April 18, 2023   6 mins

Maternal guilt is a bottomless resource. Enter the momfluencer. She’s like an influencer — but her particular genius is to target the most vulnerable, the most guilt-ridden the most exhausted consumer. New mothers. The genius of the momfluencer is to know that her targets are terrified that if they do the wrong thing, they’ll permanently damage their offspring. And she tells them that everything will be okay, if only they acquire the right thing.

Sara Petersen has, by her own admission, been momfluenced. In her new book, she grapples with these fascinating and objectionable women — rich, white mothers who Instagram their lives, often using sponsored content. She recounts how one inspired her to buy a $460 sweater — buyer’s regret soon followed. More unsettling, though, is her confession that momfluencers might have been behind her decision to have another child: “Maybe my longing for a third baby was also impacted, at least a little bit, by momfluencers… who made pregnancy and motherhood look good. I forgot to credit them for being one of the many fucked-up reasons I craved another baby.”

To be any influencer is to perform your real life, and discreetly weave in advertisements. To be a momfluencer, however, means roping your children into the frame, selling their sweetest, saddest, and most awkward moments to as wide an audience as possible. This poses major ethical issues, some of which predate the contemporary influencer era: no one really likes having their childhoods monetised. Much of the argument surrounding momfluencers focuses on the exploitation of minors. But Petersen is more interested in the exploitation of mothers — or, more specifically, the exploitation of the status anxieties that accompany motherhood.

Petersen self-flagellates for being swayed by these saleswomen, but she can afford to be. As she acknowledges, she shares demographic traits with the women she’s quasi-hate-following: “white, thin, conventionally attractive”, upper-middle-class Americans with giant kitchens. As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore points out in an Aeon essay: “most momfluencers aren’t struggling, working-class mothers living in public housing and surviving on food stamps, but middle-class women who already exist in material comfort, and whose message to the rest of us is consume, consume, consume”.

If things were different, there would be a feminist case for supporting momfluencers’ endeavours as a way of making parenting lucrative — and increasing society’s respect for domestic work. But momfluencers are not, as a rule, achieving financial independence from their labour: they are making peanuts. We could call them privileged, because they do not need to work. But how do we define need, in this situation? If a woman’s husband makes enough money to support the family, that’s something, for now. But what if his income changes? What if they split up? There was a time when feminism recognised that even women with very gainfully employed husbands are harmed if they fall out of the workforce entirely.

Petersen writes that her “husband’s job sustains us financially”, an aside that reminds us a serious book author is in the same economic situation as a momfluencer. And this is the case for plenty of female writers. When poet Maggie Smith lamented that her now-ex-husband, a lawyer, prioritised his career over hers, it was hard not to think of the financial dichotomy that almost certainly backed up his assessment. In one sense, this isn’t about sexism, but rather about some careers paying better than others. In another, there’s a reason it’s women who often wind up in these lower-paid, creative, and flexible endeavours. Pregnancy, childbirth, and being the primary carer of young children are all roles which lend themselves to financial dependency, at least temporarily. Momfluencing offers at least the prospect of a middle-ground path: a way to work without having to be separated from your young children or spending your entire salary on childcare.

But it also offers something to more traditionally employed mothers: a dream they might be able to buy into. Much of what Petersen writes about being “addicted to shopping”, as a means of self-improvement resonates more than I’d like it to. Shopping, at least the kind of shopping Petersen describes, is a manifestation of powerlessness. It’s what you do when you’re not getting validation in other parts of your life. It is also the only activity available to you if it’s 3am and you’re feeding a newborn and you don’t have the mental capacity for anything more than scrolling. But all mothers are vulnerable. Once you’re the one in the household buying the practical stuff — a task that tends to fall to the lower-paid partner — why not treat yourself? The temptation is there, even when the money is not, and consumer capitalism exploits it.

