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The Problem with Performative Parenting

Broadcasting your parenting experiences on social media comes at what cost?

Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

I used to have this rule: Never post a photo on Instagram until you’ve had time to absorb the full emotional weight of the moment. At the time, it was a good rule. It helped me to put my phone down and be present with my husband and kids. It gave me a healthy chance to process life internally before broadcasting my hopes and fears aimlessly onto the internet in exchange for a few likes. But what my rule didn’t do — what it couldn’t do — was erase the fear that brought me to the internet in the first place. Even if I created distance between me and my smartphone, I believed I didn’t exist as a good mother unless my motherhood was seen and celebrated.

While I’ll bet there are some very blessed souls who can parent sans electronic devices, for me, motherhood absent the internet would feel, well, disconnected. From week-by-week pregnancy apps (What vegetable is my baby this week?) to BabyCenter forums (Is my kid’s poop supposed to be this color?) and online registries (No, you definitely do not need a wipe warmer), if the tools we use online can subtract a little stress from the already complex equation of motherhood or at least make us feel less alone, they’re worth using.

But beyond its basic purposes as a place to order diapers in bulk or troubleshoot breastfeeding issues, the internet is home to an underground economy, one where if we trade in our most sacred moments as mothers (and alter them into pixelated perfection on Instagram), we may get something in return: the feeling of being seen and, if we’re lucky, praise and validation. This is performative parenting: a version of motherhood that positions itself before an audience seeking a reward, an identity, beyond motherhood itself. Performative parenting takes parenthood and the internet — two community-focused aspects of our lives — and turns them inward, making them a mirror for picking apart and defining our identity. With an arsenal of whitewashed walls and hashtags, performative parenting seeks a tangible reward in the doldrums of motherhood, which runs on a whole different delayed-gratification economy.

When the bulk of life and work as a mom is unseen, unheard, and uncelebrated, performative parenting positions us as the star of the show — eventually to our and our children’s detriment.

Though the performance of motherhood online is inherently purposeful, it’s not always intentional. Personally, I never made a conscious decision to brand my version of motherhood; instead, I looked to my smartphone (and all the people I’d collected in it) as a balm to soothe the Big Emotions that come with becoming a mother for the first time. What started as innocent Mommy Web 101 — a curated pregnancy announcement and weekly snapshots of my swelling abdomen — became more complicated and sinister the more self-focused I became.

It began when I accidentally got pregnant. The September afternoon when I found out, I was holding a glass of boxed wine as I waited for the test to confirm that I was alone in my body. Earlier that week, an intuitive friend had commented that I “seemed pregnant” and dropped a pregnancy test in my mailbox. I peed on it to humor her. But according to the abrupt, all-caps PREGNANT on the pee stick (I highly recommend a nondigital test if you don’t want to feel like your own pregnancy is an accusation), my friend’s instincts were right. There is someone else in here with me, I thought.

For the next three months, all-day morning sickness kept me confined to my bedroom and unplugged, as my social media accounts accumulated what I imagine were the digital equivalent of dust and cobwebs. I was 13 weeks pregnant — a common time to reveal one’s pregnancy online, given the risk of miscarriage in the first trimester — when I announced my impending motherhood to the world via Instagram. The sickness of the first trimester had eclipsed any shred of excitement I felt about becoming a mom, but it also distracted me from the anxiety disorder and panic attacks that had defined my life up until that point. So, when the nausea waned and I had the emotional and physical bandwidth to process what was becoming in my body — and by extension, what I was becoming — I scrambled to make sense of it. Naturally, I went straight to the internet, where trying overcoming an existential crisis is as easy as posting a well-lit photo with a cheeky caption. My announcement photo was a highly filtered shot of my goldendoodle in front of a chalkboard sign that read, “I’m going to be a big brother!” The soothing balm of comments and likes began to pour in immediately. I was hooked.

High school friends who had been absent from my adult life shared their excitement; former co-workers chimed in with a buffet of celebratory emoji; I received text upon text from loved ones. It was like I could breathe for the first time in weeks, with these people, on my side, telling me I was okay. I finally felt like maybe I could do this.

