real mom” thing, but even that necessitates a level of performance.
Did you come to any new understandings while reporting?
If you’re a mother on social media, you are momfluencing to some extent whether or not you have a monetized account. We’re all selling something via our social media performances of motherhood, whether it’s “motherhood comes easy to me” or “I’m really good at crafts and therefore closer to God.” We’re all communicating something about our values and our aspirations; men who happen to also be fathers on social media do not carry the same freight.
Is there a momfluencer backlash?
In feminist history, there’s always two steps forward, one step back. I have hope for the future. We’re witnessing a sea change, especially post-Covid. We’re waking up to the fact that this idea of a mother doing it all on her own is a harmful scam. That being said, I chart this shift with the rise of the conservative right, white nationalists, and white evangelicalism. I cover quite a few of the “tradwife” [traditional wife] momfluencers in the book. Alongside all this rage and this collective
maternal energy and activism, is also this anti-feminism, pro-femininity trad popularity.
What’s the takeaway for readers?
The whole concept of a mother being self-sustaining is necessary to uphold capitalism. The fact that mothering is not viewed as a collective endeavor is by design, so we don’t have to give mothers adequate or comprehensive maternal healthcare, paid leave, or help to pay for childcare. They should be totally capable; they should fucking love it if they’re “good moms,” right? The most comforting thing is knowing that all of these maternal ideals were created for very specific reasons. They were created to get us to buy stuff. They were created to disenfranchise us and they were created to vilify marginalized mothers. The more you know about the cultural constructs of all this stuff, the more freeing it is, because you don’t feel like you’re under a spell anymore.