Judging Parents Online Is a National Sport

Whether they share their joys or their struggles, parents just can’t win on social media.

An image of an adult with their head in their hands overlaid with a notification bubble with a heart in it
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

To be a parent on the internet is to be constantly accused of false advertising. We make parenting sound “so freaking horrible,” “messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying,” like it will “change everything, mostly for the worse.” Or is it that we make it look “so easy,” “aesthetically-pleasing” and “effortlessly beautiful,” “miles from what motherhood looks like for many of us”?

People can’t seem to agree on whether it’s our soul-sucking complaints or our phony cheer that dominates the discourse. By some accounts, current discussions about the difficulties of motherhood are a pushback against a time when it was idealized. Others say the “mommy internet” used to be a place where moms could be “raw and authentic”; only recently has it become overrun with “staged, curated photos that don’t show the messier part of life.” Either way, it’s irresponsible. What real-life mother could possibly measure up to a “vision of motherly perfection”? Who would choose to have children in an atmosphere that insists child-rearing is so bleak?

I don’t find either argument terribly convincing. Whether you think the internet is overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative about parenting probably says more about the kinds of content you notice than what’s actually out there. It’s the digital equivalent of buying a Honda Civic and then suddenly seeing them everywhere. If you are seriously considering having kids, the internet seems awash with horror stories about exhaustion and rogue bodily fluids. When you feel overwhelmed by parenting, logging on is all doting odes to the beauty of parenthood. Both veins of critique make a similar allegation: that there is something off about the way parenting is represented online, and it’s causing people distress in real life.

These critics don’t typically accuse parents of lying, exactly, but of omission. It’s okay to share the highs or the lows, but we really ought to show the other side. The mountains of dirty dishes should be balanced out by the baby giggles and kiss-blowing, and vice versa. It’s a plea for authenticity. If parents would just commit to offering more realistic portraits of the parenting experience online, then we wouldn’t feel so bad about ourselves while scrolling past them.

I can’t figure out exactly how people would prefer me to feel about my kids. To share either joy or struggle is to invite not only judgment, but accusations that I’m somehow making it harder for everyone else to parent. As best as I can tell, parents ought to convey that they are happy but not happier than anyone else, and also miserable, but not so miserable that they seem ungrateful for their bundles of joy. Obviously I agree that lying isn’t great, and I also think there is a real temptation to universalize one’s parenting experience that ought to be kept in check. But parents aren’t responsible for providing an authentic account of their lives to strangers online, and even if they did, that wouldn’t stop the endless cycle of content insisting that parents are Being Online wrong. Parenthood is daunting and deeply personal; it naturally stirs up people’s insecurities. We can’t post our way out of that.

We cannot possibly close the gap between the reality of parenting and what it looks like online. We are all sharing fragments of our lives that barely begin to illustrate what living it is actually like. And parents share for a variety of reasons. Some harvest the #parentlife for laughs, others for beauty. Some are looking for commiseration or understanding. For me, social media is a kind of scrapbook that I maintain to keep in loose contact with people I will probably never call. On Instagram, I share articles I’ve written and the occasional picture of my kids. On Twitter, you’ll find snippets of funny conversations with my children, or the occasional musing about the strangeness of raising a human. If any of my followers on either platform are frustrated that I don’t seem to be providing a convincing performance of motherhood, then my suggestion is to stop looking for it there. You would have as much luck trying to suss out the reality of motherhood from a holiday card. You’ll find my more in-depth thoughts on parenting in my writing, but even taken all together, everything I’ve shared publicly about my life as a parent leaves a whole lot out.

In the push for authenticity online, we’ve begun to pathologize sensible levels of discretion. No one would fault you for cleaning your countertops before inviting guests into your home, but if you do that before livestreaming to hundreds of thousands of people online, it’s tantamount to lying. Even so-called momfluencers, who make money talking about motherhood online, don’t get a fair shake on this point. I have no doubt that many are vouching for products they don’t actually use. Some of them are pushing misinformation or troubling political views. But a lot of the complaints levied against momfluencers are about pretty reasonable stuff. Their houses are always clean; their kids are always sweet and well behaved in their videos. They tend to talk about the hard parts of their life after those issues have been resolved. None of that strikes me as particularly damning. Showing everyone your dirty laundry is not a precondition for selling leggings to postpartum moms.

Some evidence certainly suggests that engaging with motherhood content on social media can have a range of harmful effects. (Even in research papers, it seems, what mothers post frequently gets more scrutiny than what fathers do). But the relationship isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. One study found that for mothers prone to social comparison, pretty much any kind of Instagram parenting content made them feel bad. The same study showed that posts can have positive and negative effects simultaneously. For instance, mothers found profiles sharing practical information about parenting and child development the most helpful, but those accounts also made mothers feel bad about their own parenting competence more reliably than the momfluencers did. The same online content can also affect different people in different ways. Individuals with a tendency to compare themselves to others feel worse after viewing positive content; those without that proclivity feel better. For mothers, more regular engagement with momfluencers on Instagram is linked to a lower sense of self-efficacy; for women who are pregnant for the first time, it’s 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 spare us the pitfalls of comparison, because those don’t come from social media—they come from the variety and uncertainty of the human experience. We are all different people, raising different kids, under different circumstances and on different timelines. What is comforting to one person is terrifying to another, and enraging to someone else.

Take my youngest daughter, Jane. To call her a “good sleeper” would be an understatement. We never had to do any kind of sleep training for her. Crib, bassinet, swaddle, no swaddle—it did not matter; that kid would sleep anywhere, for hours at a time. Our bedtime routine consisted of plopping her into her crib and walking away. If you are expecting your first child, that information may be soothing, a welcome invitation to hope that perhaps parent life won’t be so hard after all. If you currently have a baby who sleeps in 45-minute intervals, only after an hour of desperate coaxing, it is likely enraging. Now consider the fact that when I left 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 became convinced that I was simply not cut out for parenthood, and if someone had offered me a way to undo it, I would have been tempted to accept. For a nervous prospective parent, that information may be petrifying; for a stay-at-home mom who really enjoys her life and is sick of people pitying her for it, that information may be frustrating. But to the mother of two under three whom I shared this with when she recently confessed similar feelings to me, that knowledge offered a bit of solace during a difficult time.

Sharing one’s parenting experiences in a way that is useful is actually quite challenging. In offline life, people are constantly screwing this up too. I still don’t understand why when, near the end of each of my pregnancies, I mentioned that I wasn’t sleeping a wink, people so often replied with some version of “Well, get as much sleep as you can now, because you won’t sleep when the baby comes.” How is that information helpful to me, a person who just stated that she is unable to sleep? And anyway, you can’t stock up on sleep like frozen lasagna. But the uselessness of their advice doesn’t make what they were trying to tell me any less true. Realistically—authentically—new parents often get very little sleep!

This sort of mismatch between information and the person receiving it is a hazard of publishing anything in a public forum. There is no way for people to share their child-raising experiences online in a way that ensures all prospective parents are duly warned but not discouraged, that every struggling or thriving parent finds their life reflected back at them, that everyone’s decisions are validated and fears allayed. As long as we’re calling out unrealistic expectations of American parenthood, holding every tweet and TikTok to such a standard is certainly one of them.