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There’s Kelly, the Ohio mom with flushed cheeks and country smocks, who darns her kids’ cottage aprons by hand. There’s Hannah, whose cherubic children milk cows in faded Carhartt dungarees. And then there’s Sarah, the Toronto mom who last Christmas dressed herself and her two-year-old in matching Santa Claus dresses.

Anyone who has spent any time on Instagram has likely come across these photos: Moms on Instagram, or “momfluencers,” whose feeds present an idealized image of motherhood that is at once creative, fulfilling and always, always aesthetically pleasing.

They’re the subject of author Sara Petersen’s new book, where she explains how momfluencers reflect our culture’s complicated and, yes, sometimes cruel ideas around motherhood. The title says it all: Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture.

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Sara Petersen, author of Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture.Winky Lewis/Handout

For Petersen, a New Hampshire-based writer whose work explores the issues of parenting and feminism, her own journey with momfluencers began about a decade ago after the birth of her second child. As she sat nursing in the middle of the night, Petersen found herself in a scroll-induced daze, seduced by the feeds of professional momfluencers whose lives seemed filled with colour, joy and happiness.

“These rosy depictions of motherhood felt so aspirational. I consciously wanted my motherhood to feel more fun, more joyful, more easy, more light,” she said.

Before long, the now-mother-of-three found herself following many of these momfluencers – women whose social-media followings were large enough to bring in sponsorships and brand deals, and often their own product lines, too.

Petersen wanted to better understand her own fixation with these momfluencers – why she found herself simultaneously enraged and enthralled by these women.

In tracing the history of momfluencers – beginning with the creation of Betty Crocker (a fictional character created by General Mills advertisers to sell baking products) she details a long list of brands that have used our deeply entrenched ideals around motherhood and domesticity to sell products.

With the rise of the internet came the mommy bloggers. A handful of them were successful enough to sport banner ads. But 2010 saw the launch of Instagram, a platform focused entirely on the visual. And with that came sponsored content, or “sponcon”: advertisements that were woven right into the photos – the social-media cousin of TV and film product placements. Advertisers spent an estimated US$16.4-billion on influencer marketing last year. Momfluencers became a huge category in this industry, capturing the giant wave of affluent millennial women entering their childbearing years.

The result on Instagram has been a millennial-mom aesthetic that’s instantly recognizable: If a millennial mom has a baby but nobody sees her home filled with wooden toys, nursery decorated in ochre and sage, or rust-coloured linen jumpsuits, is she even a millennial mom?

Petersen can rhyme off the long list of products she’s purchased because of Momstagram: A $460 Babaa sweater, Care/of vitamin packets, even her Simply White by Benjamin Moore-painted kitchen (the paint colour is an influencer favourite). She’s able to list off the names of the momfluencers who first introduced her to those products – and unravel the many layers of privilege at play (the most successful momfluencers are almost all white, thin, attractive, affluent and, as Petersen puts it, “very, very fertile”).

She can also unpack how she uses these cultural signifiers to project her chosen identity of a “cool, smart mom” (among the other archetypes available to her: “the Brooklyn mom,” “granola mom,” “wine mom” and even “rich mom”).

But most importantly, she highlights the deeper forces at play behind the purchases. She describes those exhausting, terrifying, utterly isolating first few months of motherhood – and the inevitable fear, anxiety and insecurity that comes with it.

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“Moms are set up to fail in so many ways,” she said. She pointed to the systemic barriers that face mothers around the world – for instance, the lack of paid maternity leave and the continuing stripping of reproductive rights in the U.S. This, despite the fact that our economic system depends on the unpaid labour of parents and, in large part, on moms.

“It makes sense that many of us enter into this completely ill-equipped to deal with this life transition – completely unsupported by larger systems – and are searching for an easier time,” she said.

Enter momfluencers, who provide an illusion, at least, that an easier life is possible.

“Sure, we could join a maternal activist group, or write to our senators,” said Petersen. “But sometimes, we’re burnt out and exhausted. And it feels a lot easier to just click ‘purchase now’ on whatever a momfluencer is selling us.”

For this same reason, she hates – hates Mother’s Day.

“It really feels insulting at this point,” she said. “Don’t give us an empty holiday and give us almost nothing else.”

Still, Petersen’s feelings about momfluencers are complicated. The industry has in recent years become more diverse, she said, with influencers who reflect a broader range of experiences including those who represent Black, racialized, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. Others too are creating content and communities that she finds genuinely informative and engaging.

Just this week, after news of the suicide death of one of the earliest mom bloggers and influencers, Heather Armstrong, aka “Dooce” – known for her stark discussions about depression and alcoholism – Petersen responded with sadness. “Dooce’s frank, vulnerable writing [was] critical to ushering conversations about maternal mental health and general struggles faced by moms in mainstream discourse,” she wrote.

Petersen also recognizes the deep-rooted misogyny at play when momfluencers are denigrated altogether. It is, after all, a multibillion-dollar industry that’s driven almost entirely by women. And the momfluencers themselves are women who have built oftentimes extremely successful businesses with nothing but a laptop and an iPhone – even if they’re businesses built on perpetuating an impossible ideal for others.

But, Petersen said, because they’re women, and writing about motherhood, that work is treated as unserious, or frivolous. It’s a frustration she feels with her own work as a writer, whose work has focused on feminism and motherhood.

“It’s totally become a pejorative term – anytime you tack ‘Mom’ or ‘Mommy’ onto anything,” she said. “Which is absurd because I can’t think of anything more serious to write about than raising a human in the world.”

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