The Good Enough Momfluencer
Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture by Sara Petersen. Beacon Press, 320 pages. 2023.
I will hand it to Sara Petersen: she is a master momfluencer. Her momfluencing is woven almost imperceptibly across an entire book about the “cruel optimism” of momfluencerdom, where she chronicles her personal journey of (partial) disidentification from the motherhood-themed lifestyle industry and social media subculture in question. “It’s all bullshit, but we’re asked to buy into that bullshit every day,” she sagely notices, “and sometimes it feels better, easier, to allow a little belief in the fantasy to creep in. Which is what makes us buy things. From momfluencers.” Speaking of which, Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture is available in hardcover for $28.99.
Since the nineteenth century, motherhood has largely existed as a means to sell purchasable experiences and cold, hard products to middle-class women by emotionally manipulating the image of “the good life” at the heart of their collective desire. “As a shopping category,” writes Petersen, “‘motherhood’ conveniently covers, well, almost everything one would ever need or want to buy.” And as Momfluenced discusses, when “consumerism” first emerged, it was essentially synonymous with targeted momvertising. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jean Wade Rindlaub—titan of advertising, mother of two, and brains behind the rise of “Betty Crocker”—recognized that to “spring women from their trap” of unwaged domestic servitude was not lucrative. Rindlaub’s role, on the contrary, was “to make the trap more comfortable.”
During the postwar era, that looked like tutoring stay-at-home women in the sentimental language of capitalism via ads for fridges, hoovers, dishwashers, and cake mixes capable of preventing juvenile delinquency while also curing all manner of other familial and social ills. The perfected 1950s housewife identity merged work and play, public and private, self-care and selflessness, branding and conformity. Strikingly, the variant of motherhood fantasy Petersen is selling today is not all that dissimilar—only, it is ironic and self-aware.
It goes a little something like this: you are a thin, chic, white, feminist stay-at-home New Hampshire mother of three, bemused by your own yearnings to inhabit effortless maternal “grace.” Frustrated with the shortfalls in your performance, you “want confirmation that all moms are failing” likewise, so you “scroll to locate the place where the performance stops.” You never find that place, except on the non-lucrative feeds of Black, trans, fat, and disabled content creators, whom you dutifully lift up. After all, you may be dewy with the right serums, in a home furnished with the right tiles, but you’re smart enough to see that “it’s all bullshit” (you’re familiar, after all, with Lauren Berlant). While “unhealthily obsessed” with your baby, you are cynical, too, and find your kids boring. You are angry, as far as you know, at capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. You like to remark bitterly that, “apparently, universal preschool is too much to ask.” You may, admittedly, have forgotten to ask.
To cope, you buy Hydro Flasks, stoneware, linen rompers, wooden marble runs. You buy a $460 sweater in search of “a better way to experience motherhood,” but you “feel gross” about it. Anyway, it’s too big for you, and since the returns window has elapsed, you are trying to flip it to some other mom. Neoliberal reality, too, is too big—“too big for us to change,” to quote Berlant’s paraphrase of “women’s culture,” with its quietist consolations. Theoretically, you recognize this for the lie that it is. “A new dream of motherhood” is called for (perhaps even the abolition of motherhood, which, you would say, “exists only in service of whiteness and gender essentialism and capitalism,” no less). Implicitly, this new infrastructure can and must be collectively built. You’ve “chased a fantasy for so long.” There is “grief” in your heart “that the motherhood [you were] taught to want never existed.” But now that you’re armed with all this self-awareness, no longer a dupe, you can basically, kind of, carry on. You can do your unspecified “best to contribute to positive change” and continue “consuming and shopping for maternal fantasies. Both things can be true at once.” This is dialectics. This is momfluencing, at its deftest.
