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The problem with “mom boss” culture

Mommy blogs and influencers are monetizing the horrible working conditions of motherhood.

Illustration of a mom with many arms holding symbolic objects like clothes, money, and a child. Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I became a mother in 2015, my old life no longer felt relevant. I lost friends; I stepped back from work. I was consumed by the labor of taking care, and I found an odd solace online — a form of recognition — hanging out in mommy forums and on social media.

I lurked on TheBump’s breastfeeding boards and the ambivalently political content created by sites like Scary Mommy, which reflected the horror and delight of everything I was experiencing. I was taken by the illusion of sisterhood and commiseration online and, not incidentally, by the mothers who answered problems with product. When I dared leave the house for the park or rare mother’s group meetup, women peddled leggings, makeup, belly wraps, oils. Every mother seemed to be in a whole “find what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” mood — a seamless integration between the domestic and the commercial that I found alarming and alluring.

A year later, former Ralph Lauren executive Nicole Feliciano articulated the underlying promise of saleswomanship for new mothers in her book Mom Boss: In the age of social media, she claimed, any woman can “learn how to be a super mom.” In her bio, Feliciano refers to her company Momtrends, which began as a blog in 2007 but now specializes in sponsored content and influencer outreach, as every mom’s business-savvy BFF.

The Momtrends website remains, today, similarly chummy: It’s the self-described “girlfriend you always look forward to bumping into at yoga class” (yes, the website is the girlfriend). By way of curated products and entrepreneurial opportunities, the website-friend provides “solutions for the challenges of modern motherhood” for women who want to “live with purpose and passion.” But what it really offers is something that has become central to the story of American motherhood — personal reinvention.

The website-girlfriend says, “Wasn’t it easy before the kids came along? We all managed to look pulled together, travel, stay fit and even entertain on occasion. Well, we don’t believe motherhood is an ending. We think of it as a beginning. A time to edit what you bring into your life.”

The notion that the ostensibly natural destruction of women under American capitalism is not an ending, but rather just the beginning, is one that has come to dominate the discourse of motherhood.

Late-2000s mommy bloggers brought an overdue, if disorganized, correction of the archive, with women sharing stories of maternal discontent all over the internet. For them, motherhood was often a disaster. They depicted everything from their negative feelings about their children to their discomfort with their postpartum bodies. Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a sociologist who has written about the rise of motherhood culture on social media, calls the early years of the mamasphere “the Confessional Age” and an “emancipation.”

As with all internet trends, there were issues. Heather Armstrong of Dooce, once named “queen of the mommy bloggers,” eventually found herself experiencing treatment-resistant depression. And Lacey Spears made the disturbing quest for public power online acute when she poisoned and eventually killed her son with toxic amounts of table salt, the result of what experts have called Munchausen syndrome by proxy (now listed in the DSM-5 as “factitious disorder imposed on another”). She had been chronicling her son’s false illness, and her sacrificial care work, on her blog.

Mothers quickly learned to monetize their stories, transforming their raw and real platforms into lifestyle brands. By 2015, Jezer-Morton says, following the success of bloggers like Ree Drummond, who became a Food Network brand, and Glennon Doyle, who leveraged her blog, Momastery, to publish her first memoir, we had entered the “Influencer Age,” with momfluencers like Oh Joy and Love Taza depicting “the Insta-perfect life that everyone knows is painstakingly staged, but that we love to follow — and critically dismantle — anyway.”

Multilevel marketing corporations, which have since the mid-20th century posed as a solution to the boredom and overwhelm of housewifery, also found new footing online in the 2010s. MLMs built their digital mythos around the prospect of power and community, appealing to ordinary mothers who felt alienated from public life by offering up a ready-made digital commons — online communities where new moms could connect, build a life around products, and feel like they belonged again. By 2017, more than half of Instagram’s 800 million users were women, and mommy publications were teeming with listicles, memes, and tips about moms gettin’ that side hustle, many of which referenced multilevel marketing schemes.

Large corporate MLMs have since faced lawsuits and backlash, making them less popular, though companies like Beachbody — a fitness and nutrition conglomerate that bills a monthly fee to “coaches” who in turn sell Beachbody shakes and workout products — have profited off pandemic life, targeting mothers in particular.