And the backdrop of Petersen’s story is the pandemic, which turned even normal people into very-online neurotics, offering ample opportunities to sink into social media, form parasocial relationships with rich people half a world away, and click “purchase” on whatever they were selling. This was fertile territory for the momfluencer phenomenon, though it persists in the post-lockdown age. It was also fertile territory for the social justice movement that took off in those years. Petersen makes sure we know that, though she buys what the fancy white-lady momfluencers are selling, politically, she thinks they’re awful. After all, they valorise whiteness, thinness, wealth, and other traits that Petersen may personally share, but thinks ought not to be treated as aspirational.

Here it helps to remember that 2020-2021 was the “Karen” era. After some years of #MeToo, pussy hats, and a liberal notion that women are society’s victims, George Floyd’s murder led to a liberal epiphany that it is in fact only black people whose victimhood should count. This meant that white women were not merely part of an oppressive group but, worse, oppressors guilty of seeing themselves as victims. Progressive white women — moms and otherwise — offered up tearful promises to “do the work”, which tended to involve reading fellow white woman Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. White, female influencers — Leandra “Man Repeller” Medine, Emily “Cupcakes and Cashmere” Schuman — apologised for past misdeeds and platformed women of colour. As a good white liberal, Petersen goes out in search of unproblematic momfluencers, and finds them in abundance: black, transgender, disabled, lower-income, or fat, these women are posting about motherhood, too. They’re not influencing anyone to buy unnecessary high-end household items, though: they’re serving a different function, reminding us that being a good parent doesn’t demand being a rich white lady with a design-magazine-worthy kitchen.

A binary springs up: as Petersen presents it, a generic rich white lady’s posting is performative at best, white supremacist at worst. But the minute the poster happens to be marginalised in some way — that is, in a way that registers for today’s progressives — she is engaging in important online activism. I’m thinking especially of when, acknowledging her own “thin privilege”, she gives the floor to a plus-size momfluencer named Mia, whose concerns are arguably too specific to merit an airing. “Mia wishes Kindred Bravely [a company that makes nursing bras, presumably] would do better; she says their nursing bra is incredible but only goes up to size XXL.” Elsewhere, Petersen atones for having purchased a “The Future is Female” shirt prior to learning that the slogan “is widely considered problematic, exclusionary of trans people, and inherently anti-intersectional feminist”. If buying the shirt in the first place was extremely 2016-2017, apologising for having done so was extremely the vibe of the years that followed. Petersen, always, is on trend.

But she is at her best when she doesn’t write as though trying to appease an implacable sensitivity reader — when she steps down from acting as the voice of liberal white moms, and instead delves into her own specific experience. It’s here that she winds up, paradoxically, getting to the root of maternal self-flagellation. “Most days,” she reads, “I’d rather vacuum the Cheerio crumbs under my baby’s high chair than read a Sandra Boynton book to him. I’d rather scroll through someone else’s tender moments than try to locate my own.”

Confessing that one is sometimes bored when entertaining one’s baby is riskier than acknowledging one’s privilege. It sets things up for a reader to ask whether you actually love your baby, you monster, even though of course you love your baby, that’s not the issue. The issue is that baby-minding, even when it’s your own uniquely fascinating-to-you baby, can be a dispiriting mix of strenuous and monotonous. It should be possible to admit this without it reading as an insult to the baby. (We were all, once, that baby.)

The challenge of being in the moment with even the most delightful baby has no policy-based solution. It’s not specific to American capitalism. It is something experienced by women — yes and some men, but, you know, you know — of all nationalities and demographics. It doesn’t matter how rich, thin, or white she is, or how paraben-free her medicine cabinet. Momfluencers allow their mom-followers an escape from the realities of motherhood by way of a fantasy version of the same. But in doing so, they make mothers feel bad about their lives not matching up to that ideal. That feeling, in turn, summons the credit card. Not that it helps.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Toronto. She is the author of The Perils of “Privilege” and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast.