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With their sepia-toned images of babies bathing in buckets, based on "the best mothers in literature," these women eschew modern life — online.

By Sara Petersen
Mar 25, 2021 @ 12:00 pm
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Sentimentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Courtesy Jamie Beck

On any given day, Bridget Park — or @deercircus as she's known to her 18,000 followers — is pictured on Instagram with a wicker basket full of petal- and ochre-colored laundry propped against her hip, while she cradles her pregnant belly, which is covered by a gauzy, floor-skimming, white dress. The sun streams through similarly diaphanous white curtains in a room painted white featuring a simple wooden table covered by a white cloth. Also in the frame is an ecru macrame wall hanging and a vintage brass frame showcasing dried flowers. This image of a beautiful mother in her beautiful domestic paradise is timeless; it could be plucked from yesterday, 1921, or 1821. And it's just one example of the many moms on Instagram with an aesthetic centered on nostalgia for a 'simpler time.' Some of the most popular of these momfluencers have upwards of 200k followers, and while most of them avoid traditional spon-con (some do sell organic cloth diapers or linen baby slings) they're selling their brand of motherhood itself, a millennial pink reboot of the Victorian angel of the house. 

And why not? Scarcely a day goes by without a reminder that moms are not OK right now. Think pieces on the plight of the American mother abound. As they should. But amid all the impossible juggling of responsibilities and pandemic loneliness, why shouldn't we celebrate the small moments of motherhood that are indeed beautiful, worth savoring? This new batch of influencers softens the edges of the hard present by presenting their lives through the gentler lens of nostalgia.

Bethany Thomas is one mother who seems, if not weary, at least critical of the pervasive narrative that motherhood is mostly something to complain about. Thomas is an herbalist and photographer in the suburbs of Chicago, and endured years of infertility before finally achieving her long-held dream of becoming a mom. She told me via email she thinks her early struggles color her current perception of motherhood. "It truly is a gift, even on the hardest of days." Her feed features sunset-lit daisies and rosy-cheeked toddlers in the snow. 

Sentimentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Bethany Thomas/@the.song.sparrow

"I love simple things," Thomas says, "Flowers, natural materials, baking, crafting, photography, etc. I'm passionate about the culture of the home and family, and that largely drives what I share."

Perhaps in response to the widespread coverage of moms' crushing overwhelm during the past year, Thomas says she sees an increase in mothers "trying to find meaning and beauty in motherhood." She thinks the idea that "motherhood can be beautiful, and not just hard work is largely stripped from society. [And] many moms in niche groups are longing to bring that back." She thinks that both on social media and IRL, "People are largely discontent with how their motherhood/family lives are looking. They want something else, but I don't know that everyone knows what that is." 

It's worth highlighting that in 1921 or 1821, mothers were similarly discontent with motherhood, but only a certain few could do anything about it. White upper-class women like Kate Chopin wrote about it, white upper-class women like Julia Ward Howe took to activism. Now, the demands of childcare, outside employment, and the responsibilities of life without the privileges of wealth and whiteness preclude many from having the time or space to ponder whether bringing "beauty and meaning" back to motherhood might improve their lives.

Hadas Knox is writing a historical fantasy novel set in 11th century Normandy and Ireland, and you can see how her interests impact her Instagram aesthetic. As with Thomas, her images show lots of candles, woodland scenes, and wistfulness. If one of the Brontes wandered into frame, I wouldn't be surprised. In one post, which features Knox reading a hardbound, vintage copy of Alice and Wonderland with her two small children nestled against her, she muses on the sounds of her sleeping children's breathing patterns: "Hers is quick and belly deep. His is slow, sweetened by dreams of the faeries and spirits we court each day." 

Sentamentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Courtesy Hadas Knox

Knox says she (and others) feel that modern life moves too fast. "We feel nostalgia for old, simpler ways of living ... more homemade, handmade, slowly savored. We can't stop the rise of technology and what many consider progress, but we can choose to live our own way. I think there's a lot of freedom to be found in nostalgia, celebrating a time when life was centered around family, nature, movement and authentic connection, when life felt more HUMAN in general. The idea that we can intentionally choose more of that is worth spreading."

