The 'eternally fascinating' world of momfluencers: MLMs, mental health and the performance of motherhood

Meet the author of "Momfluenced."

Momfluenced author Sara Petersen breaks down the ways in which social media has changed how moms
Momfluenced author Sara Petersen breaks down the ways in which social media has changed how moms "perform" parenting for a large audience. (Photo: Beacon Press)

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Moms who have found themselves in a 10 p.m. rabbit hole of some momfluencer's feed — the relatable Instagram Reels, the sponsored product recs, the adorable children in matching outfits — may spare a thought for Sara Petersen. As research for her new book, Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture, she spent years keeping tabs on the mothers who document their family life for the world's consumption, from "trad wives" espousing the virtues of sourdough starters and country living, to the (seemingly) effortlessly chic tastemakers who might recommend a BPA-free baby bento box in one breath and a luxury eye cream in the next.

With her book now out in stores, Petersen has been able to reclaim her feed, though she'll still check in on certain momfluencers "for research purposes." Some of them, she notes, remain "eternally fascinating." But why?

"I think we all follow mom influencers because we are either subconsciously or consciously searching for a version of motherhood that doesn't feel as confounding and as impossible as it is in the U.S." Petersen, herself a mother of three, tells Yahoo Life. "And I don't really think that version of motherhood exists anywhere, but I think because mothers, particularly in the U.S., are so disenfranchised and so woefully unsupported that it's totally natural that we will be searching and longing for a better way to inhabit this really, really heavy role of motherhood."

Ahead, Petersen — who also reflects on the demands of modern motherhood in her In Pursuit of Clean Countertops newsletter — shares her insights on the rise of momfluencer culture, and its limits.

Momfluenced comes out April 25. (Photo: Beacon Press)
Momfluenced comes out April 25. (Photo: Beacon Press)

The power of vulnerability

The pandemic "ushered in an era of sort of unvarnished truth-telling," Petersen says, particularly for moms who bore the brunt of childcare, remote learning and so many other to-dos key to domestic life. "I think a lot of us got really tired of sugarcoated, highly filtered versions of motherhood simply because most of us were not living that in our day-to-day lives."

That's paved the way for broader conversations about mental health and a general sense of not-being-OK — so much so that being "real" can be as potent as being aspirational for many content creators, including momfluencers. According to Petersen, vulnerability — detailing struggles with the postpartum period or body shaming in a post's caption, filming a video while crying — helps influencers strengthen the "parasocial power" they hold over followers by becoming more relatable or empathetic.

"If we only see pretty pictures, there's really no entry point," she says. "There's no way for consumers to say like, 'I really lust after her kitchen,' or 'I aspire to have her hair someday, but I don't see myself in her' if there's no sharing of the struggles. If there's no 'I know my life looks perfect, but it's not,' or 'I go through X, Y and Z just like everybody else does,' then we are much less likely to click on links. ... I really think vulnerability and some level of interpersonal sharing is necessary to make influencers' accounts more financially viable."

The performance of motherhood

Some of the momfluencers interviewed in Petersen's book said each seamless TikTok or sponsored Reel involves a rigorous filming and editing schedule that revolves around a child's sleep schedule or temperament. But the end product rarely shows the struggle behind the scenes, something Petersen refers to as the collapsing of work and motherhood.

While Petersen acknowledges that there are momfluencers who are using their platforms to raise awareness about the "invisible labor of mothering and caregiving," much content glosses over the not-so-picturesque reality of spreadsheets, calls from school to pick up a sick kid or being late for work because a toddler refused to get in their car seat.

"The reason we see performances of motherhood versus the labor of mothering is because flattened versions of idealized motherhood are much easier to consume," Petersen says. "They're much more driven by imagery and assumptions that we have of what an ideal mother looks like, whereas the labor of mothering is inherently a private act for the most part."

That labor is "private and individual and ever-changing" — and hard to sell, she adds, because it's so specific to a time and a place and a person.

