I recently overheard a conversation between some older women about photographs taken early in motherhood. Several expressed regret that they didn’t have more pictures from that time, even though they weren’t, they said, looking “their best”. One woman lamented how she destroyed the photographs of her holding her new baby because she hated her appearance, and said she profoundly regrets this now. It made me sad, speaking as it did to the fact that women feel subject to the external, scrutinising gaze of others, even at such momentous events in our lives.
At least these photos were usually only shared with friends and family; now images like these have a potential audience of millions. I can’t imagine anything more exposing than putting such intimate photographs online, but the perfect postpartum photo has become as fetishised on social media as the perfect “golden hour” between mother and baby (meaning skin to skin contact immediately after the birth) is idealised.
Social media has transformed the way my generation views parenthood, just as women’s magazines and TV advertising did for older generations. “Momfluencer” Instagram accounts – most of them run by white, slim, attractive women with immaculate houses and perfectly dressed children – are in your feed even if you don’t follow them. In many ways they hark back to the 1950s, projecting an image of domestic contentment, where mothers and daughters dress the same (called “twinning”) and, having dispensed with work outside the home, embody a “trad wife” aesthetic (internet trend speak for “traditional wife”).
Other posts instruct you to breastfeed at all cost, promise you the secret to postpartum weight loss, or tell you they can solve your babies’ sleep problems. (I set my age to 112, so for a long time the ads I got were for wills and hair dye, but the algorithm seems to have sussed it, either believing me to be a miracle of modern science, or an unusually engaged great-grandparent.)
Other mothers tell me that Instagram has been incredibly destructive to their mental health, and in some cases their physical health. Some hypnobirthing influencers scaremonger about medical intervention to the point where women are refusing the care they need (the same influencers were cited again and again as examples of irresponsible, unscientific, unmedicated birth lobbying). One woman tells me she became obsessed with “wake windows”, an unscientific, rigid approach to baby sleep that is popular on social media, and spent hundreds of pounds on sleep courses. Another tells me “milestones” became a preoccupation, and she would lie in bed at night comparing her child’s motor skills with others’. Fitness is another area rife with toxicity, from babies being used as dumbbells during couples’ workouts ( “I feel guilty, ashamed of the fourth biscuit and ultimately flick Instagram off in a huff – resolved to be a spherical unfit mess for the foreseeable,” one mother, Jen Mitchell, tells me), to “bleak” captions about strengthening babies’ abdominal muscles.
Another woman tells me she takes issue with the ubiquitous phrase #makingmemories, and how it “calls into question all the parents who are screaming into pillows or, like me, vaping in the locked toilet at 10am just for five minutes of alone time”. The hashtag seems to demand that mothers enjoy this precious time. The same woman tells me that a friend with postnatal depression once spent all night scrolling through motherhood-related posts, “wishing she had that life, the life where your house was clean and your baby slept. I couldn’t believe what she was saying, how could she believe that that was all real?”
As well as carrying the weight of a baby, any mother with a smartphone carries with her a portal into the #blessed lives of others, which serves to highlight – especially in a cost of living crisis where parents are struggling to feed their children – what we do not have. It can be so hard to remember that it’s all fake, that we never see the photographs of the cupboard full of junk or the child reprimanded for sticky fingers. The bottle of formula and the antidepressants in the nightstand remain hidden; no one is recording the hours of hair and makeup, the lack of spontaneous joy in a life consisting of curated “moments”.
My own mother boggles at the sheer amount of information available to us now, in contrast to her era, where you usually had a few secondhand books, at least one of which would end up thrown across the room. How are you supposed to learn to trust your own instincts, she wonders, when you are surrounded by so many opinions?
Of course, social media can provide crucial support, as in the case of groups for those who have experienced baby loss, or accounts that document parenting children with special educational needs. One woman tells me how Instagram helped her identify her postnatal anxiety, when midwives and health visitors spoke only of postnatal depression. Lots love @biglittlefeelings for toddler behaviour tips, the nurse and lactation consultant Lyndsey Hookway, the author Sydney Piercey, and the nutrition and weaning expert Charlotte Stirling-Reed. Many women tell me they’ve unfollowed some accounts, or deleted the app altogether. A useful question to ask is: “Does this make me feel better, or worse?” If the answer is worse, unfollow or uninstall.
Earlier this year, a New Yorker article looked at the phenomenon of the “hidden mother” in photographs, from women in the Victorian era covering their faces with fabric to appear inconspicuous in infant portraits, to the modern phenomenon of the mother always being the one behind the camera, absent from the visual narrative of family life, because nobody takes her photo, or she fears she will look ugly. You could argue that “momfluencers” are taking control of the way motherhood is represented, but that doesn’t take into account how backwards the iconography of so many of these images are. Weren’t we supposed to resist becoming the angel in the house, rather than smugly show off the wings we’ve been #gifted?
And then, at the risk of sounding hand-wringing, what of the children whose entire lives are documented without consent? Whose parents spend hours posing, editing, uploading, monitoring responses? What will be the mental health impact of making a child a “public figure” from the moment they are born? The first “Mommie Dearest” memoir for the Instagram era cannot be far off.
The baby loves the sensory toy Captain Calamari, a multicoloured octopus designed by developmental experts, to the point that he’ll instantly stop crying when it’s placed in his field of vision. It’s one of the best “new baby” presents we received, and it’s really coming into its own now he’s four months old.
I have officially had cabin fever. Leaving the house is still a struggle, as the baby now hates his bassinet and wants to look around, but is too small for a pushchair. I find myself praying for cloudy days, so at least we can have the shade down and he can look at the leaves on the trees.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]