There's certainly an argument to be made (and I'm far from the first to make it) that Instagram accounts uplifting maternal work as important and beautiful in its own right highlight mothers' agency; that such accounts celebrate the autonomy women have historically wrested for themselves in one of the only places (the home), and one of the only roles (as mothers) they could inhabit. And Knox's argument that there's freedom in carving out one's own way of living in spite of contemporary pressures seems like a thoughtful way to pay tribute to the mothers of the past who found power and purpose in domestic life.

But nostalgia is, by definition, a celebration of the way things used to be — and that often means glorifying past eras in which many people were systematically oppressed and excluded. "There is always a dark side to every era," Knox says. "If you go back less than 80 years ago, my ancestors were being persecuted in Eastern Europe for being Jewish. We can be aware of the flaws in an era and still appreciate what was good about it. This is not to undermine or erase the atrocities that were committed in each era and the gross inequality that continues to plague our world today."

I appreciate Knox's point — it would be reductive to avoid quilt-making or sourdough baking simply because they were born of an era that also endorsed systematic violence and oppression. But it's equally reductive to absorb images rooted in the past without interrogating what lurks in the background. Many accounts have the harmful ability to gaslight those of us who do not, for example, cherish every moment spent with our children, those of us who love our kids but still find enjoyment, fulfillment, and value in work spent away from those kids. I can't stop thinking about this caption, from Kelly Havens Stickle:

"We must rise early and begin our studies. We must study how to create the home atmosphere we long for. We must read homemaking books. We must study paintings from other eras that inspire us. We must study the best mothers in literature . . . We, like our husbands, must take our profession seriously. And maybe even more so, since it is hearts and not wood that we shape with our tools." The subtext of this entire quote, for me, is that good motherhood can only be defined by strict adherence to patriarchal gender roles. It operates, at its best, as inspiration for women who genuinely do find great purpose and autonomy within motherhood, and at its worst, as propaganda targeted toward any woman who doesn't give a shit about homemaking literature. 

Not all of these accounts are so dogmatic, or so bound by Christian values and gendered assumptions about parenting. Some are just pretty to look at! If you appreciate Renaissance paintings, for example, or French castles, French lavender, or anything doused with the magic of Provence, artist Jamie Beck has created your dream account. Beck's images are lush, saturated, and aching with romance. 

Beck tells me via email that her goal is to capture "the intangible beauty of childhood — the innocence, the love, the sweetness that is present in every child." So she takes pictures of moments we are bound to feel nostalgic for when our kids are grown, not the moments we will gladly leave in the past, like "sleepless nights and diaper changes." Beck argues that nostalgic motherhood as artistic inspiration is nothing new. "No matter where you go, now or over 100 years ago, say, looking at a Mary Cassatt painting, nostalgia will be present, for the universal love of a child is timeless. [Instagram] is a way to capture and share, same as a paintbrush and canvas." 

Sentimentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Courtesy Jamie Beck

Beck's images are clearly and deliberately curated and meant to be consumed the same way a painting might be. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who mistook her work as candid reflections of "real life." "I give Eloise [her child] her bath every day," Beck says, "But no, it does not look like this ... it's a small window of creative output and technical expression to hopefully capture something all mothers have access to: nurturing." I understand the almost intrinsic urge to somehow bottle up the ephemeral beauty and innocence of certain childhood moments; there's a reason I scroll through my iPhone photos feeling warm and fuzzy  about my kids after they've gone to sleep. But in the actual lived moments of motherhood, this impulse for nostalgia is nearly always annihilated by the IRL interactions of mother and child in my not-so-blissful domestic state: whining, tantrumming, boundary-pushing, wanting, needing. I have some adorable photos of my babies in the tub, but bath-time is work. Photos aren't taken of the puddles of water on the floor, the poorly timed poop clogging the drain, the screams accompanying shampoos. While nostalgia serves a purpose, it took us decades to talk about the struggles and real labor of motherhood openly. Celebrating the beauty of motherhood and failing to acknowledge the significant work mothers do every day without any meaningful systemic support (while their bodies and reproductive rights are still treated as debate fodder) is not a benign action. 