The more positive reinforcement I received, the more content I delivered, posting weekly “bump” updates to social media for the next 27 weeks, which was my way of “archiving pregnancy milestones,” but mostly garnering affirmation about my identity as a mother. When I had time, I also kept a public blog, where I laid out my birth plan and how much weight I had gained so far (which, in retrospect, is very annoying!). For me, in the beginning, performing my pregnancy wasn’t really much about pleasing people — it was about feeling safe with my own impending motherhood. I wasn’t posting to build a mommy blog empire and rake in income. I extended myself to an online audience through pregnancy and motherhood because, like a drug, it was the fastest way to mask my fear.

Though I was among the first of my friends to become a mother, four years have now passed, and both my life and my once spacious corner of social media have been infiltrated by my millennial mom cohorts. It makes sense: With the uptick of millennials taking the leap into motherhood comes a more noticeable, more forceful presence of moms forming their identities online. As of January 2017, there were 16 million millennial moms in America — that’s 16 million digital natives who came of age alongside the internet, divulging pieces of our lives to an audience in exchange for, at best, a meaningful connection and, at worst, a backlash. I’ve experienced enough of both to tread carefully when it comes to performing for an audience of strangers.

For the most part, the digital landscape of motherhood has been fruitful for me, a soft and somewhat predictable place to land during major life transitions. During a season of anxiety so severe that I could hardly leave my bedroom, my online friends were the only escape I had. I met some of my closest mom friends on Instagram, one of whom remains my go-to contact for the daily emotional implosion that comes with parenting a preschooler. When I’m in a bind, I often post queries about sleep schedules or at-home remedies on Facebook, and I’m met by dozens of answers from other moms. I’ve seen how the internet can be a “village” for moms in its own right, brimming with opportunities to learn and connect with other parents as we all figure out motherhood together.

But when I use the internet and its endless image-micromanagement portals to tell me I’m good enough, I also empower an invisible audience to tell me that I’m not. Putting myself on center stage — whether with a quick snapshot of my son doing something cute or an entire blog dedicated to baby milestones — empowers a conglomerate of people who know nothing about me to critique me, to question me, to project their own issues onto me. And while one audience might give me a standing ovation, the emotional fallout brought on by the trolls can make the whole experience of performative parenting — and by extension, parenting in general — miserable.

My first real foray into the deep, dark world of “branded” parenting happened for two reasons: I was bored and insecure. As a mom staying at home with an infant, my days lacked any semblance of productivity just as much as they lacked purpose. Scrolling through Instagram while my baby screamed himself to sleep in his crib, I easily fell down a rabbit hole of mommy hashtags. I began to think of it as a creative project: I could use Instagram to journal about motherhood and all the anxieties that came with it and, hopefully, help a few other moms along the way. I wasn’t putting my English degree to use in a lucrative career, but perhaps I could make sense of motherhood with my “microblogs” about postpartum body image, mental health, and the everyday adventures of parenting a baby.

As my son became a toddler, there was a visible change in my once dissonant, uncoordinated Instagram feed — the images becomes brighter, crisper, more focused and intentional, and the content, even if it appears to be about my son or my husband or a bed of flowers outside my house, becomes disproportionately focused on me. As I got the hang of how to be strategic with my posts (it was a hell of a lot easier pre-Instagram algorithm), I accrued more followers, maxing out at about 2,500 — big enough to feel like I had a round of applause on-call at all times, but small enough to convince myself (and my friends) that I wasn’t obsessed with my online image.

While I maintained an online presence that was warm, inclusive, and deep, in my everyday life, I was distracted, insecure, and controlling. Outings with my son and husband turned into location-scouting trips where I’d waste entire afternoons hunting down the perfect exposed-brick backdrop. Get-togethers with offline friends became awkward as I tried to figure out how to integrate my growing social following into everyday life without risking the loss of either. Lattes, basically any on-trend greenery, old books, city skylines, and my own family lost their luster in my life as I reduced them to props for my social feed. I never reached “influencer status,” but I spent enough time obsessing over my follower count to see my motherhood performance reach an uncomfortable climax: I gave so much emotional energy to micromanaging my own image that my toddler son, whom I flaunted as the center of my life, had become my go-to accessory, a supporting character in a story that was supposed to be about him.

What looked to outsiders like authentic excitement about my son was actually more about me.

Realistically, I don’t think I could have stopped the performative parenting cycle if I tried. I had to be interrupted — and I was, by the very same thing that sucked me all of this initially. After moving halfway across the country for a writing job in California (conveniently, a land ripe with all-new Instagrammable backdrops!), I became pregnant with my second son. This time, I was sicker and even more anxious than my first go-round. As I attempted to work a full-time job, parent my toddler, navigate a new city, and not throw up into every vessel I came across, I was so focused on surviving each day that creating content for an audience on Instagram was the last thing on my mind. Without the regular content I usually shared on my feed, I lost dozens and dozens of followers, but I regained something I had lost during my dark descent into performative motherhood: myself.

Even though I’ve since retreated back into a less self-focused approach to the internet, I will always believe authentic connection and creativity can happen online. I still text my online friend daily (we now both have two boys, ages one and four), I show up in a Slack chat with online friends from around the country, and I’m a regular on Instagram stories (hit me up if you need advice on hormonal acne remedies). I also continue to post pictures of my kids on Instagram relatively frequently, though I’ve recently entertained the idea of making my profile private. For me, what morally complicates performative parenting online is the way we leverage our kids to make ourselves feel purposeful. Will my sons want potty training anecdotes or bathtime photos plastered on the internet 10 or 20 years from now? And is whether or not I share our kids with a few thousand followers an issue of empathy or ethics?

Luckily, I have some friends with similar struggles, and we’re all navigating what it means to mother online together. My friend Rachael Kincaid, who has established a significant online presence in the past several years, has six kids, ranging from preschool to high school age. To keep her content — but more important, her family dynamic — in check, she’s established a few ground rules for how and when she posts on social media, especially when it comes to parenting-related content. First on the list: She never posts anything about her children without their permission. “With my little kids, that looks like some lighthearted dialogue. I send my older kids the photo and give them a preview of the caption, then wait until they say yes before posting,” Rachael says.

Even if they say yes, Rachael intentionally decided to make her Instagram posts more about her own journey — what she’s learning and how she’s growing — rather than capturing intimate family moments. The potential for comparison among moms and relational fallout in the family isn’t worth the brief high that comes from an impulse post. “My children’s childhoods are individual stories for them to experience and remember and cherish. Each one of them will leave my house someday with their own feelings and version of events, and that feels sacred. Too sacred to share.”

Whether or not we leverage social media for a quick shot of affirmation or put our kids on display to thousands of followers for free products, using our kids to bolster our own identity costs us something. As much as performative parenting positions us in the spotlight so we can be seen and recognized and liked, it also compromises (either by dumbing down or distracting us from) sacred moments. It drags us out of the present and positions us in a mindset where we think about what we get out of parenting instead of what we can give.

Randi Hutter Epstein, MS, MD, MPH, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, believes social media has drastically changed the nature of pregnancy and motherhood, distracting us from the intimate moments that define parenting to begin with. “A midwife once told me she has to tell women not to worry about texting their friends during labor,” she says. “It’s a reflection of everything in our culture, that nothing is real until we post about it on social media. We’re losing this sense of intimacy, ruining moments that are cherishable because they aren’t shared.”

Still, as my Instagram account grows harrowingly dormant, I’ll surely find other unhealthy ways to quantify my value as a mom and a human — my freelance career, my weight, my bank account, anything that conveniently attaches a number to my identity.

But none of it satiates my hunger for approval or my desire to be seen. When we position ourselves at the center of the story, we might get a gold star, but the real economy of parenting is trading yourself, your whole, tired, broken self, for a reward that can’t be quantified. It’s choosing to love instead of be loved. It’s sowing seeds that might not blossom into something we can see for months or even years.

The problem with performative parenting isn’t social media. The problem isn’t even the internet. It’s about what happens when we numb ourselves to the abundant life that’s already right in front of us, asking for our attention. I’m no expert, but in my four years of trial and error, I’ve learned that motherhood isn’t about being seen, but about seeing: seeing needs so we can meet them, seeing barriers so we can overcome them, seeing beauty that, if we put down our phones and look closely enough, can forever alter us.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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