TikTok’s Version of Parenting Is a Nightmare Fantasy

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

Instagram for sure knows I’m pregnant. (Either that, or it thinks I have some kind of pregnancy fetish?) And it’s not just the last seven months’ worth of ads for breast pumps and nipple creams that confirm this. Even though I actively unfollowed most influencer content, momfluencer or otherwise, a while ago, my “Explore” feed, as well as my TikTok FYP, is still greedily feeding me all kinds of Pregnancy Content: pseudo-spontaneous pregnancy-test reveals, an oddly specific but supposedly universal list of things “no one tells you about being pregnant,” and many variations on “things you shouldn’t say to a pregnant person,” which I’m not really sure have ever been said to anyone.

Normally, I’d happily scroll past anything where an influencer is offering up advice on how it “really is,” knowing it’s likely just a powdered supplement or Skims ad, but lately my otherwise human-shaped feet turn into massively swollen paddles by 5 p.m., forcing me to spend time with my legs in the air, willing some blood away from my bulging ankles, rendering me incapable of doing anything other than stare at my phone.

When I had my first baby in 2017, I knew almost nothing about what life with a newborn was like. Instagram’s momfluencers were focused on beautiful wooden toys and beige interiors, an idyllic vision of motherhood that didn’t bother with stains, let alone sleepless nights. Now, six years and another kid later, it looks like the moms online are hanging on by a thread.

I used to be surprised when people would tell me they want kids but are really freaked out about how hard it is — it’s tough, but people keep doing it, so it’s obviously not impossible, you know? But when I see the relentless wave of content designed to convince you of its punishing nature, I get it. In my upside-down browsing binges, I’ve gotten sucked into the parenting version of a “get ready with me,” only instead of contouring, I get to live through endless nights with a stranger’s newborn.

The plot of these videos is always the same: The parent, usually a mom, takes you through a detailed breakdown of a night with a newborn, ring light already set up and phone positioned just so. You see a very tired woman soothing, rocking, shushing, cradling, and feeding a small baby. They breastfeed, they pump, then they get up and make several bottles of formula. The TV is on and turned up; some take the opportunity to wash and dry their hair or do their skin-care routine. Neither the parent nor the baby gets much sleep. As I’ve watched more and more of them, I’ve genuinely asked myself, Had I encountered these before my first, would I even want one kid, let alone three? 

To be fair, the online depiction of parenting is now much more honest, frank, and vulnerable, and that is, or can be, refreshing. Nipple bleeds and sleep deprivation are understood to be rites of passage, and there’s a visual language for what happens after you cross over to the other side. Still, it’s not monetizable content unless we, the viewer, feel bad, right? Or like we’re missing something and the only way to get to it is to watch more and more and more.

There are many, many real structural and social factors that make parenting especially fraught right now, so why make it feel that much harder? Without even getting into the impact of a bright ring light trained on your infant at 2:33 a.m., all of these nighttime routine videos — I counted at least 15 on one recent evening TikTok binge — involve a litany of unnecessary yet conveniently shoppable gadgets (e.g., a special changing pad that just happens to be available on their TikTok shops or Amazon storefronts) and extra steps. Like, say, warming up formula and/or pumping many times in the night and also breastfeeding around the clock. Both the pumping and combo feeding with formula are meant to make things easier on you, the mom, allowing your partner to feed the baby so you can sleep or do something else, but adding those extra chores onto a hellish overnight routine that also involves breastfeeding just feels superfluous, a form of self-inflicted torture. Seeing all of this extra effort that doesn’t feel actually beneficial for mom or baby makes me wonder, what are other new mothers being convinced is necessary or important? This particular brand of pregnancy content might seem raw and unfiltered, but, to me, they’re as dishonest and unattainable as those beige, pristine nurseries of the past. We’re still being sold a version of motherhood that isn’t representative of that person’s own life, let alone the average experience. It’s engagement bait disguised as vulnerability.

Tuning out the version of motherhood that existed on social media when I had my first baby felt a lot easier because it seemed so obviously false, a glossy exterior disguising the messy, beautiful chaos of life with kids. What I find so insidious about this new version of online mom life is how it pretends to be the opposite — a raw, real look at the state of motherhood — yet ultimately pushes the same narrative that parenthood is unattainably hard but that if you buy the right product or follow the right influencer, you might just be able to push through. Yeah, it’s hard, but we’re making it far, far harder on ourselves — and if I thought that the TikTok or Instagram version of motherhood on display now was accurate, I’m not sure I’d brave one kid, let alone three. What I worry about is that people on the fence about kids think this is how it is, with few alternatives that show the balance of love, laughter, stress, and work that goes into raising children.

The past few years have opened a lot of people’s eyes to the many real struggles of parenthood, of how systemic issues around maternal care, health care, and child care have made having kids painfully expensive and difficult. But instead of fixing those issues, the narrative has evolved to paint a picture that is unfairly harsh about parents and kids. Being open and honest about the reality of being a parent today shouldn’t preclude the joy, simplicity, and fun that is inherent to the process.

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TikTok’s Version of Parenting Is a Nightmare Fantasy