Knowing full well that, despite my carefully cultivated Instagram feed, my life is actually a hot mess, I like to tell myself that everyone else on social media is also lying. However, life is not always so simple.
We all have at least one friend who maintains a perfect social media presence. She doesn’t hijack your feed, posting only once or twice a week. But she somehow manages to “like” everything that all of her friends post. I’m not convinced she sleeps. When she does post, they’re expertly crafted tidbits of familial bliss. Beautiful family photos, candid shots of the kids being silly, check-ins to exotic vacation locations. Social media mom must have a background in design, because she posts Instagram photos that would make Joanna Gaines proud. Every once in a while, she shares something self-deprecating about how hard it is to be a mom, or a picture of the kids being messy and getting into trouble, which keeps her relatable. I’ve got the formula pretty well figured out myself, although I can stray at times into oversharing and political grandstanding. I would love to say that all of this is fake, but I know one of these moms who is exactly the same in real life. She’s pretty, smart, sweet, funny, and has lots of actual real-life friends. Her kids are wearing matching outfits in every picture with Pinterest-worthy hairstyles, and they are generally sassy and adorable.
Last summer, both of my kids had been sick for two days. On the third day, I brought them out to the doctor. I hadn’t showered in all that time, so I’m sure I smelled of B.O. and old breastmilk. I had on dirty yoga pants and my hair in a mom-bun because why not live up to all the stereotypes. My toddler was in a fancy-dress phase but screamed like the Exorcist if you came near her with a brush. The combo of flower-girl dress and toddler dreadlocks she sported all that summer deserves its own chapter. The baby had a poop-out in the car seat with no backup outfit to be found, so she was in nothing but a diaper by the time we arrived. As I was directing my traveling circus into the “sick” waiting room, the dark and grimy side of the office reserved for germ-carrying outcasts, I glanced across the office and glimpsed my friend in the “well” waiting room. Her hair was curled, she had make-up on, and I could just see the tops of two little Dutch-braided heads peeking over the receptionist’s counter. My first thought was, “Come on! They really do look like that just to run fucking errands!” I felt so low in that moment, I wanted to sink into the bacteria-infested “sick” waiting room floor. I talked to her about it a few days later and she laughed it off, saying they were dressed up to go somewhere after the doctor. But it didn’t shake my feeling of being less than. She was the glamourous mom-on-the-go, and I was the one who would never have her shit together.
My amazing friend is the exception, not the rule. The way I couldn’t help but compare myself to her IS the rule. Enter the social comparison theory, which in a nutshell states that “when presented with information about other people, individuals tend to relate that information to their own lives and then use that information to make either positive or negative self-judgements” (Coyne, McDaniel, & Stockdale, 2017, p. 336). Social media compounds this effect, as the information you are left comparing yourself to is often quite different from reality. It’s easy to feel like shit when you’ve been up all night with a teething baby, your house is a wreck, and you’re scared to even look in the mirror. You pick up your phone to try to zone out and have a little break from reality, and you’re greeted with a friend’s picture of herself and her kid smiling and laughing, well dressed. Did I mention they’re in the middle of an impeccably clean, modern kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances and marble countertops? You think you must be failing, because obviously this other mother has got it all figured out while you’re just limping along. What you don’t know is that she’s been up all night nursing a baby succubus just like you. But she chose a Snapchat filter that hides the bags under her eyes, and that clean kitchen is actually in her mother-in-law’s house. “Research has found that people tend to put their “best selves” forward on [social networking sites], which may be one reason why online social comparisons are more likely to result in negative feelings towards themselves, as opposed to positive ones” (Coyne, McDaniel, & Stockdale, 2017, p. 336). Comparing your whole, unadulterated, flawed, every-day self to the picture-perfect, Photoshopped versions of your friends is a recipe for low self-esteem, feelings of depression, and dissatisfaction with your life and your personal relationships (Coyne, McDaniel, & Stockdale, 2017). A second study seeking to understand the effect of social media on new mothers also found that users often enhanced the way they presented themselves online to receive more positive responses. “Most popular Instagram ‘mummy’ profiles are the picture of inspiration, style, and care-free life.” (Djafarova & Trofimenko, 2017, p. 22). It’s the “Joanna Gaines effect,” but much closer to home.
[I explain the “Joanna Gaines” effect in an earlier chapter, but the gist of it is the examples society gives us of the “perfect” mom creating undue pressure. Don’t think I’m in any way dissing Joanna though, I frickin love her!]
Coyne, S. S., McDaniel, B. T., & Stockdale, L. A. (2017). “Do you dare to compare?” Associations between maternal social comparisons on social networking sites and parenting, mental health, and romantic relationship outcomes. Computers In Human Behavior, 70335-340. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.081
Djafarova, E., & Trofimenko, O. (2017). Exploring the relationships between self-presentation and self-esteem of mothers in social media in Russia. Computers In Human Behavior, 20. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.03.021