When I got pregnant in the fall of 2020, I started consuming more parenting content on social media. I double-tapped photos of parents gazing adoringly at their newborns and watched funny videos of precocious toddlers. But the majority of what I saw wasn’t the warm, comical, joyful moments. In fact, the overwhelming message was that being a parent kind of sucks.
Say goodbye to sleep! Your home will be in a perpetual state of disarray! Toddlerhood will be one long tantrum! You’ll never be able to take a shower or finish your coffee while it’s still hot! Expect to be in survival mode for the foreseeable future ― not just for the next few months, during the newborn stage, but more likely for the next several years ... or much longer.
Certainly, this is true of some people’s parenting experiences, and there are many, many reasons why that might be: Your baby doesn’t sleep well or has a difficult temperament. Your child has health issues or special needs. You’re struggling with preexisting mental health issues, postpartum depression or anxiety, or recovering from a traumatic birth experience. Financial hardships can, undoubtedly, make the hard job of parenting even harder. So does a lack of paid family leave, child care, a supportive partner, and family and friends to lean on.
But that didn’t turn out to be my experience. I recognize that my set of circumstances has a lot to do with the fact that my son is healthy and generally slept well (minus a rough stint from months five to seven), that my company offers a generous parental leave policy, and that I have a strong support system in my fiancé, family and friends.
That’s not to say that becoming a mom hasn’t been hard. It has absolutely tested me at times — especially because this major event in my life coincided with a global pandemic. Even still, compared to the prevailing narrative on social media these days, it’s been pretty great.
In an essay for the New York Times, Kate Shellnutt writes about how all of the parenting doom and gloom she saw online “almost scared [her] out of having a baby.”
I mentally prepared for things I never knew to worry about before: pelvic floor injuries and marital resentment and postpartum anxiety. I heard enough stories to know that birth would be a mess and motherhood would change everything, mostly for the worse.
I never expected what actually happened. “I wasn’t quite prepared for how much fun it’s been,” I wrote on my son’s first birthday last year, sharing a video with chronological clips of him cooing and crying and crawling.
My caption was an understatement. I was afraid of coming off as braggy after lucking out with an easy baby. ... The truth is, I spent the entire year waiting for the other bootie to drop. I was shocked that I didn’t just endure early motherhood — I was delighted by it.
On social media — and Instagram, in particular — motherhood content seems to exist largely as two extremes. One is the picture-perfect, aspirational posts that glamorize parenting — think chic moms and their well-behaved kids smiling in immaculately clean homes. This has fallen out of favor to a degree in recent years.
The other is the messier portrayal of parenting that highlights the struggles, big and small, of being a mom: the sleep deprivation, cracked nipples from breastfeeding, endless piles of laundry, mental health challenges and lack of alone time and adult conversation.
Eloise Germic, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Department of Communication, dubbed these two types of motherhood portrayals on Instagram “alpha mom” and “realistic mom” in a study she conducted from late 2019 to early 2020, which was published in the journal Social Media + Society.
“Back when I was conducting the study and really diving into the content, I was not super familiar with the mommy influencer space. But as soon as I started to look into it, I definitely saw two really oppositional sides — being the alpha mom construct and the more realistic construct,” Germic told HuffPost. “In some ways, it seemed like neither of them were necessarily representative of what the larger parenting experience is.”
To be clear: Talking openly online (and in real life) about the difficult parts of parenting is a good thing. Helping other parents feel less alone when they’re in the thick of it can provide much-needed comfort and validation. When I was having a hard time breastfeeding, seeing other mom influencers open up about their own difficulties was reassuring. Hearing moms on social media talk about their experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety makes you more aware of the warning signs so that you and your loved ones know what to look out for.
But when so much of social media seems to focus on the misery and drudgery of motherhood, it’s no wonder the thought of having a kid starts to seem like a drag.
A social media shift has happened over the last several years.
Emily Hund is a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where she studies social media influencers. At first, she said, all of the motherhood-related real talk on social media felt refreshing.
“Like any prevailing norm on social media, when it starts, it feels fresh,” she told HuffPost. “And then, after a while, it starts to wear on you.”
Posts about the hardships of parenting ramped up at the start of the pandemic when many moms and dads were desperately trying to figure out how to manage work and household duties amid school closures and child care disruptions.
“There was a lot more people sharing this sort of drudgery, ‘My God. What do we do today?’ That kind of thing,” Hund said. “It was refreshing and relieving. Now after a couple years, it’s starting to be, ‘Well, why is this all we’re seeing?’”
Other social and political factors in the last several years have also played a role in parenting content skewing more negative on social media: the contentious 2020 presidential election, George Floyd’s murder by police and the racial justice movement that followed.
“If we’re thinking back to what was considered authentic or acceptable parenting content in 2012, that was a lifetime ago,” Hund said. “That was sort of the post-recession, grind culture of the early 2010s. It was a lot more welcoming to aspirational content. Whereas the chaos and upheaval of the late 2010s and early 2020s, it’s just not as welcoming to that sort of content.”
“There’s this association of ‘authenticity’ to chaos that I don’t necessarily buy into.”