In her 2017 book (Not) Getting Paid To Do What You Love, Erin Duffy estimates that only 9 percent of influencers earn enough to live on. Of these lucky few, however, Momfluenced is oddly protective: “Why are people so appalled at how much momfluencers make?” Petersen asks. It’s odd that someone who describes herself as “mad about capitalism” makes such a point of not reviling the ruling class. “I’m loath to imagine a world,” she writes, “in which my maternal labor is unvalued, unpaid, and disrespected and there’s no reprieve to be found in buying something to soothe the ache of longing.” Please (in other words) don’t let anybody take our babysitters and online shopping away before installing post-capitalist care-abundance?
Petersen rationalizes her stance by arguing that there is “inherent misogyny in denigrating a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by women.” For my money, there is maybe more inherent misogyny in the multibillion-dollar industry in question, where wifely financial dependency is positively aestheticized; nannies, cleaners, and babysitters are excised from the feed; and “the” maternal body is subjected to beauty disciplines ranging from the overtly white-patriarchal and fatphobic (e.g., the idealization of blondeness; postpartum dieting) to the more insidious. Still, there’s no denying that the figure of the erstwhile mommy blogger, now momfluencer™, has come in for a degree of criticism and derision that reeks of matrophobia. Any given social media feed may be vapid, craven, quiescent, or transparently paid for. We might postulate that the excessive level of contempt often expressed for the momfluencer stems from anxieties provoked by her partial unmasking of the gendered sphere of nonwork as economic, as non-natural.
Under capitalism, the private family, or oikos, is imagined as a non-economic sanctuary. This is why some Marxist-feminists prioritize the task of undoing this ideology, of making the household visible as “the social factory” where mothering- and care-labors of love take place that are very much part of the capitalist totality, for good and ill. This analysis holds even for proletarian families based on the gender division of labor. But, additionally, ruling-class households are both unwaged and waged workplaces. As Alva Gotby writes in They Call it Love: The Politics of Emotional Life, “the labor of nannies and domestic workers is usually written out of the story of the good life”—nowhere more so than on Instagram. Momfluenced, regrettably, never acknowledges this fact. It never mentions the extent to which the racial-class performance of western motherhood is predicated on “surrogate” labors that it makes invisible, nor even the exclusion of these “surrogates” from the feed. The typical momfluencer’s class position is obfuscated. In Petersen’s case, we are told that her husband sustains the household financially, but not his job or income, nor their complement of domestic staff. “A babysitter comes four mornings a week to help with my toddler,” we learn in passing.
While excising the auxiliary workers from their poses, bourgeois momfluencers allow sponsors and “affiliate links” to peep out from their kitchens. This can make us uneasy. Are they whoring out the sacred maternal, even while professing to be doing only what they love, i.e., not working, unwaging femaleness anew? It’s hard to deny that they’ve turned their toddlers’ nurseries into shoppable showrooms and their own milk-rich bodies into clickable clothes-horses. “They have compromised their family’s privacy,” writes Kathryn Jezer-Morton with glee, “and made a marketplace out of the family home.” In her review of Momfluenced, Jezer-Morton says she is every bit as avid a follower of momfluencers as Petersen. Unlike Petersen, however, she does not assume that an industry is non-misogynist because it is woman-dominated. Perhaps this is what helps her think so clearly about the aggression and hostility that momfluencer feeds elicit—and traffic in—as they transgress the patriarchal public-private divide: “These ladies better watch it. Their livelihoods depend on not annoying a bunch of fickle idiots like myself”!
In reality, momfluencer success stories typically involve high-earning husbands and thus barely depend on followers’ clicks and purchases. Yet it’s clear that some of us, as spiteful consumers, often wish they did. If mommies are going to prostitute themselves, and make us want things, catching dollars in the process, perhaps we can at least control the supply. Does it bother us, subconsciously, that theirs has been the knowledge, innovation, and expertise behind, pretty much, the whole attention economy? It was networks of mommy bloggers, says Sophie Bishop, who “developed sophisticated advertising infrastructures that predate Google’s purchase of Doubleclick in 2007.” Mommy bloggers “developed hyperlinked forms of in-text advertorial that heralded a valuable affiliate marketing economy, foreshadowing shoppable Instagram links by more than a decade.”
