Sara Petersen's Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture was published in 2023 by Beacon Press.
Consuming Motherhood: Influencer “Mamas”
From Momfluencers to Momrades
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Consuming Motherhood: Influencer “Mamas”
Sara Petersen’s Momfluenced examines the phenomenon of Instagram “momfluencers,” or women who perform motherhood online. She comes at this topic from multiple angles, examining the forces that shape these representations (including racism, sexism, and capitalism), how “momfluencers” are both complicit with these forces and potentially agents of change, and—what seems to interest her most—why mothers are so compelled by content that also does us harm. Petersen approaches those who create and those who consume momfluencer content with equal curiosity and grace, doing so in large part by situating how this content has shaped her own experience of motherhood.
As a white, middle-class mother and an elder millennial, I too am very much in the target audience for the momfluencers that Petersen analyzes in this book. Unlike Petersen, I am only a tepid Instagram user and, until picking up this book, had never knowingly engaged with any of the creators she analyzes. Nonetheless, I could certainly empathize with how consuming such content provides a brief release from the drudgery of changing the laundry and arranging children's schedules (the two items I am currently multitasking while writing this response). I was less able to relate to Petersen's habit of name-dropping high-end brands and semi-apologizing for the purchase of $460 sweaters or $106 wooden baby toys.
That being said, the way that this book resists genre by incorporating memoir while also utilizing theory is deeply compelling. This is particularly true of the chapter titled “Pretty/Ugly,” in which the author unpacks her self-mythologization of her own mother. Momfluenced also uses interviews with content creators to demonstrate that these influencers are savvy (if often underpaid) businesspeople who face many of the same problems of racism and sexism as other women who are make a living online. She unpacks myths about consumers of this content, contending that they are not duped into believing a fairytale about the insularity of motherhood. Rather, scrolling and buying sponsored content may offer a small sense of control, community, hope, or knowing escapism that we should not so easily dismiss, given that mothers are offered very little in the way of systemic or structural social support.
The only small issue I took with this book was one of my regular pet peeves about how the term “white feminism” is used. In the chapter “Good (White) Moms,” Petersen examines how different maternal archetypes on social media (like the #bossbabe, tradmom, and wellness mom) are all connected by whiteness. Petersen’s attention to whiteness is refreshing, and she offers thoughtful historical analyses of how white women have used their proximity to patriarchy at the expense of people of color. However, in analyzing the #bossbabe, Petersen describes white influencers who espouse an individualistic focus on empowerment and choice as “white feminists” despite their lack of actual feminist identity or claims. In this instance, their appropriation of generic feminist ideals (apparently expressing forced joy and the need to grind?) is not flagged as a cooptation of feminism, or as elitism or racism, but rather an exemplar “the rich history of white feminism.” Again, while I do not think this logic moves us forward in combatting actual racism and exclusion, it is far from unique to this book.The COVID-19 pandemic ... put into sharp relief the systemic brokenness of America’s approach to motherhood while leaving many of us stuck inside our homes and behind our screens.Click To Tweet
Momfluenced feels exquisitely timely as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put into sharp relief the systemic brokenness of America’s approach to motherhood while leaving many of us stuck inside our homes and behind our screens. Why, when the unending horizon of maternal drudgery was at its peak, would mothers want to spend more time watching other people mother? Momfluenced does what so many others of its type (on subjects like multilevel marketing, wellness, or consumer fitness) have failed to do: she takes this question and its participants seriously and without the sneering snark that is so often reserved for feminized corners of our culture.
Laura Harrison received her doctorate in Gender Studies from Indiana University. She serves as Professor and Chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book, Losing Sleep: Risk, Responsibility, and Infant Sleep Safety (2022) addresses socially constructed beliefs about infant safety, including how medicine, law, and policy reward some parents while punishing others. Her work on subjects ranging from reproductive justice, surrogacy, and race and public health can be found in peer-reviewed journals as well as online in the Washington Post and Ms. Magazine.
