Four years ago, my husband Aaron died of brain cancer. That’s not the topic of this piece, but it was the impetus for everything that came afterward. When Aaron died, at age 35, I entered my own mid-life crisis. I quit my job, I published my first book, started freelance writing, and created a podcast with American Public Media. I cobbled together a career where I talk about very hard things. It’s a niche. And one that I’m learning to be proud of. A strange — often lovely, occasionally maddening — byproduct of my life at this moment is the online “presence” I now have as a result of the book and the podcast and everything that has come after. Instagram, particularly, has been a space where I’ve found comfort and support and encouragement while I navigate this new version of my life (Twitter is just where I argue with idiots).

My life has changed a lot since I joined Instagram in 2011, when my photos were all inane, overly-filtered brunches with Aaron. Now, Instagram is a place where people ask me about everything from how to support a grieving friend to what brand of lipstick I prefer, a place where I share my work in writing and podcasting, and connect with the people who listen to and read my writing. And then there’s the other stuff. Like when a stranger left an innocuous-seeming comment under my sponsored Instagram post in which I touted a heritage shoewear company based in my home state of Minnesota, a company I’ve loved for years, as have many, many humans over the past 100 years of their existence.

Hey Nora! Why are you doing ads now?

I think it’s pretty obvious why people do promoted posts on their social media feeds. Aside from working with brands that hopefully reflect your own personal values, you are earning money for your family. Or maybe, just to keep in a box under your bed, totally apart from your family, just for the security of knowing that at any time, you could take your box of money and make a run for it.

This question implies that money is at odds with my virtue, that it somehow cheapens me to be paid for work I do.

But I don’t think this person was asking about the motivation behind a promoted post. I don’t think she’s completely unaware that being an adult human with four children means a mortgage and daycare costs that would have made my 20-something-year-old self tie her tubes with her own bare hands. I don’t think she’s a person who operates above the sphere of material needs or wants, a person leading a monastic existence above the pull of such earthly desires. I’m pretty sure she’s a person with a job, and a child, and a husband who also has a job. I actually know this for a fact, because, yes, I clicked through her profile.

So what was she asking?

Why would I accept money in exchange for my ever-earnest enthusiasm for a product I genuinely like, that would align with the interests of my modest following?

It’s a head-scratcher for sure.

The post in question.

For years, the advertising model worked like this: Big companies would pay big ad agencies buckets of money to make big, expensive ads. For a while, I worked within this very model as a copywriter. Nobody asked me “Hey Nora! Why are you going to work today?”

I am not the first or the bajillionth person to point out that social media marketing and so-called “influencer marketing,” a phrase that makes me cringe, is a sea change. For all of its many, many problems (celebrities selling laxative teas and bizarro beauty standards to impressionable children, for one), what we often see in our feeds is women getting paid to do what they do anyway: Tell people about the things they like.

You know what work should entail? Money.

Now, I am not an influencer. I do not have a pristine kitchen of white marble, or a great camera to catch all my best angles. I have not worked to “build my following.” I don’t use hashtags for anything but keeping track of my kid photos (#stormtrooperluckycharm). And that’s not to knock on people who do that. Because guess what? Behind all those accounts you love to hate follow? The women who have honed their aesthetics and found their brand alignments? There’s work.

It’s work to take photos. It’s work to post them. It’s work to reply to comments and DMs about your lipstick, your shoes, your kids. It can be work you love, work you are lucky to have, and still be work. And you know what work should entail? Money.

Hey Nora. Why are you doing ads now?

I knew this question would come up. I was surprised it hadn’t already. Even though I’ve only worked with a handful of companies, ones whose products I personally used, and enjoyed, and could wholeheartedly promote. I knew it was coming, and I was prepared for it. I had plenty of responses tattooed in my brain for just this occasion.

The polite version:

“Hi! I carefully choose my partners to reflect my values, and take care not to post too many sponsored posts.”

The apologetically snarky version:

“Hi! I have four children, one of whom will be in college in a year! Daycare costs more than a year at the University of Minnesota! Our house needs new electrical!”

The sarcastic version:

“Hi! Why do you go to work?”

The question hung there, unanswered.

Hey Nora. Why are you doing ads now?

And it fucking bothered me.

This question implies that money is at odds with my virtue, that it somehow cheapens me to be paid for work I do. I know to some people, it does, and I’ve quieted that voice inside of myself by creating a standard: I truly do carefully consider every brand that I work with. I don’t blindly use copy points, I speak from my own experiences. I never work with any company that requires the use of my children’s images, but if for some reason a child of mine is included in a post, the money from it goes into their 529 account. The money from these posts helps me pay for a part-time employee, which frees up my time to run a non-profit that I don’t take a salary from, run a support group for young widows that I don’t get paid to run, and also…it is none of anybody’s business what the money does!

I worked in social media and copywriting in my previous life. The end product was basically the same, only I was in the middle of the funnel, ghostwriting for brands. I would never have felt defensive about it or felt the need to explain myself. Is it more virtuous, somehow, when the money comes from the top? Is it just that I should be spending more unpaid time, telling people what books to read and what lipstick I wear and where I find jeans long enough?

Hey Nora. Why are you doing ads now?

Whatever you call them — influencers or just human people with social media accounts — the people with sponsored content are often youngish women in that 25–45 age range. Which means it’s women who are being criticized for how they earn their money, by the exact same women who follow these accounts. Women who have seen not just sponsored posts, but in my case, posts about babies being born and a husband dying and adopting a stupid shih tzu who won’t stop peeing on my carpet. Women who have liked my rants about the pay gap and gender equity and intersectional feminism. The women who followed me through the death of my first husband also saw me fall in love again. They left joyful comments on my wedding photo. And that’s why this hurts. That’s why it sets off a Rube Goldberg machine of self-doubt to pain to anger. Because any woman who spends her life living and sharing earnestly also spends her life fearing she may be seen as frivolous or superficial, that her work will be invalidated. It’s just one comment. From one person. I know. And so many women, by the way, have totally understood the sponsored posts, and even stepped in to reply to that comment on my behalf. Still, it stings.

Hey Nora. Why are you doing ads now?

In the end, I didn’t reply at all. Because the question implies that I owe an explanation for supporting my family or for earning money. I don’t. And neither do you.