Stephanie McNeal, who covers influencer culture for Buzzfeed, notes that nostalgia has been a part of momfluencer culture since its inception and cites the perennial popularity of Mormon mommy bloggers as a prime example. She also points out that there's a trend among millenials both on social media and off, to re-engage with domesticity on their own terms. By sharing these things publicly, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of other moms, nostalgic momfluencers are tacitly saying this is the way I choose to live, choose to mother, because I think it's the best way. We are eternally rewriting what it is to be a "good" mother and a "bad" mother. And the public performance of motherhood on Instagram intensifies the toxic game of judging ourselves through first judging others. 

Matt Klein is a cyberpsychologist and consultant, and he believes the pandemic accounts (at least in part) for this particular moment's rise in nostalgia. "Nostalgia has always played a role in culture, but now its importance feels towering. By wearing certain clothes or sporting dated styles, anyone can transport themselves to a particular point in time . . . ideally one without a mutating, deadly, global virus."

I keep coming back to this idea of  "slowing down" and "taking the time" to appreciate motherhood. Because time, especially now, is a commodity many cannot afford, nor was it something many mothers of the past could access. Privilege looms large in the background of momfluencer nostalgia, something Jamilla Svansson-Brown immediately points out via email. Svansson-Brown is a content creator and YouTuber of Jamilla and Que, and on Instagram, she writes about her experience as a Black, gay mother, and uses her platform to share about her marriage and mental health. Not a ton of candles on her feed, but there are moss green velvet dining chairs, pregnant selfies, makeup tutorials, and objectively cute babies in rainbow onesies.

Sentimentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Jay Lenard

"I think motherhood is hard," Svansson-Brown says, "I have no wish to stand outside a window holding a pie I just made from scratch. I honestly love pies from Publix. [These nostalgic accounts] are appealing to those that were historically free and able to create lives and families, but leaves me wondering where a family like mine would fit in." In 1921 or 1821, of course, a family like Svansson-Brown's would have been legally prohibited from existing. 

"These images represent a better life for some, a life where boundaries and gender roles are very clear. There is no guesswork in what the day will bring or what your purpose in life is. The intersection is not only of whiteness, but privilege. There is a choice represented in these images that many mothers do not have ... it's the privilege of choice that sticks out to me the most."

Sarah Mesle, a cultural critic who specializes in the history of gender and popular culture at USC, echoes Svansson-Brown's point, and DMed me on Instagram to say that while there's nothing inherently problematic about a mom appreciating slow, simple living, there is something off about acting as if one exists outside of the time-space continuum.

"I'm literally drying lavender and rose petal sachets (like my granny taught me!) RIGHT NOW. But I don't think it's honoring our foremothers, or even seeing them, to erase the difficulty of their labor, their bad moods, or the incredible boon that technology provides women in all the ways they work."

Dr. Koritha Mitchell, author of From Slave Cabins to the White House, concurs, especially as it pertains to white mothers glorifying beautiful domesticity: "White women can justify ignoring any responsibility toward the public good by aggressively prioritizing motherhood. How can anyone say their priorities are in the wrong place if they're elevating motherhood? But it's a particular motherhood, one whose politics are rooted in keeping things as they are rather than working to make the world less hostile for more people." She says that such images and accounts are passively, easily digested, not only because we've been socially conditioned to expect to see a pretty (white) mother happy in her pretty (usually white!) home, but because consumers of such content are tired of the disturbing realities of contemporary life.

And when it comes to certain accounts existing and flourishing despite a total lack of accounting for contemporary life or politics, Mitchell isn't surprised, but she's troubled by the assumed moral goodness of such accounts, and thinks white insularity combined with non-engagement in making the world better for others is insidious. "Who cares if Black and Brown children outside the frame of these photos are being forced into the school-to-prison pipeline? What could possibly matter more than insulating myself and my children?"