Mothers whose identities as capitalists flash scandalously—perhaps accidentally—into view seem to unnerve the public, much more so than do mothers-as-campaigners, including those studied in Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s 2017 book Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. Obviously, the two categories—marketing mogul and white supremacist—can go together in the momfluencer universe. While anti-police rebellions rocked the streets in 2020, for example, some momfluencers gained gigantic followings posting white-nationalist, eugenic, nativist, conspiratorial, and anti-vaxx content. “A wild claim—that the furniture-retail site Wayfair was serving as a middleman for the child-trafficking ring that captivates QAnon devotees—took off,” wrote Kaitlyn Tiffany, “among Instagram influencers whose accounts trade in the domestic and in the joys of consumer culture.” Tiffany’s report was titled “The Women Making Conspiracy Theories Beautiful.” Similarly, in her own chapter on whiteness, wellness, and white feminism, Petersen muses that the QAnon influencer Rose Henges (who boasts almost two hundred thousand followers) “is not a snarling, oafish white man,” but “a good mom. A pretty mom. A white mom” who “presents a calm, sane impression of simply ‘asking questions.’”
Petersen oscillates chaotically between humanizing women on the far right (“I deeply understand and empathize with this longing to both be a part of something and to believe in something worth being a part of”), explaining that the “gaslit” mothers of America are vulnerable to seduction by fascism, and breathlessly disavowing white supremacism. We are given historical facts gleaned from Seyward Darby’s book, Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, as well as Petersen’s metacommentary—for example, she would have us know she wrote the word vomit in the margins, so revolted was she by the maternalist and natalist parts of Nazism. We learn of the example of “Nazis handing out medals (!!!) to white German mothers according to how many children they had (!!!).” Frankly, this use of punctuation inspired me to throw down the book.
In her defense, Petersen does state unequivocally that “nostalgia for simpler times is tied to whiteness (and white supremacy, whether it’s explicit or not).” But her wildly insufficient response to maternalist fascism in the present is to call for everyone to “unpack” whiteness together, rather than, say, materially neutralizing, physically confronting, and disarming people like Ayla Stewart, the “white baby challenge” organizer—and former hippie—known as @wifewithapurpose. Petersen, too, thinks of herself as a bit of an ex-hippie who once “harbored grand fantasies of being a serene earth goddess mother,” or so we hear in another chapter. Thus, when Stewart blogs about feminists undervaluing homemakers, Petersen knows what she means: in the logic of liberal feminism, “because many mothers and care workers don’t earn wages for that work, our work is denigrated”—“There are no ‘40 under 40’ lists celebrating our accomplishments.” Considering she freaked out about Nazi mom-celebrations a minute ago, would a medal ceremony feel welcome? Petersen also over-eggs the relatability of Stewart quite a bit: “As someone who spent her first few years of motherhood solely devoted to childcare and domestic work, I understand Ayla’s perspective.”
In 2020, the total marketing spend on influencers, including many like Ayla, increased 73 percent. This was partly because, as Bishop explains, “influencers are perfect for producing advertorials in a pandemic: They are experts at weaving together compelling content alone from their own domestic space, often doing their own styling, filming, and editing.” Alongside mask-stitching Etsy crafters, then, momfluencers were the neo-pieceworkers of the lockdown, making the domestic sphere productive again via ring-lit tales of its pure reproductivity. And millionaire momfluencing content, such as the eerie giant pantry displays posted by Khloé Kardashian—full of regimented and decanted groceries organized according to the logic of a distribution center—were instrumental in remystifying consumption in the era of pandemic-necessitated online shopping, Kelly Pendergrast contends. “When the warehouse is your house, you have to revive the commodity yourself, spank its cheeks a little and turn it back into a product.” With the store itself off-bounds because of social distancing, the child’s “formative encounter with the object of desire (the cereal aisle, where Captain Crunch and Count Chocula call out like sirens from child-height shelves),” was barred. So, writes Pendergrast, it was “up to mom to reanimate the dead bulk Froot Loops by decanting and displaying them and bringing some spectacle back.”