"The flattened imagery of idealized motherhood is really brandable and shareable and monetizable," she says. "I think that's the primary difference. And I also think that you can't really mother for an audience; you really can't do it. Whereas you can perform motherhood for an audience pretty easily because we live in a culture that has really entrenched notions of what quote-unquote 'good motherhood' looks and feels like."

The MLM connection

Flexible hours, remote work, the prospect of mom supporting her family on her own terms ... the perceived benefits of momfluencer life have a lot of overlap with those of MLMs [multi-level marketing]. For women who crave outside work but need flexibility that typical work environments won't allow, both opportunities dangle the dream of being a "girlboss" just by doing things one already enjoys.

"I totally think mothers are attracted to both MLMs and momfluencing for very similar reasons because they're sold on the premise of flexibility," Petersen says. "They're sold on the premise that you don't have to give anything up. You know, you can still be with your kids and be fulfilled creatively and professionally. But I don't think it's true with either momfluencing or MLMs."

Much has been made of the financial debts many MLM-ers have found themselves in as they purchase inventory (leggings, lipsticks, essential oils) they can't sell. Similarly, Petersen cites Brooke Erin Duffy and her book on "aspirational labor," (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, which found that only 9% of style influencers "made enough to live on." The numbers, Petersen says, are "sobering."

"Only the top, top, top, top tier of momfluencers are earning enough money to support their families with this work," Peterson says. She recalls one momfluencer with around 100,000 followers telling her that "maybe, maybe, maybe if she poured all of her time and energy in ... she could make $20,000 a year."

That MLMs and momfluencers are appealing career paths for so many women, she adds, is "an indictment on how workplaces are not friendly to caregivers or mothers and do not allow for flexibility. They don't welcome a mother in as her whole self. They ask her constantly to leave parts of herself at the door and it's really, really difficult and challenging. So it makes sense that people are drawn to anything that promises a more livable, sustainable way of life."

Following mindfully

Modern-day parenting typically means having an Instagram feed populated with potty training consultants, sleep trainers and myriad other experts and, yes, momfluencers. Petersen says it's "awesome" that "there are really, really reliable, credentialed experts on there that you can turn to for very specific needs."

But having access to so much advice can also become "bewildering and overwhelming for moms," she warns, "because there's such an influx of 'do this this way' where there wasn't before." Social media — and, indeed, the internet — has changed how parents, well, parent.

"You could buy whatever parenting book that generation was using and talk to your mom, your friends or your family members," Petersen says. "The amount of intake we were receiving 20, 30 years ago was far less than it is now. I think it's just so many voices and so much noise telling mothers how to be and how to and what to do. And it's in our pockets all the time, so it's hard."

It's important to listen to one's "own voice," something she admits she has herself struggled with, and to know when to step back from online influences.

"I think social media can be great for finding resources and help, especially when you're experiencing something that feels very niche and that nobody in your friend group or your community has gone through," Petersen says. "You can find somebody that's gone through it online, so I think that's really validating and could be a really useful way of building community that again, was not accessible. But just always check in with your own clock and your own sort of maternal identity and make sure you're not getting lost in the noise."

Momfluencer, myself

In Momfluenced, Petersen shares a source's observation likening Instagram to a modern-day photo album. "I'm a mother on Instagram. I'm a mom influencer," Petersen writes of her own tendency to post pictures of her kids online. So, how does one parse the casual posting of family photos from actual momfluencing?

"It's tricky because we are impacted by the air we breathe, whether or not we're hyper-aware of that," says Petersen. "So like even the way we choose to share photos of our children — in a private account with only IRL [in real life] friends and family viewing those photos — the way we're sharing and what we're sharing is impacted by what we're consuming."

She points to the popularity of families having professional photos taken for holiday cards.

"I interviewed [writer and academic] Kathryn Jezer-Morton about this, and she was like, 'yeah, that wasn't a thing like 10 years ago,'" she says. "So many of these trends ... are influenced by the influencers we're consuming online. And so even if we have private accounts that are only followed by friends and family, we are making these little mini calculations about what to share and why and what it might be communicating about us as mothers. Even if we're performing for teeny-tiny audiences, I do think it's impossible to participate in social media without some level of performance

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