Judging Parents Online Is a National Sport

Being a parent online is constantly accused of false advertising. We make parenting sound “so bloody awful,” “messy, boring, nightmarishly life-destroying,” like it “changes everything, mostly for the worse.” Or do we make it look “so easy,” “aesthetically pleasing,” and “effortlessly beautiful,” “a miles away from what motherhood looks like to many of us”? People don’t seem to agree on whether it’s our heartbreaking grievances or our fake cheers that dominate the discourse. According to some reports, current discussions about the difficulties of motherhood are a throwback to a time when it was idealized. Others say the “mommy internet” used to be a place for moms to be “raw and authentic”; only recently has it been overrun with “staged, curated photos that don’t show the messier part of life.” Either way, it’s irresponsible. What real mother could match a “vision of maternal perfection”? Who would choose to have children in an atmosphere that insists parenting is so bleak?

I don’t find any of the arguments particularly convincing. Whether you think the internet is overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative about parenting probably says more about the type of content you notice than what’s actually out there. It’s the digital equivalent of buying a Honda Civic and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. If you’re serious about having kids, the internet seems to be awash with horror stories about exhaustion and dangerous bodily fluids. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by parenting, logging in is all an ode to the beauty of parenting. Both streams of criticism raise a similar charge: that something is wrong with the way parenting is portrayed online and is distressing people in real life. These critics usually accuse parents not of lying but of omission. It’s okay to share the ups and downs, but we really should show the other side. The mounds of dirty dishes should be offset by the baby’s giggling and blowing kisses, and vice versa. It’s a plea for authenticity. If parents would simply commit to providing more realistic portraits of the parenting experience online, then we wouldn’t feel so bad scrolling past them.

I can’t quite imagine how people would prefer it when I feel for my kids. Sharing either joy or struggle means not just judging, but accusing me of somehow making it harder for everyone else to become a parent. As far as I can tell, parents should convey that they are happy but no happier than everyone else, and also unhappy but not so unhappy that they seem ungrateful for their bundles of joy. I obviously agree that lying is not good, and I also think that there is a real temptation to generalize about one’s parenting experience that should be kept in check. But parents are not responsible for giving strangers an authentic account of their lives online, and even if they did, it wouldn’t stop the endless cycle of content that insists parents are wrong to be online. Parenting is daunting and deeply personal; it naturally fuels people’s insecurity. We can’t post ourselves there.

There’s no way we can bridge the gap between the reality of parenting and what it looks like online. We all share fragments of our lives that do little to illustrate what it’s actually like to live it. And parents share for different reasons. Some reap #parentallife for a laugh; others for beauty. Some seek compassion or understanding. For me, social media is sort of a scrapbook that I use to keep in touch with people I’ll probably never call. On Instagram, I share articles I’ve written and occasionally pictures of my kids. On Twitter you’ll find snippets of fun conversations I’ve had with my kids, or the occasional reflection on the weirdness of raising someone. If any of my followers on either platform are frustrated that I don’t seem to provide a compelling portrayal of motherhood, my suggestion is to stop looking there. You’d be just as lucky trying to figure out the reality of motherhood from a holiday card. You can find my more in-depth thoughts on parenting in my articles, but even when taken together, everything I’ve shared publicly about my life as a parent leaves out a lot.

In the quest for authenticity on the Internet, we have begun to pathologize reasonable discretion. No one would accuse you of cleaning your countertops before inviting guests into your home, but doing so before live streaming hundreds of thousands of people online is tantamount to lying. Even so-called momfluencers, who make their living talking about motherhood online, aren’t getting along on this point. I have no doubt that many vouch for products they don’t actually use. Some of them spread misinformation or disturbing political views. But many of the complaints leveled against momfluencers relate to pretty reasonable things. Their houses are always clean; Her kids are always cute and well-behaved in her videos. They tend to talk about the difficult parts of their lives after those issues are resolved. None of this strikes me as particularly devastating. Showing everyone your dirty laundry isn’t a requirement for selling leggings to postpartum moms.

Certainly, some evidence suggests that exposure to maternity content on social media can have a range of harmful effects. (Even in research reports, it seems that what mothers post is often more scrutinized than what fathers do). But the relationship is not as easy as you might expect. One study found that for moms who are prone to social comparison, pretty much any type of parenting Instagram content makes them feel bad. The same study showed that posts can have positive and negative effects at the same time. For example, mothers found profiles sharing practical information about parenting and child development most helpful, but these reports also resulted in mothers feeling shame about their own parenting skills more reliably than momfluencers. The same online content can also affect different people in different ways. People who tend to compare themselves to others feel worse after seeing positive content; those without this tendency feel better. For moms, more regular interaction with momfluencers on Instagram is associated with lower feelings of self-efficacy; for women who are pregnant for the first time, it is associated with higher self-efficacy. In other words, how a particular post makes you feel has a lot to do with you.

No amount of transparency and authenticity can save us from the pitfalls of comparison, which don’t come from social media – they come from the diversity and uncertainty of human experience. We are all different people raising different children in different circumstances and on different schedules. What is comforting to one is frightening to another and annoying to another.

Take my youngest daughter Jane. To call her a “good sleeper” would be an understatement. We never had to do any shape sleep training for her. Cradle, bassinet, swaddle, no swaddle—it didn’t matter; This kid slept anywhere, for hours at a time. Our bedtime routine was to drop her into her crib and walk away. If you’re expecting your first child, this information can be reassuring, a welcome invitation to hope that maybe parenting won’t be so difficult after all. If you currently have a baby who sleeps at 45-minute intervals only after an hour of desperate persuasion, she’s probably angry. Now consider the fact that when I quit my job after Jane was born, I fell into a depression that took me years and many failed attempts to crawl out of. At my lowest point, I was convinced that I just wasn’t cut out for parenthood, and if someone had offered me a way to undo it, I would have been tempted to take it. For a nervous prospective parent, this information can be petrifying; For a stay-at-home mom who’s genuinely enjoying her life and tired of people feeling sorry for her for it, this information can be frustrating. But for the mother of two children under three I shared this with, as she recently confessed similar feelings to me, this knowledge offered some comfort at a difficult time.

It’s actually quite a challenge to share your experiences as a parent in a useful way. Even in offline life, people screw this up all the time. I still don’t understand why, when I mentioned towards the end of each of my pregnancies that I wouldn’t turn a blind eye, people so often come up with a version of, “Well, sleep as much as you can because you won’t be sleeping when the baby is born.” is coming.” How helpful is this information to me, a person who has just said they can’t sleep? And you can’t stock up on sleep like frozen lasagna anyway. But the futility of their advice doesn’t make what they were trying to tell me any less true. Realistic – authentic – new parents often get very little sleep!

This type of mismatch between information and the person receiving it is a danger when posting content on a public forum. There is no way for people to share their child-rearing experiences online in a way that ensures that all future parents are duly warned but not discouraged, that every struggling or successful parent has their life reflected back to them that validates everyone’s choices and feared be reassured. As long as we’re churning out unrealistic expectations of American parenthood, it’s certainly part of keeping every Tweet and TikTok up to such a standard.

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