Last fall, I received a call from my ex-husband. “Our wonderful daughter appears to have lice,” he told me. What ensued was a circus of combs, shampoos, emails to the school nurse and extensive chats with the Fairy LiceMothers clinic.
The next morning at 5 a.m., I sat on my bathroom floor obsessively combing for nits on my scalp ― and for entertainment on my phone. After accepting Instagram follower requests from a few new mom friends I’d met at my 7-year-old daughter’s school, I began scrolling through pictures of their smiling families at pumpkin patches.
These are the kind of moms who other moms think are good moms. The kind of moms who pose their children with first-day-of-school chalkboards. The ones who French-braid hair too tight for any parasitic insect to get through.
At that moment, I felt like a dirtbag mom. The type of mother who doesn’t have it together enough to ward off lice or commemorate the passage of time with a giant Mylar balloon. As louse eggs were multiplying on my head, the seeds of comparison planted in my mind were hatching into a full-blown infestation of shame.
The next day, as I sat at my desk responding to a lice FAQ text chain from other classroom parents (no, they don’t carry diseases, and yes, kids can still go to school), I slid deeper into my “I’m a shitty mom” sinkhole. The tornado of thoughts began to kick up, and the familiar narrative started to whirl. Maybe if I didn’t work so much, or if I hadn’t failed at marriage, or if I used the perfect organic baby shampoo blessed by Jessica Alba, none of this would’ve happened.
And then, in the same sitting, I found myself impulsively opening my Instagram app and double-tapping on a friend’s photo of her child’s elaborate baking project. As I asked myself when I had last measured flour with my daughter, and why my iPhone never seemed to capture a perfect life in portrait mode, I saw the game I was playing. When I feel less than, the idea of diving into a virtual reality that will instantly support this narrative is wildly alluring.
As it turns out, seeing everyone doing things beautifully, all of the time, is taking a toll on a lot of us. A recent study showed that ingesting images of “idealized motherhood” on social media can negatively affect mental health.
“I see thousands of families through my work as a pediatrician and have found that this unrealistic vision of parenthood is pervasive,” Dr. Whitney Casares — the founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club, which offers an app for mothers — shared with me. “Being bombarded with curated images can set women up to feel like they’re not measuring up or they’re somehow doing it wrong because that’s not what they see when they look around in their own lives.”
“When you have mom influencers creating content depicting motherhood in a perfect way, juggling it all flawlessly, it creates an unrealistic expectation for others,” Jenny Yip, a board-certified psychologist, told me. “There is anger that builds up. There’s actually a term for it right now called ‘mom rage.’ It’s this rage we have because we’re being pulled apart in every single direction.”
When I began to ask other parents if this deep sense of ineptness was something they’d experienced, I quickly realized that I was far from alone in shame-scrolling.
“Looking at other mothers’ Halloween Pinterest projects was making me upset because my sons were simply going to wear [clothing brand] Carter’s skeleton pajamas as costumes,” Maura, a mother of 8-year-old twins, told me. “I felt highly inadequate and wondered what had happened to my creativity. I couldn’t accept that I was a full-time working mother with two babies to care for, and that all my creativity was being challenged into figuring out how to make our home safe and engaging.”
“So many of the Instagram accounts suggested to me as a new mom focused solely on breastfeeding,” my friend Julia, the mother to a 16-month-old and a 5-year-old, shared with me in a recent email. “The message was this — it must be performed in a bralette and it must look like you’re having the time of your life. I drove myself insane exclusively pumping for six months, and I still felt less than because I didn’t feed her directly from my breast. It took a literal piece of my nipple coming off and pumping bloody milk for me to stop. I can’t solely blame social media, but it drastically impacted how I felt.”
The truth is that humans have been doing this type of comparison since the beginning of time, and it’s helped us assess our abilities for survival within a social hierarchy.
“Social comparison is a natural mammalian brain function,” Loretta Graziano Breuning — the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers books and other resources “to help you make peace with your inner mammal” — told me. “In the monkey world, you know not to reach for a banana near a stronger monkey because you could get bitten. When you find yourself in a position of strength, it gives you the good feelings of a serotonin release.”
So it’s no wonder that perfectly curated parenting posts can feel painful when contrasted with our moments of highly unfiltered reality. And, as experts reminded me, that’s why it’s especially important to manage your social media usage and to step back sometimes.
“Social media isn’t going away for most of us, so it’s important to try and algorithmically curate a better online experience for yourself,” noted Casares. “Remember to step outside of that world and ground yourself in what is true. Take breaks from it and immerse yourself in real relationships with other parents.”
She added: “Working to create a positive self-conception and being OK with the parent you are is an ongoing journey. When you see things online that make you feel like you don’t measure up, I recommend trying mindful self-compassion based on the work of [psychologist] Kristin Neff, Ph.D.” Casares also recommended taking “a moment to pause and reflect on why these feelings of inadequacy are coming up. Is it true, or is it because you’re being fed fiction? Then, go talk to a friend who can reassure you that you’re doing a good job.”
I called my mom a few days later with a lice update. As she casually tossed out tips based on her own experience of combing through my hair as a child, I was struck by how beautiful it was that this woman had once done something so simultaneously gross and loving for me.
These aren’t the parenting moments that translate well to Instagram reels, but that doesn’t make them any less commendable. She sure as hell never arranged a seasonal photoshoot or established a brand, but she took really good care of me. And that’s what I was doing for my daughter too.
After talking to professionals and the people around me, I’m much less alone in my feelings of motherhood angst. While I haven’t given up social media entirely, I’ve set screen time limits on my app and curated a feed that makes me feel less inferior. And I’m learning to fact-check those inevitable moments of comparison.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to share parenting highlights with the people around you, and there is also nothing wrong with feeling like garbage sometimes after looking at them. But maybe we can acknowledge that this gritty, down-and-dirty job of parenting is far too phenomenal to lend itself solely to the whims of an algorithm.
Katie Nave is a freelance writer and mental health advocate living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been featured in publications including Elle, Newsweek, Glamour and Business Insider. She is currently a writer at Bend Health. a national health care provider. You can follow her on Instagram at @kathryn.e.nave.