But moms who build businesses online have diversified. Now they helm bad mom and drunk mom empires on TikTok, create merch lines with cheeky phrases, “help families sleep better,” and become cleaning experts. As Jezer-Morton told me, while the lure of traditional MLMs may be waning, “the content production of motherhood is still a viable MLM” with moms “creating content and teaching each other to create content.” Moms now sell their ability to sell anything, and they adapt, constantly, to social media functionality. “Anytime that there’s a new platform, there’s going to be this little cottage industry of how-to that can also turn into a low-key MLM,” Jezer-Morton told me. It’s a trend that has led some to question whether American motherhood has itself become a multilevel marketing scheme.

The momtrepreneur, or mompreneur, or more all-encompassing momboss, relies on what Jezer-Morton calls the performance of “successful neoliberal selfhood.” These are the obstinate, media-savvy daughters of Lean In. They live by inspirational stories of women finding a community and a calling, of pushing through what’s tough about working motherhood, playing off the vague “moral therapeutic deism” of American capitalism and the larger gospel of Instagram. They also sell the prospect of beginning again by positioning free enterprise as a fantastical path toward femme freedom and promising an escape from the isolation and trauma of motherhood under patriarchal capitalism without ever having to speak its name, much less question it as an economic system.

Her neon, rainbow-colored memes bring surveillance culture to motherhood — one post reads, “Your Kids Are Watching” — and they have a dizzying economic logic. She quotes Fight Club but also embraces a merit-based pursuit of the dollar, as in, “Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret.” In another post, Moreno channels that popular phrase some mothers use with kids — “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” — when addressing the gendered wage gap. “Throwing a fit,” she writes in her caption, “won’t help.”

Empowerment imagined as power, in other words, is often disciplinary.

Mom bosses harness their power by bending time or just hiring others to care for their kids. They also, therefore, rely on the assumption that mothers’ lives will be devastated by motherhood, but that women should restructure their social, economic, and financial lives accordingly. The larger premise: We can solve the problems of the sexual division of labor, the unfinished feminist revolution, and the lack of social services in America by turning to individualism, the market, and work.

The problem with this thinking is that antisociality, emotional devastation, job precarity, and the motherhood penalty, each compounded by intersections of class, race, and gender identity, are not inherent conditions of motherhood; they are the conditions of the ongoing disaster of care in capitalist America. The disempowerment of caregivers, and the suffering that lack of power brings with it, is foundational to capitalist economics, which has always relegated women to the home to serve the family, a major economic institution. (For instance, 16th- and 17th-century witch hunts were also disciplinary, targeting women’s contraceptive methods, alternative relations to work, and public power in order to push women into the home — where they could produce laborers.)

The modern-day American devaluation of sectors like health care and education only provides further evidence that, culturally and economically, we value industry, not care. But this all fades from view under the guise of careerist liberation, where work equals freedom. Instead, failures of American economic and political policy, and the poor working conditions they engender for caregivers, are refashioned as market opportunity — a chance to cultivate resilience, better business sense, and new product markets.

During the pandemic, some pastoral mommy influencers are facing an identity crisis, but others have simply mapped the language of the “slay” onto anti-Covid-vax and anti-mask rhetoric, or they are shilling wellness alongside QAnon rhetoric. Momtrepreneurs, on the other hand, claim they are thriving, with some penning enterprising tips for survival. Moreno took some time off to lose weight and travel, and often cites, vaguely, the charged political climate in her Instagram content, including her refusal to “just sit at home and be scared of the world right now” and her belief that mask-wearing is “not good for our health.”

Meanwhile, the often apolitical and always aspirational qualities of the mom boss remain all over the wider mythology of motherhood. As Katherine Goldstein, creator of The Double Shift, a podcast about motherhood, put it in a phone interview, “The baseline narrative about being a mother in America is that every individual mother is fundamentally flawed in some way and the way to get out of it is through life hacks and products.” For this reason, one of Goldstein’s least favorite mom slogans is “You got this, mama!” because it sends the message that “whatever’s difficult about motherhood, you just need to try harder or buy your way out of it.”

Some of this discourse is just blandly encouraging, but other mothers, like those behind Big Little Feelings and Dr. Becky at Home, have monetized the illusion of “winning” at parenting while acknowledging the work is “tough.” They create “sanity-saving” content and courses that are an attractive mix of mental health and parenting philosophy meant to help mothers accept their perceived failings and tap into their inherent “badassery.”

