People sometimes ask me why I study momfluencers, and when they do, I judge them. Unfavorably. Is it not painfully obvious that there is something distinctive about moms whose business is performing motherhood online? Motherhood is what anthropologists call a “human universal,” and one thing humans universally agree upon is that mothering transcends commerce. Momfluencers create commercial products out of their mothering, and part of their job is keeping this innate contradiction from being creepy and upsetting to their audiences. This takes a lot of skill and precision.
Unlike, say, fashion, representations of motherhood are necessarily heavy with moral implications. Every picture a momfluencer posts online could be translated into a sentence starting with the words, I’m the kind of woman who … It’s an assertion of selfhood. I’m the kind of woman who does goofy dances. I’m the kind of woman who never forgets sunscreen. I’m the kind of woman who cuts up egg and avocado and serves it to my children on an interesting vintage plate.
Even the feeling of ambivalence is expressed with certainty: “Mama, you don’t have to love every minute of motherhood.” “Mama, you’re a warrior, and I see you.” Those of us who consume a lot of this kind of content gradually become immersed in this moral positioning. Mama bear, tiger mom, boy mom, hot mom, good-enough mom. These are stories we tell one another in 50-word captions, and these captions are adding up to define what this human universal means. Feels significant!
I’ve been doing doctoral research on momfluencers throughout the pandemic, trying to figure out how expertise and affect create social relations. But it has all been done remotely, so last month, when I attended the Mom 2.0 Summit in Los Angeles to do some research, it was my first time meeting the moms face-to-face.
The event was splashy and fun. It was sponsored by, among other companies, a chic CBD gummies line “for caregivers” and a “natural”-branded zero-calorie sweetener. I enjoyed plentiful free samples of both. Everyone I met was incredibly friendly and forthcoming about their goals and concerns about being a mom online. As you may imagine, the air was thick with affirmations.
It was my first Mom 2.0 Summit, but veteran attendees told me the event’s tone has shifted over the years. The founders, Laura Mayes and Carrie Pacini, have committed to supporting social-justice causes in the brands they partner with and the speakers they invite. The event opened with two keynote speakers, the author Anna Malaika Tubbs and the activist Valarie Kaur, who shared progressive visions and invoked political realities such as the absence of affordable child care for American parents and the reality of white-nationalist fear in American politics. After their keynotes, I briefly wondered if America’s momfluencers had been radicalized.
But mingling among the moms in attendance, I didn’t see a lot of that political consciousness reflected back. The moms I spoke to were all working on growing their businesses, turning a precarious side hustle into a sustainable, reliable source of income. They were primarily interested in rate sheets and algorithmic preferences and the immediate challenges related to creating enough engaging content to keep themselves afloat in a highly competitive media marketplace.
I had been home from Mom 2.0 less than a week when the memo outlining the overturning of Roe was leaked. Abortion has in recent years become a topic of open conversation among many women on social media. (Men are notably less engaged despite being central to the debate. Disappointing but not surprising!) A few years ago, it felt important to “humanize” abortion by telling personal stories about it. Breaking down social stigmas was useful then, but the feminist discourse on abortion has evolved. Today, the instinct to humanize abortion feels irrelevant, almost cozy, when compared with the swiftness with which access is being dismantled.
The mommybloggers of the early aughts deserve a lot of credit for the topics they destigmatized: breastfeeding, postpartum depression, maternal ambivalence, domestic boredom, invisible labor. Instagram influencers have helped make fat positivity a mainstream movement. When Black Lives Matter consumed social-media discourse two years ago, companies started being held accountable for their hiring and representation practices and influencers spoke up en masse. But abortion feels as if it might not be on the safe list for mainstream momfluencers to talk about. I say this because very few of the ones I observe with followings over 100K made statements about the threats to Roe.
Those who do speak up can teach us a lot about the rules that still govern this online world. For years, Katie Crenshaw has been outspoken about social justice while creating content with major corporate sponsors. “Over the years, it’s been interesting to watch it evolve,” she said. “It went from no one talking about anything ever, to watching the audience trying to hold influencers accountable, which is great. I used to get a lot of hate for posting about social justice, and I would be worried about brand deals because in certain contracts it states you can’t be vocal about politics or religion — but that’s also phasing out for some brands.”
Speaking out about issues like abortion is a consequential decision for big accounts. A couple of years ago, Ilana Wiles, who runs the account @mommyshorts, engaged at length with her following of 170,000 over the definition of pro-choice and spent hours in conversation with followers in her DMs sorting out biases and clarifying her position. By posting about her views on abortion rights, she had to commit to an extended period of serious debate with her followers — grassroots activism, essentially. It’s a commitment.
I have spoken to momfluencers about the fallout from the May 2020 BLM protests, during which brands and online personalities were under pressure to make statements of solidarity with the movement. For many white momfluencers, this was the first time they had experienced any kind of pressure to speak politically, and regardless of their feelings about racism in America, some felt uncomfortable speaking out because they wanted to “stay in their lane.” Speaking out about racism as white women felt presumptuous and awkward to them.