From Momfluencers to Momrades
Sara Petersen’s Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture offers an insider’s perspective on the Western “mama” influencer economy—as mediated by the Meta-owned, ad-based social media platform Instagram. As such, the book is addressing a marketing tactic that dates back to the nineteenth century: namely, the use of an always-already racialized, patriarchal “motherhood” ideology as a means to sell purchasable experiences (and tangible products) to middle-class women by emotionally manipulating the image of “the good life” at the heart of their collective desire. The author is open, throughout, about the many luxury products she owns (she names dozens of them), and is thus uniquely equipped to analyze the construction of bourgeois motherhood as a consumer identity. The reader follows twists and turns in Petersen’s psychological journey of disidentification: she ends up alluding, for example, to her “grief that the motherhood I was taught to want never existed.” Sometimes the text reads like an endless, guilty debate about whether the author’s intense pleasure in being momfluenced—her pleasure in high-end commodities and their fetishes—is “okay.” This conundrum spawns another: are these purchases making her happy? Petersen says “it’s impossible to know.” Yet the book does try to know: it is polyvocal, not to mention temperamental—now defensive, now ironic—on this very question. “We can be mad about capitalism and motherhood and do our best to contribute to positive change. We can also take pleasure in consuming and shopping for maternal fantasies. Both things can be true at once,” she concludes rather tritely on her penultimate page.
The typical momfluencer’s class position is partially copped to, but also obfuscated, in Momfluenced. (Petersen’s husband financially sustains the household, we learn, but we don’t learn his job or income.) “A babysitter comes four mornings a week to help with my toddler,” Petersen notes in passing. But neither this nor any other auxiliary laborer lurking in the shadows of the Insta feed is mentioned again. Indeed, 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.” Regrettably, Momfluenced declines to denaturalize the extent to which the racialized-classed performance of Western motherhood is predicated on the invisibilization of “surrogate” labors. And this inability to think about the hierarchized multiplicity of labors that make up “motherhood” leads—as one would expect—to an impasse of the imagination. The end of “motherhood,” although positioned as desirable, remains inconceivable.
Petersen, however, shines a spotlight on the emotional and economic blackmail that keeps mothers at work as mothers. Above all, she shows that women’s attachment to the exhausted, privatized, coerced exclusivity of motherhood as an institution is a sticky thing. By exploring the momfluencing market, Petersen is seeking, with real courage, to understand the roots of her own ambivalent fixation on aestheticized “momming” spon-con (sponsored content). 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 Sara by forcing soap into her mouth. It leads her to deftly explore the commercial history of the “cult of domesticity,” and even to consider—abstractly—the possibility that unwaged reproductive labor might be monetarily remunerated. Given all this, the fact that the privatized basis of care under capitalism—the nuclear family—is never explicitly questioned in Momfluenced is quite a feat. The principle of private parental domination of and responsibility for young people is never called into question—nor, for that matter, are heteronormativity or marital monogamy. As such, even though Petersen says “Fuck Mother’s Day” and works up to calling the “dream” of motherhood (in her final chapter) “a dream that exists only in service of whiteness and gender essentialism and capitalism,” the prospect of radically reorganizing care work in our society remains ultimately unthinkable in this book.Structural problems...—gendered overwork, familial anomie, ... natalist eugenicism...—cry out for mass experiments in (for instance) denuclearizing households, ... communizing housework, ... decommodifying education, and multiplying mothers.Click To Tweet
Again and again, Momfluenced points starkly, if implicitly, to the conceptual violence of the private patriarchal-capitalist family. It is certainly disappointing that the only explicitly named “solution” is a seemingly individual injunction to value mothering-labor as “worthy” (“there is power in looking in the mirror and claiming one’s worth”). Yet the structural problems identified by Petersen—gendered overwork, familial anomie, cruel optimism, white nationalist “tradwife” ideology, natalist eugenicism, maternal chauvinism—cry out for mass experiments in (for instance) denuclearizing households, abolishing the prison-industrial complex, communizing housework, deprivatizing food provision, decommodifying education, and multiplying mothers: turning the potentially comradely collective labors of life-making against the primary institution of care’s privatization, in other words, pitting mothering against motherhood. I await the sequel—Momrade-Pilled?—with curiosity.
Sophie Lewis is a freelance writer and independent scholar visiting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies, and also teaching online courses at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her first book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family, was hailed by Donna Haraway as “the seriously radical cry for full gestational justice that I long for.” Lewis’s essays appear in Feminist Theory, Paragraph, Parapraxis, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, e-flux, Boston Review and n+1 entre autres. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation is out now.
When I discovered, on the morning after the coldest Christmas in half a century, that I was expecting my third child in four years, I thought: This time, I will reread Adrienne Rich. Each time I’ve been pregnant, I’ve vowed that I’m going to turn it into a “project.” By which I mean, I guess, taking notes? Each time, I’ve failed. Reading Sara Petersen’s Momfluenced, and still not having reread Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, I found myself thinking about it.
This was not only because Petersen adds to the genre that Rich helped establish, combining memoir and research to uncover motherhood as “experience and institution.” It was also because Petersen left me with nagging questions about tradition. How do we institutionalize feminist knowledge? Can such knowledge be cumulative? Or are there some things, like our own mothers’ depression and resentment and the good reasons for them, that each of us must discover on her own?
Petersen puts such a discovery at the center of her book. She relates that her stay-at-home mom, whom she had always idealized, experienced a breakdown in her fifties or sixties. It turns out that this mom felt less fulfilled after all those years gardening and baking than her kids’ memories had led them to expect. The story is there, I think, to highlight the fact that there is no avoiding myths about motherhood. Or about childhood, for that matter. Momfluencers—women who earn their living or supplement their income by producing content about mothering for social media platforms—just make explicit our need to perform, and perceive, in certain ways.
Petersen frames her book in personal terms—as an investigation into a cultural phenomenon and the fascination she developed with it, amid the chaos of caring for three young children. But her approach is mostly journalistic. Drawing on interviews, readings, and occasional personal anecdotes, Petersen explores a range of topics that arise for momfluencers and their audiences—from Benjamin Moore paints and Mari Kondo–style organizers to white nationalist antivaxxers and Black, trans, and fat activists “mothering for liberation.”
Her topic strikes me as highly timely in at least two respects: First, the “crisis of care” that feminists have been talking about for years has recently become a major theme of national politics. Since the 1970s, Marxist feminists have been pointing out whose work produces the worker. Life does not go on automatically; on the contrary, it takes a great deal of effort to create and sustain life. Most of that effort is given, for free, by women, with all sorts of consequences for our subjectivities, sexualities, and social relations. Gender is not the only variable that matters. Historically, race and class have profoundly shaped the nature and meaning of mothering and other forms of unwaged care. The home that one woman sees as her prison might be another woman’s site of respite or outlet for expression. Over time, the tendency of capitalist societies to devalue the labor they depend on produces a crisis that takes different forms for its different members.
These kinds of ideas were gaining mainstream currency even before the pandemic—thanks, in no small part, to social movements led by young women. (I remember, in 2017, hearing a tech CEO say something about who did the “emotional labor” at his startup!) But, for anyone who had not been paying attention to the fights for Black lives, Medicare for all, or reproductive and climate justice, the pandemic made the stakes of failing to recognize what was “essential” clear. For many parents, the closing of schools and daycares made the crisis of care newly immediate.
Petersen is writing in a moment when feminists urgently need to formulate new perspectives and demands about motherhood. The executive order that President Joe Biden signed in April 2023, calling on federal agencies to take action to create more affordable childcare, constitutes one direct, if belated, response to the disruptions that followed lockdown. But many of the most heated political controversies of the moment are about mothering. As Jennifer Nash has argued, #BlackLivesMatter turned black mothers into a new kind of political symbol and “currency.” On the Right, the long war on contraception and abortion, the privatization of education, and even tolerance for school shootings all aim to push women into birthing and caring roles. The viral clip of the Tennessee congressman explaining, after the murder of three nine-year-olds and their teachers in Nashville, that this was why his wife homeschooled their daughter, was only especially blunt about the endgame. Astroturfed organizations like Moms for Liberty are leading a crusade to ban “critical race theory” and “gender ideology” in the name of parental rights, even as state legislatures deprive parents of the right to care for their trans children.
The second reason that the topic of “momfluencers” is timely is that it focuses attention on one of the main sites we have to talk about such issues: social media. Over the past decade, proprietary datasets and algorithms have come to mediate more and more aspects of social life. They are remaking social institutions, including the family and the gendered division between what we still call the “public” and “private” spheres. There are many angles from which to approach these transformations, and many of them might seem more serious, frankly, than “momfluencing.” But feminists should recognize the trivialization of domesticity and consumption as a trap. Momfluencing is big business, worth some trillions of USD per year. And beyond its size as an industry, it epitomizes an ideology: that individuals can overcome exploitation and alienation by developing themselves as human capital, doing what they love, making their passion their profession.
