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Motherhood in the Age of the Crunchy Instagram Mama

A few weeks before I gave birth to my first son, I came across an online quiz entitled “What Percent Crunchy Mama Are You?” Though I was not yet an actual parent, I held some presumptuous ideals about parenting au naturel, much of which I had drawn from the legion of manic-pixie wellness mamas I followed on Instagram. So I was sure I could win this test — and I would make sure I won this test, lest Ricki Lake find me out and feature my sad story in her next alarmist documentary on natural childbirth. Imagine my horror, then, when I failed the test with a deplorable 60 percent crunchy. More than failing a stupid online test, I felt like I was about to fail motherhood.

To me, being a crunchy mama meant a lot of things. It meant living in a midcentury home with unrealistically bright white walls and being slender and owning a 40 percent linen capsule wardrobe. It meant breastfeeding longer than my friends and pureeing my own baby food and never, ever letting my kid cry it out, even at the expense of my own sleep (and sanity). It meant calling my children names derived from obscure Norwegian villages and reading them borderline-creepy fairy tales from vintage, clothbound books. But mostly, natural parenting meant keeping my child safe. It meant loving him. It meant being good. And I, like every other new mom on the planet, wanted nothing more than to be a good at motherhood. This was the big, ugly lie the internet fed me: that natural parenting is the only pure way to love your kids.

Like much of the lifestyle content we consume, the crunchy mama gospel was intentionally cooked up and plated to appeal to an audience hungry for authenticity, meaning, and connection. Influencers influence for a reason, whether they’re selling a more inconspicuous message about how to parent through #sponsored posts or peddling an actual product (anybody need an essential oils starter kit?). And that’s good news for emotionally vulnerable consumers like me, because natural wellness influencers have a remedy (coupled with a very pretty picture) for just about everything. Sick kid? Try elderberry syrup and some silver hydrosol. Plugged breast duct? Put a potato in your bra (but seriously). Baby won’t sleep in his crib? Just co-sleep! Yeast infection? Yogurt in your underwear, stat. Everything else? Bone broth. Coconut oil. Repeat.

These types of quick answers to complex and nuanced problems were exactly what I was desperately looking for as a new mom. Because my mom died years before I got pregnant and I was one of the first of my friends to have kids, I ventured into my own motherhood completely clueless about how to be pregnant, how to give birth, how to take care of a human who depended on me completely for survival. So I attempted to ride on the coattails of a community who appeared to have their shit together. As a result, sometimes mindful of it and sometimes not, I downed my daily dose of crunchy prenatal content (many thanks to the Great Algorithm in the Sky for curating!) and, on a deeper level, frantically tried to numb out the confusion and pain I felt as I prepared for the mystery of motherhood.

One particular crunchy mama influencer I followed at the time (who has since ascended to hundreds of thousands of followers and a book deal) frequently posted on Instagram about attachment parenting, framing her approach with poetic words and empathy and compassion (not to mention a very well-dressed infant). The baby was always on her hip (or her breast), even as she scrubbed the bathroom or boiled pine needles for some type of magic, wintry concoction. She didn’t let her kids watch TV or partake in other modern indulgences; instead, she homeschooled them in her dining room and fed them maple-sap scones. It was beautiful. And I thought it was what I wanted. But when I actually had my son, the work of keeping him alive plus keeping myself sane (spoiler alert: not that easy) caused me to make decisions I felt terrible about, like letting him cry himself to sleep or co-parenting with the TV for hours (and I mean actual hours) on end. Suffice it to say, there were no pine needles atop my stove.

This influencer’s “perfect” parenting was both wildly appealing and fear-inducing, and a big part of why I was so desperate to pass that “Crunchy Mama” quiz. It gave me a standard to which I could measure up, and it provided me with talking points to make me feel powerful and prepared in conversations with other moms.

Do you wear your baby? Well, my unborn child is currently housed in my uterus, so I guess you could look at it that way? Do you find yourself slathering coconut oil all over your offspring several times a day? I mean, I did the Whole30 last year, so I must have a jar around here somewhere? Do you vaccinate? I know this one!!! No!!! Vaccines are the devil’s tears! Do you use cloth diapers? No. That’s gross. And expensive. Have you put breast milk up your baby’s nose? Uh, this is getting weird.

Hard as I tried to convince myself I had found my niche, I failed the test miserably and, more broadly, failed my own expectations. I never did end up self-actualizing into a linen-clad goddess. I didn’t have the natural birth on which I had practically hinged my entire identity as a mom. I hardly survived breastfeeding, and I exposed my son (whom I dressed in fleece footie pajamas from the mall, by the way) to screen time and processed foods much earlier than planned. I fed him medicine and saved my reservoir of coconut oil for my own face (it’s the best moisturizer out there, TBQH). And the worst part is, some days I didn’t — and still don’t — even enjoy parenting.

In fact, I had set my expectations so high that they became unattainable and made my ideals so romantic that they were unsustainable. There was no way for me to win the crunchy mama test. Because just as much as the wellness movement gave me a tangible way to overcome my fear (I’ll buy out Whole Foods’ entire stock of unrefined coconut oil if it means I’ll be a good mom!), in the end, it also fed my fear (There’s no way I’ll measure up to the girl who had her babies in an enchanted forest!).

In the 2016 movie Ingrid Goes West, a brilliant (and startlingly realistic) caricature of Instagram culture, the title character, Ingrid, becomes obsessed with an influencer by the name of Taylor Sloane. After her mom dies and her life falls apart, Ingrid moves to California with the intent of finding, befriending, and ultimately, becoming exactly like her Instagram muse. The two are nothing alike, but Taylor has something Ingrid desperately wants: a well-curated, colorful, seemingly happy life. Things don’t end well for Ingrid, who, after following her fears all the way across the country, discovers she’s just as insecure and neurotic as she was in the beginning.

Like Ingrid found (to her own detriment), we live in a time when the line between branding oneself and seeking genuine connection with others through shared interests is, to say the least, blurry. And so much of parenting, I have discovered, is choosing which voices to listen to and which to tune out.

There’s always a message being broadcast about how to do things, and more often than not, it’s overwhelmingly binary. Do this or do that. Be this way or be that way. It’s only natural to buy into a message that meets a need we have — and if we’re secure in our identities, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But to opt into a movement (or product) out of fear instead of excitement or hope always has a cost. It means giving a fabricated version of ourselves to our children. It means failing all of our own tests. To let ourselves be led by fear, whether across the country or through an Instagram feed, means missing out on the power and precision of our own internal compasses. Who knows where they’d lead us if we let them? I’d bet money that mine would pass by the Whole Foods and take me somewhere much more fun.

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

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