I’ve always liked a good advertisement. There’s something comforting in the tidy, confident rhetoric; the cleanliness and brightness and promised results. So when I first discovered the world of baby-centered Instagram accounts, halfway through my first pregnancy, I fell quickly under the spell of this well-lit endorsement of motherhood: photos of babies in baskets, babies wearing flower crowns, babies in baskets wearing flower crowns. There’s so much tranquility in those pictures. So much time — to read and sleep, to garden and work. I clicked contentedly through the lives of strangers, forcing myself to believe that somehow, as soon I was through the gestation period, I, too, would find myself in a field of sunflowers with a sleeping baby and a book.
It didn’t happen that way, obviously, and it wasn’t long after my daughter was born that I began to feel uneasy with my newfound voyeurism. There’s a peculiar tone to the “Instamom” genre, a seemingly obsessive need to apologize for any allusion to adversity. It was a difficult day, captions beneath pictures of peacefully sleeping, curly-haired toddlers read. But every moment was worth it. There’s something distressing about this need to affirm and reaffirm one’s devotion and happiness that reveals not so much the realities of the writer but the expectations of the reader.
A mother should be able to document her life how she chooses, of course. It’s not as if curated childhoods are a new thing; baby books and family photo albums haven’t historically contained pasted-in copies of unpaid hospital bills or pictures of crying moms in spit-up-covered work clothes. Ultimately, it’s not so much the keepers of the accounts as it is the readers that seems problematic. Our readership serves not so much as a testament to how we experience the birthing and raising of humans, than to how we’ve constructed that experience in our imaginations. It’s a lovely but expensive fantasy, where things like health care and financial stability can be taken for granted.
But it’s also hard to look away from. Across the country (and world) motherhood unfolds in seaside picnics, white dresses, and blueberry pancakes. It’s the Motherhood Edition of the American Dream.
All the more fitting, then, that the ultimate archetype of the Instagram mom is also a newly minted political figure with a limitless cash flow. As Lindy West recently pointed out, Ivanka Trump is more logo than person, and if there’s anything she symbolizes it’s the woman and mother we want to exist in America, rather than the one we allow to exist. Ivanka is a mother who works, but not without repeatedly declaring motherhood as a woman’s most important role, a mother who does not complain, but who gets home in time to have (and post a video of) the dance party she had with her kids before she even had a chance to take off her heels and coat. Through her Instagram account, one can enjoy pictures of Work Ivanka evenly distributed with pictures of Mom Ivanka. It’s the balance women are bossily and haphazardly instructed to find, and it looks really good.
Ivanka’s digital portrayal of motherhood wouldn’t be so unforgivable were it not for the fact that the fantasy she’s created is in direct opposition to the kinds of things she claims, over and over, to advocate for on behalf of American women. It’s become increasingly obvious that her politics are as much a fantasy as her portrayal of the American mother. The actual obstacles of American motherhood, including the need for paid leave and affordable child care, are as absent here as they are in her book. And yet, her 3.9 million followers look on.
But then, late last month, in an interview with Dr. Oz, Ivanka complicated her own neatly wrought fantasy. “With each of my three children I’ve had some level of postpartum,” she told Oz, who pressed her to clarify by adding the word “depression.” Until this moment, I was willing to write off Ivanka’s apparent ignorance as just that. It has become increasingly obvious that her ability to actually speak for American women is stunted by her motivation to see outside of her own cream-colored living room. But what this admission indicates is something more troubling than ignorance: If Ivanka understands women’s health issues such as postpartum depression on a personal level, she should also understand the importance of perinatal and postpartum health care, paid parental leave, and affordable child care.
When the news of Ivanka’s “confession” broke, women’s magazines across the internet pointed out the importance of this kind of honesty in the face of an often stigmatized condition. They excitedly noted that if Ivanka could get postpartum depression anyone could. It’s true, of course, but it’s also not the whole truth. Low-income women (as well as victims of systemic racism) are more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, are less likely to receive the necessary health care, and are at an increased risk of the kinds of complications that can lead not only to mood disorders but maternal mortality.
If Ivanka Trump’s postpartum-depression announcement helps destigmatize the condition, that’s good. But it’s not nearly good enough. If she wants to empower women, as she repeatedly insists, she’ll need to do a lot more than faintly allude to a “difficult time,” and an “incredibly important” issue before going back to posting pictures of shiny-tabled meetings and small children in sweater sets. Ivanka needs to make the connection between reality and fantasy and the role she plays in both. By admitting her experience with the reality of issues surrounding women’s health, particularly reproductive health, she has added another crack to the distraction of her own mirage. What will come next? Last week — as another dystopian-themed health-care bill made the rounds and ultimately failed — would have been a great time to continue the conversation. But so far, unsurprisingly, she’s got nothing.