The aspiration to be your own boss is older than social media. If we had time, here, we could talk about “neoliberal feminism.” We could go back to the “shopgirls” and “it girls” of the 1920s—or, at least, to Helen Gurley Brown’s 1964 bestseller Sex and the Office. But, over the past decade or so, social media has been a key place where women negotiate the kinds of “empowerment” on offer. The prevalence of “momfluencers” reflects the persistence of the dream of using digital technologies to “stay home”–avoiding the injustices and indignities of the labor market by performing your “private” life for a “public” built for targeted advertising. Momfluencing captures the contradictions of a society that treats care and love as both priceless and worthless with a clarity matched only, perhaps, by sex work.Momfluencing captures the contradictions of a society that treats care and love as both priceless and worthless with a clarity matched only, perhaps, by sex work.Click To Tweet
Petersen’s contribution is to get a wide spectrum of women who earn money this way to describe their motivations, experiences, and ambivalences—and to present their stories, mostly, without judgment. The subjects of her book all want a version of what, I’d venture, we (humans) all want: recognition, compensation, autonomy, and dignity in performing tasks that we find meaningful. Company, too, I suspect. While Petersen does not dwell on it, in my experience, early mothering can be intensely lonely, especially when it keeps you so busy that you can’t get a minute to yourself.
In the many passages where Petersen gets a little defensive about her subject matter, and her own shopping habits, I found myself thinking of Ellen Willis writing in 1970:
People are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not.
Do we still have to explain this? Maybe it’s because I think Petersen’s topic is so promising that I felt a little disappointed that she did not build more clearly on the rich history of feminist thought—or on the recent outpouring of research about digital platforms, for that matter. This is partly a question of genre: the essayist famously resists the academic’s tiresome temptation to totalize. And no one needs to complete a lit review before thinking aloud about her life. But the loose, present-tense style that enables Petersen to engage in dialogue with many different interlocutors sometimes becomes a block to analysis.
Petersen frequently approaches argument only to shy away from making any too-definite claim. Thus, for instance, she sums up a chapter on white moms, conspiracy theories, and expensive empowerment retreats with the observation that “the relationship between whiteness and motherhood could fill the Grand Canyon.” Yes—but how exactly does she see that relationship? How does momfluencing perpetuate and/or change it?
Petersen quotes Louiza “Weeze” Doran, an antiracist educator, speaking about the historic significance of the Black Panther newspaper and the role of social media in contemporary antiracist movements. Petersen concurs that “Momfluencers who don’t uphold a white, cis-het ideal of motherhood are taking up space on Instagram.” Yes, again—but Instagram is also an advertising-driven app owned by a monopolistic tech firm that has become notorious for abetting neofascist movements worldwide and is effectively controlled by one cis-het white man.
A class I taught years ago came up with what we called the “Peter Thiel test.” Namely: Can this or that online activity be feminist if it makes money for (rape-denying, women’s-suffrage-opposing Trump supporter and early Facebook investor) Peter Thiel? My point is not an easy gotcha. My point is that the politics of representation are complicated. To celebrate the fact that Instagram has given some moms opportunities to connect and to capitalize on some aspects of unpaid care work without acknowledging this broader context seems shortsighted.
Petersen concludes her book with a vignette about going to Florida with her family and taking a break from Instagram. She describes “not knowing” what the momfluencers she usually followed obsessively were doing. Her final sentence calls this ignorance “bliss.” But hasn’t her whole point been that the tired oppositions that would pit women, love, privacy, authenticity, etc., against men, money, publicity, and deception are moot? The task for a feminist writing about this subject is precisely not to retreat into the fantasy of leaving the internet, or capitalism, behind but rather to examine the real conditions under which caregivers make the world, now, and ask how we might improve them. Then again, I must be doing what we always do to mothers: projecting them everywhere and wanting way too much.
Moira Weigel is an Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at Northeastern University, a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and a founder of Logic magazine. She is the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (2016), coeditor of Voices from the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—And How They Do It (2020), and a frequent contributor to The Guardian and the New York Times among other publications.
I so appreciate the care and attention each reader brought to these responses to Momfluenced. Thank you to them (and to Signs) for giving the topic of performative motherhood and social media so much time, and understanding that a multibillion-dollar industry impacting so many people’s shopping habits, our psychological well-being, and our cultural and consumeristic understandings of motherhood is a serious topic indeed.
Momfluenced has been out in the world for almost two months now, and when considering the critical reception of the book, I’m most struck by the variance in people’s perspectives. Some readers wished the book had delved deeper into the ethically murky issue of children’s participation in monetized momfluencer accounts; some desired a more prescriptive stance on how to (or how not to) interact with momfluencer culture; and some craved a more comprehensive accounting of feminist theory and history. I understand each of these critiques, and think they also speak to the fact that multiple books could (and should) be written about an industry and culture which directly affects so many of us. In my chapter, “Good (White) Moms,” I noted that the entire book easily could’ve been devoted to the cultural construction of ideal white motherhood, and I believe the same of each of the other chapters.
Laura Harrison’s recognition that Momfluenced “resists genre” was lovely to see; when thinking about structure in the early days of drafting, I found that my efforts to neatly categorize the book were actually an impediment to the writing of it. I knew I wanted my book to be backed by interviews, mainstream pop cultural writing, and academic research. I also knew that to ignore my personal history with the topic (and with motherhood itself) would be impossible, since the main impetus for researching this book was my personal preoccupation with both the culture (and motherhood itself). And given that my personal perspective is that of a thin, white, partnered, cis-het, non-disabled woman with access to generational wealth: my perspective is also necessarily limited.
Harrison’s point about me miscategorizing #bossbabes like Rachel Hollis as being role models of white feminism is well-made. Hollis and her peers certainly are much more apt to describe themselves in terms of “empowerment,” and I could’ve been more precise about distinguishing a very white version of empowerment (dependent on various layers of privilege and a belief in the myth of meritocracy) from white feminism. While I think both white feminism and white empowerment gospel can wield similar versions of harm, Harrison is right to highlight that they are not synonymous with each other.
Part of my mission in writing Momfluenced was to draw attention to the ways in which mainstream momfluencers (like mid-century advertisers before them and writers for Godey’s Ladies Book before them) bank on the imagistic power of motherhood to distract mothers from the structural inequities making mothers’ lives so difficult. We do not need to be sold another eye cream. We need universal paid leave. We do not need another #momhack. We need free or subsidized child care. Sophie Lewis is absolutely right that now might be the time for “mass experiments in (for instance) denuclearizing households, abolishing the prison-industrial complex, communizing housework, deprivatizing food provision, decommodifying education, and multiplying mothers.” At this point in the US, however, advocating for free universal preschool and any federally mandated maternity leave at all are also radical concepts for many lawmakers, which shows how very far we have to go.Almost every urgent political issue of our day is either directly or indirectly tied to the lives of people who mother.Click To Tweet
I also firmly agree that almost every urgent political issue of our day is either directly or indirectly tied to the lives of people who mother. Systemic antifatness, police-sanctioned murders of Black people, attacks on trans peoples’ right to exist, gun violence, and conservative mothers’ domination of school boards are all mothers’ issues.
In writing Momfluenced, I was confronted over and over again by how few easy answers there are to any of the questions I posed in this book, nor was my aim to provide those answers but, instead, to invite mainstream readers to think about these questions for themselves. A tradmom capitalizing on our culture’s understanding of the maternal ideal being rooted in whiteness, gender, and domesticity to gain influence and money through her social media presence while also spreading disinformation and white supremacist messages? Unequivocally bad. A fat momfluencer crowdsourcing weight-inclusive healthcare providers for her thousands of followers? Good! A corrupt media company making money from this same fat momfluencer’s use of their app? Not good! But maybe worse? Mothers in search of weight-inclusive healthcare not being able to find it.
Moira Weigel’s mention of the “Peter Thiel test” that she uses in class—not to lead her students to a “gotcha” conclusion but instead to clarify the “complicated” “politics of representation”—is important. While I certainly was open about my ambivalence toward Instagram (to quote myself, “it sucks”), drawing a more direct line to Meta and Meta’s infamous spread of misinformation in the name of profit certainly wouldn't have gone amiss.
I also agree with Weigel that willful ignorance of the often-painful realities of institutional motherhood is not helpful to a feminist agenda, but I push back on her point that to thoughtfully and deliberately disengage from a few strangers’ performances of motherhood online is the same thing as disengaging from maternal politics. I’d argue that the “bliss” I accessed by quieting the noise of so many mothers online actually coincides with an intellectual expansiveness necessary to thoughtfully engage with “the real conditions under which caregivers make the world, now, and ask how we might improve them.” It’s my sincerest hope that all readers of Momfluenced interrogate which kinds of input are opening them up (to curiosity, to advocacy, to action), and which kinds are closing them off from those same things.
Sara Petersen is the author of Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture. She has written about motherhood and feminism for the New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She also writes the newsletter, In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, where she explores the cult of ideal motherhood. She lives in New Hampshire.