On a quiet and cold January night not long after Christmas, I sat on the couch in my house just outside of Salt Lake City and surveyed my domestic kingdom.
My kitchen island was piled high with unopened mail, books I’d been meaning to read and hospital baby supplies I’d never fully unpacked. Stacked on the dining table were clean diapers and wipes, which partially covered a mound of photos I’d wanted to organize for weeks.
Every day, I thought about vacuuming. Every day, I got caught up doing a hundred other things.
That night, I was too tired to even think about cleaning. I picked up my phone and, as I’d done dozens of times already that day, opened the Instagram app, noticing that one of the influencers I followed to try to figure out this new thing called motherhood had posted new videos. It still sort of amazed me that, just by opening my phone, I could watch someone who had figured out how to be a domestic goddess, the perfect mom.
“See? I told you things aren’t always so clean around here,” she said into her phone’s camera, gesturing at the laptop and shopping bag sitting on her grand kitchen island, much bigger than mine. In the background, a few baby bottles sat in her otherwise spotless sink.
I blinked, waiting for her to laugh and let us know she was in on the joke. But the Instagram story ended and I looked up from my phone, suddenly aware that her idea of being related and flawed was making me feel ridiculous and defective. Yes, it was possible to feel even worse about how messy my house had become.
I should have known better, but that moment, so common to today’s moms, was a turning point for me. Going into motherhood, I had vowed not to hold myself to other people’s standards. I read baby books and parenting blogs but reminded myself that my experience of motherhood was going to be unique to me.
Online, though, my guard was down, and photos and videos shared by lifestyle bloggers with kids regularly brought me to my knees. There must be something wrong, I thought, if I could barely handle a life they made look so easy.
I spent hours on Instagram each week even before I got pregnant, but motherhood gave my scrolling new purpose. I hunted for baby product reviews and tips on sleep, perking up when influencers modeled outfits that “would work for nursing mamas, too.”
Being pregnant during a pandemic is lonely, so I felt lucky that a few of the relatively famous women I follow happened to be expecting at the same time. My mom and husband got used to me talking about these famous super moms like old friends. “Lauren is a week past her due date and has to be induced,” I said. “And did I tell you Ashley is pregnant? I knew something had to be up when she stopped talking about wine.”
When my son arrived in late August, healthy and chubby and the spitting image of his dad, Instagram continued to be my favorite social media site. I’d scroll through photos and videos during late-night feedings, careful to turn my phone’s volume down so the baby could sleep through perky speeches about workout routines or hair ties.
The content I consumed, the countless hours of clothing try-ons and cooking tips, was a welcome distraction during a chaotic time. Like many first-time parents, I rarely slept more than three hours in a row and spent my waking hours worrying about whether I was a good mom. I felt like I was drowning in dirty diapers and burp rags.
Instagram reminded me of the world beyond my increasingly messy house. The influencers I followed were dedicated moms who still had time to work on their own projects, go shopping and try new skincare products. Someday, I hoped I would, too.
One day when my son was about 6 weeks old, I called my mom, a lifelong Midwesterner with a low tolerance for hysteria, and started crying. “He’s not supposed to be awake this long,” I said. “He’s not doing what the book says.”
The book I was referring to was “What to Expect the First Year,” a collection of advice on raising a baby from birth to age 1. I had come to think of it as a kind of sacred text, since, in the absence of many friends with kids, I had nowhere else to turn.
“What to Expect the First Year,” like the more famous “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” includes a series of chapters on individual months. Each one outlines how much your baby will likely eat, play and sleep at a given age. Each one also warns you about what can go wrong.
As my mom noted during the call, the book describes an average baby, not the real-life newborn sleeping next to me on a leopard-printed pillow. “You have to leave room for him to do his own thing,” she said. And so I tried to divorce my expectations from what the parenting bible described.
It didn’t happen overnight, but my mom’s advice gradually transformed my relationship with my son. I started to trust my instincts and view with suspicion anyone who tried to tell me exactly how newborn parenting should go.
Over time, I became a sort of evangelist for a more laid-back approach to motherhood, using Instagram to encourage other new moms to do their own thing. I started openly talking about my son’s worst nap days and awkward interactions with our dogs. I teased myself for failing to lose my baby weight.
Now, instead of telling my husband about Instagram influencers’ family milestones, I collected stories of them ignoring expert advice. I loved their posts about giving up on sleep training and struggling with doctor’s visits, taking the images they shared of smiling infants as proof my son would turn out OK.
The most successful Instagram influencers, the ones with hundreds of thousands of followers and dozens of marketing deals, know how to strike a balance between being approachable and enviable. They don’t want their lives to seem perfect, but they also don’t want you to know about the weak spots in their marriage or the time their baby cried through a work call.
Even knowing this, I struggled to keep social media posts featuring beautiful, happy babies and fashionable, young parents in perspective. I had learned to question the baby book’s description of life as a new mom, but not the idealized image of motherhood that Instagram presented to me.
Things came to a head around the time I watched that video of a mostly clean countertop. I began to see that a lot of the shame and anger I carried over my dusty bookshelves, my husband’s long work days and my son’s bad naps stemmed from what I was seeing — and not seeing — online.
And so, just as I set “What to Expect” aside after talking to my mom, I decided to drastically reduce my Instagram use. I now log on only one day a week, and I’ve unfollowed some of the moms causing me the most grief. The Instagram influencers don’t feel like friends anymore. They’re just sources of gift ideas and styling tips.
To be honest, I’m embarrassed I had to take such drastic steps, but also thankful I figured out what was causing me pain. Now, when my son or husband is driving me crazy, there’s no image in my head of how perfect things could be. Instead, my mind calls up my own flawed but precious moments, and I feel grateful for the real life I get to lead.