You-got-this motherhood, in all its iterations, is, at best, a seriously limited rejoinder to the interconnected problems of patriarchy and capitalism and to the mental health struggles that result from their longstanding collusion. The you-got-this mentality also draws on a broader white corporate feminism. As Alice Bolin writes in her analysis of the MLM-turned-sex-cult NXIVM/DOS and the ersatz feminist support of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, “The fact that many people cannot differentiate between postfeminist ‘empowerment’ and real feminism is a victory for those forces that have systematically opposed real gender equality.”

At its worst, you-got-this motherhood sounds an awful lot like a primer on both rape culture and capitalist life. A recent viral Nike campaign, for instance, glorifies the mother as “the toughest athlete” and as “someone who deals with the pain, hits her limit, and pushes past it.” Stamping any product with motherhood (and wellness) offers a moral hue that is akin, as Goldstein put it, to greenwashing. Nike has used the tactic before to deflect from its treatment of mothers and, as Sara Berliner of Vote Like a Mother noted, its practice of “making billions off our sisters working for subsistence wages in poor conditions at their factories abroad.” In this light, the ad was generally not well received, but many still rallied behind the imagery in the commercial — and that narrative of women “pushing, pushing, pushing.” But is this, really, the story of motherhood we want to promote?

As Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine, capitalism feeds on periods of shock by “exploiting the window of opportunity” created by “a gap between fast-moving events and the information that exists to explain them.” Motherhood in America has, perhaps, always been a prolonged period of disorientation susceptible to niche forms of disaster capitalism. But over the past year, caregivers have lived acutely within this dark hole — what Klein calls “pure event, raw reality, unprocessed by story, narrative or anything that could bridge the gap between reality and understanding.” She writes, “Without a story we are, as many of us were after September 11, intensely vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends.”

American mothers are maybe, kind of, moving out of that shapeless lacuna and into some kind of narrative. Policy institutes and reporters are documenting the many crises unfolding at once: Mothers are in crisis, schools are in crisis, child care facilities are in crisis, and, perhaps most importantly and auspiciously, Americans’ relationship to work is in crisis. In response, mothers are gathering online around political action and around the discourse of mental health. But it remains to be seen who will control the next part of the story. There is a lot of mommy internet, and the discourse shifts quickly, but as Jezer-Morton put it, “One thing that doesn’t change in the mamasphere is this constant need to affirm each other.”

Recently, affirmation has gained more urgency. “Right now, it’s very much ‘it’s okay to not be okay,’” Jezer-Morton said, pointing out that moms are crying on social media. “It’s okay to fall apart, it’s okay to cry.” Goldstein feels that what we’re seeing online doesn’t yet capture the full picture. “We have not even begun to deal with it,” she said. “I don’t think we’re actually really seeing, truly, how much moms are suffering online in terms of what people are publicly sharing.”

This culture of affirmation is less about productivity — or the empowerment alchemy of turning bad times into capital — and more about “feeling seen” and “holding space.” It’s you-got-this, but with a little more awareness that you don’t. In other words, it’s a mental health project that is tangled in grief and mourning, the politics (and aesthetics) of documentation, the larger mom-shaming resistance, and the ubiquity of personal branding. There’s a lot going on.

“It’s coming from a super-real, incredibly desperate place,” Jezer-Morton said of mothers sharing their pain publicly, “but it’s also turning into a form of accepted discourse.”

I have devoured the reporting and posts about moms over the past year, but I worry about the familiar consumption of women’s suffering — and about how others may monetize all this affirmation in equally resonant ways. In some senses, the documentation is working; policy like the direct payments included in the American Rescue Plan Act seemed implausible pre-pandemic. But even left leaners are tsk-tsking that strategy, claiming it will reduce women’s labor force participation; in the process, critics of the tax credit forget the legacy of Black mothers like bell hooks, who pointed out white feminism’s limiting quest for power through public work. Meanwhile, technology, education, and mental health industries are seizing their chance to privatize. And a Scary Mommy-sponsored ad for CBD that recently popped up in my feed reads, “Ain’t no stress like burnt-out-mom-during-a-pandemic-stress!” So it’s hard to say what motherhood will look like on the fabled other side.

What is clear is that mothers will have to continue situating our collective story, online and offline, within a larger economic and political history, rather than in some fuzzy politics of empowerment, if we want this moment to lead toward a radical restructuring of care in America. And we will have to make part of that story the real task of intersectional feminism, which is the task of rethinking power itself.

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