It's not just Black mothers or queer mothers who are excluded from a nostalgic presentation of motherhood. It's any mother who doesn't fit in (to widely varying degrees) to Instagram's reincarnation of the cult of domesticity. In Doree Shafrir's case, both her struggles with infertility and her experience as an "older mom" preclude her from connecting to the extremely young, extremely "natural" images of nostalgic momfluencer culture. Shafrir is the co-host of the  podcast Forever 35, and the author of the forthcoming memoir Thanks for Waiting, which details her story of motherhood.

Shafrir told me she first noticed the maternal goddess of voluminous skirts when she was pregnant in 2019. "All these images of young pregnant people in long, flowy dresses, just sort of reveling in their pregnancies, and I didn't relate to them at all." After three grueling years of infertility treatments, it's not exactly surprising Shafrir wasn't a huge consumer of Instagram mom content, but she says nursery design accounts were her gateway to the sepia tones of nostalgic momfluencer territory. Of @thefrenchfolk she remembers thinking, "Oh, this is being a mom, this is what my nursery is supposed to be like, this is what I'm supposed to be like."

Shafrir also rightly points out that pregnancy and childbirth are equally romanticized, long before one's actual experience of child-rearing even begins. In her first trimester, she suffered from crippling nausea and generally felt pretty shitty. When she shared her experience on Instagram, many of her followers were supportive, but others sent DMs saying "how dare you" and "just you wait." "And I wondered," she says, "What does this person want? Do they want my pregnancy to be, like, this idyllic experience? Am I not performing pregnancy the way they want me to?"

Despite the fact that Shafrir thinks her age and life experience gave her some perspective on the idealization of motherhood on Instagram, she admits she was not immune to her own maternal fantasies. "In my head, I was like, I'm going to have so many picnics. One bucolic picnic after the other, just lying on a picnic blanket with my baby. Because that's what moms do! They have picnics." For the record, she is absolutely right. Moms on Instagram have picnics. So many picnics. So many picnic baskets. So much gingham. 

Caroline Snider is one of those moms who had some of those picnics. During a phone call which was shockingly not interrupted by any of my spawn, Snider told me her early days of Instagram influencer-hood were very "Kinfolk." It was just her and her husband traveling in an RV and "living this wild, magic life." Things changed when she became a mother, and she found herself "desperately trying to perform motherhood on Instagram." I asked her for an example of that maternal performance. "Oh, a baby in a bassinet by the window," she says. The reality was she was "unmoored" by the huge identity and lifestyle shift of motherhood. Snider's experience with the disconnect between maternal reality and maternal performance has convinced her of the inherent danger of Instagram, "especially in motherhood where it's so lonely and you're drowning a lot of the days."

Sentamentalists Momfluencers
Credit: Courtesy Caroline Snider

At first glance, Snider's feed could be described as one that focuses on the beauty and domesticity of motherhood. It's not hard to imagine hundreds of her followers looking at her posts and feeling inferior, excluded, inspired, validated — something. Snider emphasizes she has made some "special, important" connections to other moms through her account, but also says that as a consumer of nostalgic accounts, she often feels these things, too. 

Snider recently took two months off of Instagram, and when she returned, she posted a photo of herself in prime Kinfolk momfluencer attire: Rudy Jude jeans and a Babaa sweater. She's perched on a pile of firewood that maybe we're meant to think she just chopped? But her caption is a raw and generous musing on the mind-fuckery of social media, which she ends with the following line: "Oh and here's a picture of me completely naturally collecting wood which I captured by balancing my phone on the trash can whilst my children screamed inside the house."  

It's hard to say whether vulnerable, critically aware text undoes the suggestive power of fantasy and aspiration wrought by a lovely, staged photo. Snider is equally ambivalent, and ended our phone call by saying, "In short, I have no good answers." In momfluencer culture, good answers are hard to come by.