Another turning point was the introduction of Instagram Stories in 2016 — the ephemeral nature of which encourages more “realness,” as opposed to more curated grid posts. Influencers were incentivized to talk to the camera in an off-the-cuff way, giving followers a behind-the-scenes look at their life. For mom influencers, that might be tired selfies while pumping at 2 a.m., a shot of their messy kitchen or a story about their kid having a meltdown.
“Instagram Stories was really a pivotal shift in how influencers presented themselves online,” Hund said. “It really pushed forward different definitions of authenticity and this expectation that you share your day to day, ‘this is me coming on the camera without makeup on yet and I’m just coming on to share this quick thing.’ That sort of thing.”
With this push to be “real” on social media, some mom influencers felt pressure to highlight the messiness of parenting in order to be seen as more relatable — even when it didn’t necessarily feel genuine to them.
“There’s this association of ‘authenticity’ to chaos that I don’t necessarily buy into,” lifestyle influencer and mother of three Mattie James told HuffPost. “Everything that’s chaotic isn’t real and everything that’s orderly isn’t fake. So if I’m not sharing a mess or chaos — which I often don’t — I wonder if others can relate to or even believe me.”
Hund also pointed to the rise of parenting influencers selling online courses in their different areas of expertise. These offerings — which cover topics like baby care, sleep training, tantrums, picky eating and physical therapy — can be helpful resources for parents. But it’s important to be aware that these accounts have a financial incentive to focus on the challenges, rather than the joys, of parenthood.
“Another thing that has happened in the last couple years is people making money off of promoting the idea that parenting is hard,” Hund said. “And it’s hard. I’m not saying they’re lying — it is very hard. But this sort of rise in people who are selling parenting courses or things like that, that is significant.”
All this negative parenting content can take a toll.
Making motherhood seem like an easy-breezy walk in the park isn’t doing us any favors — but portraying it as one disaster after the next may inhibit parents from being able to enjoy the bright spots.
“Perhaps reading about the worst-case scenarios gave me perspective. But they also kept me from accepting when things turned out well,” Shelnutt wrote in her New York Times essay. “When a seat mate complimented my zonked-out 4-month-old on his first flight, I told her that he’d probably give me trouble when he got older. ‘Don’t say that,’ she pushed back. ‘Stop assuming there has to be a bad phase coming.’”
Being aware of the hard stuff is one thing: It makes you feel prepared so you’re not blindsided when things get tough. But when you’re inundated with messaging about how awful parenthood can be, you enter the experience scared and expecting the worst. Not exactly the healthy mindset you hope to have when embarking on this new chapter.
Joanna Goddard — the founder and editor of the lifestyle blog Cup of Jo, which also has a loyal following on social media — recently wrote a blog post in response to a reader who asked: “I hear so many stories about how children are a) exhausting and b) expensive, and that’s scary! I want a kid because biology is doing its thing over here, but what’s actually great about having one?”
In the post, Goddard offered an analogy that encapsulates the whole parenting experience and falls somewhere between the blissful and joyless extremes you often see described on the internet.
Sometimes I think of parenting like traveling somewhere foreign and far — you are jetlagged at first, the flight lasts forever, your cab driver grumbles, you take the wrong street on the way into town, the hotel breakfast is expensive. But! Omg, the views! The hikes! The sunrise! The hotel dog! The violinist playing on the street! The best pasta you’ve ever had! The surprises and delights you had no idea to even expect. The life-changing magic of flipping your world upside down. Sometimes it’s demanding and stressful, yes; but oh my god THE VIEWS.
In the Instagram comments on the post, one reader talked about how they, too, “assumed from all the doom and gloom stories everyone told me that it would largely be an extremely negative experience,” but “have been surprised by just how much I have loved it.”
Another said: “While I think the crying mom at her wits’ [end] on any of these pages dedicated to motherhood can help women feel that they’re not alone, they terrified me and it hasn’t been my personal experience. Not to say there aren’t challenging moments but those would in no way represent the majority of my experience[s].”
There’s starting to be a shift toward a happy-ish medium.
While Germic believes these two extremes will always be present on social media, she said she’s recently noticed a shift toward the middle.
“Personally, in examining my own social media feeds and exploring around, I’ve definitely seen more content, more influencers existing in that middle realm, where it’s not entirely perfect, overly edited pictures and ‘my kid is perfect’ type of thing,” she said. “[They’re] sharing experiences of parenting that are really joyful and then sharing things that they’re struggling with and are really difficult.”
The messaging we’re exposed to online (and elsewhere) is impactful, but we, as consumers, “can’t give it too much power,” Germic said.
That means we shouldn’t rely so heavily on social media to prepare us for parenthood. It’s important to also have conversations with the people in your life — friends, family, even your doctor — to get a fuller picture of the experience than any photo, caption or Instagram Story can provide.
Social media warned me aplenty about all of the ways my life would change after I became a mom. I just didn’t realize that most of those changes would be for the better. Looking back, I’m grateful to the women online who spoke openly about their motherhood experiences. But I wish I would have taken those for what they were — someone else’s story — instead of assuming they’d be mine, too.
This is part of a HuffPost Parents series called Enjoy The Ride. Read more here.