Momfluenced sometimes reads like an anxious ethics debate on the author’s guilty delight in shopping on Instagram. “I have a farmhouse sink (and I love it), but it has not made me any more nurturing, any more accepting of dirty dishes, or any less likely to yell at my kids.” Look, Petersen understands that her luxury commodities (of which she names dozens) can’t fundamentally transform her experience of motherhood, but we will have to prise the cruel optimism from her cold, dead hands, okay? She claims “it’s impossible to know” whether getting momfluenced makes her happy. It might be more accurate to say that she doesn’t want to know whether really deep happiness is possible in a class society, or to think about the (non-retail, collective) sources of deeper happiness in the interstices of the present.
“It’s tantalizing,” Petersen reflects, “to believe (or choose to believe) that maybe, just maybe, pouring one’s whole self into the pursuit of domestic bliss might dull the noisiness of life, that in pursuing an ideal, lived version of domesticity, we might express our inner selves, as mothers and women.” It’s terrifying, in contrast, to confront, rather than simply describe, the fact that you’ve borne three babies—whose potato-print art leaves you cold—in a plush nuclear household where still you feel your “motherhood is often ugly,” and there’s no prospect of any alleviation or collectivization of that labor, which forms the ground of your identity, in sight.
It’s not Petersen’s fault. Book publishers in the twenty-first century have created a market for white maternal memoirs in which relatively privileged women faux-transgressively confess mixed feelings about motherhood, apolitically. Bestsellers in this niche air feelings of “screaming on the inside,” maternal regret, despair, even hatred, without crossing any lines either toward desertion of duty, on the one hand, or collective political rebellion, on the other. Momfluenced joins this field inasmuch as its memoiristic bits describe “an overpowering urge to get in the car and just drive,” or the “rage in my bones sometimes when I slam doors, when I shove a shoe onto a squirming kid’s foot.” But Petersen shows real courage, actually, in seeking to understand the roots of her own ambivalent fixation on aestheticized “momming.”
Her quest leads her to plumb her psychic rapport with her own mother, whom she remembers as a fairytale-perfect mom, but also, simultaneously, as a permanently angry woman who abused her by forcing soap into her mouth. Petersen writes that her mother “made motherhood look like beautiful magic” through a yearslong “performance so big I got lost in it,” so big it “made me believe that motherhood was a source of ultimate power.” But when Petersen was “pregnant with my first kid” at twenty-nine, she recalls, her mom’s refusal to “keep on performing the role of Mother” (she seemed depressed, disaffected, and absent) made her absolutely furious. “That my mother had given the best years of her life to her husband and children and had nothing to show for it wasn’t something I was ready to accept.” This is useful. But is she ready now?
I have written elsewhere that “it is difficult not to love a woman on strike. Even when her product is you.” Petersen’s peregrinations lead her somewhat in this direction, I sense, since she brings up again and again—abstractly—the possibility that unwaged reproductive labor might be monetarily remunerated. While she remains unwilling to make moves towards a Wages for Mom-work mass movement, Petersen is vivacious on the history of the “cult of domesticity” and quite brilliant at describing the psychic structure of cruel optimism. As such, it feels almost surreal that the privatized basis of care under capitalism—in the nuclear family—goes uninterrogated in Momfluenced. Not once is the principle of private parental domination of and responsibility for young people called into question (nor, for that matter, are heteronormativity or marital monogamy). Though Petersen says “Fuck Mother’s Day,” the prospect of radically reorganizing kinship in our society remains ultimately unthinkable in this book.
As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes, “You can’t be a momfluencer without kids, and you can’t be a momfluencer without putting your kids to work.” Still, Momfluenced implicitly points to many forms of the capitalist family’s conceptual and material violence. The structural ills identified by Petersen—gendered overwork, housewife anomie, familial chauvinism, motherhood’s whiteness—cry out for mass experiments in (for instance) denuclearizing households, abolishing the prison-industrial complex, deprivatizing housework, socializing food provision, decommodifying shelter and education, and multiplying mothers: turning mothering against motherhood. I await Petersen’s sequel—Momrade-Pilled?—with open arms.