The history of white people feigning ignorance and ducking out of conversations about white supremacy is long and crowded. But when it comes to human reproduction, white moms can’t feign ignorance: All mothers are experts by definition. Abortion access is something moms have complete authority on which to speak. Momfluencers — particularly white momfluencers, who command the vast majority of market share on social media — have the power to mobilize real energy for this cause. Given the religious origins of many of the big-name momfluencers, it’s likely there’s a significant amount of pro-life sentiment among these ladies whose home interiors we know so well. By remaining silent on political flashpoints, as they did during the Trump presidency, conservative momfluencers can manage to keep their liberal followers coming back while signaling their beliefs by omission to their like-minded audience.
Ideology may account for the silence of a lot of the big-family momfluencers out there, but it doesn’t explain the noticeably hesitant way that ostensibly pro-choice momfluencers are engaging with the issue of abortion rights. I think they may be feeling limited by the “I’m the kind of woman who” orientation of their online speech. This orientation is intended to be empowering, but it has the unintended consequence of flattening out the basic nuances of being human. The very rhetorical devices meant to help moms overcome inequities have the effect of selling them short.
No momfluencer wants to be “the kind of woman who” has an abortion. Discussing abortion in the context of family life must feel awkward for women who mostly rely on affirmations to get their messages across. Arguing for the end of gun violence or for the inclusion of all bodies feels uplifting and uncomplicated, and this aligns with many momfluencers’ brands: empowerment, support, community. Abortion is so much more complex to post about because nobody wants one until one desperately does.
But I’m not satisfied with this reasoning, either, because in the past few years momfluencers have embraced ambivalent topics. The message that you can “still be a good mom” and suffer from depression or anxiety, for example, is ringing out loud and clear throughout the mamasphere. Nobody wants to be depressed, but depression exists and we need to talk about it. Will abortion ever get the depression treatment?
The one thread on abortion I’ve seen go viral among momfluencers with larger followings provides some insight into what feels safe to say about this issue. This thread, written by the progressive Mormon décor influencer Gabrielle Blair (@designmom) back in 2018, is an extended pretzel-logic argument about how, really, men need to take responsibility for their role in unwanted pregnancies. It culminates thusly: “If you want to stop abortions, you need to prevent the ‘disease’ — meaning, unwanted pregnancies. And the only way to do that, is by focusing on men, because: MEN CAUSE 100% OF UNWANTED PREGNANCIES. Or. IRRESPONSIBLE EJACULATIONS BY MEN CAUSE 100% OF UNWANTED PREGNANCIES.”
I suspect that highlighting the role of men in unwanted pregnancies feels safe for big momfluencers because it moves the spotlight away from the plain truth that 60 percent of people who get abortions are mothers. Moms love their kids; they are reliable, stable nurturers — and they get abortions. I write this without batting an eyelid, but I’m not running a six-figure brand based on my cheerful attitude and devotion to my kids. Corporate sponsorship structures speech.
Brands have embraced momfluencers’ grievances about men as part of their efforts to be “relatable.” Women complaining about male ineptitude will absolutely sell paper towels and dish soap. So if you’re going to talk about abortion, it’s safer to locate the issue in the same context and focus on holding men responsible for their role. Men: Learn how to wipe down the counters properly and learn how to pull out! Brawny paper towels can help you do both!
Maybe agitating for more plainspoken support for abortion rights among momfluencers seems misplaced or pointless, but we should be wary of underestimating this important sector of the cultural economy. Motherhood is being defined in this space, and language adjacent to political awakening animates it, just as it animates online spaces occupied by wellness practitioners, fashion influencers, and design experts. Ever since the Women’s March in 2017, the spirit of “women supporting women” has been the de facto position on women-targeting social media. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I do wonder if we are reaching a limit to its usefulness.
At the Mom 2.0 Summit, I attended a lively panel on pay rates for influencers. It was moderated by the author and podcaster Jo Piazza, who invoked the historic Women’s Day Off held in Iceland in 1975. The day off (the participants strategically didn’t call it a “strike”) was meant to demonstrate the power of women’s work in Icelandic society, and it wreaked havoc on the nation in myriad poignant and cute ways: children running amok through male workplaces while men tried to look after them, hot dogs selling out at supermarkets as men tried to figure out how to prepare dinner, news broadcasts interrupted by the noise of playing children. Piazza noted that the day off changed Iceland forever.
Maybe a similar action could call attention to the importance of women’s work, Piazza wondered, if momfluencers took a day off the internet? The audience was enthusiastic. “Maybe six hours off,” someone suggested — a whole day off the algorithms seemed reckless, perhaps. What would women’s demands be in such an action, I wondered. Where would they begin?