Comparing Yourself To The Perfect Instagram Mother (She Doesn’t Exist)

I was asked to speak at church this Sunday for Mother’s Day, and I’ve been thinking and thinking about what to say. I’ve been reading and making notes and discussing motherhood with friends and trying to sit still to formulate thoughts. So far, my ideas are still pretty rough, but I have found some good stuff in the process.

Remember the discussion we had a few weeks ago about motherhood and identity? I read a really interesting article in the NYTimes this week that extends that conversation. It’s written by a doctor, Alexandra Sacks, and talks about “matrescence”, a word I have never seen before, that means the process of becoming a mother.

She argues that matrescence needs to be studied by the medical community in a serious way, and she talks about 4 things to look out for during the process. One of those things is Guilt, Shame & the “Good Enough” Mother. Two quotes from the article: 

“There’s also the ideal mother in a woman’s mind. She’s always cheerful and happy, and always puts her child’s needs first. She has few needs of her own. She doesn’t make decisions that she regrets. Most women compare themselves to that mother, but they never measure up because she’s a fantasy.”

“Consider the Instagram image of the pregnant and postpartum supermom: a nurturing, organized, sexy-but-modest multitasker who glows during prenatal yoga and seems unfazed by the challenges of leaking breasts, dirty laundry and sleep training. This woman is a fiction. She’s an unrealistic example of perfection that makes other women feel inadequate when they pursue and can’t achieve that impossible standard.”

I hope you get a chance to read it — and the comments too (they are unusually good) — because I’d love to discuss it with you.

Has motherhood been on your mind this week? Do you ever notice you’re comparing yourself to the “Instagram image of motherhood”? And how do you feel about Mother’s Day? Do you look forward to it? Or does it stress you out? I know there are many women who dread it. Maybe they’ve lost their own mother, or they long for motherhood themselves, but remain childless. And there are others who feel like Mother’s Day magnifies all their inadequacies, or brings up a painful relationship with their own mother.

If you could vote for Mother’s Day to go away, would you? And for those who love it, what does your ideal Mother’s Day look like?

P.S. — Remember when I was pregnant with June? She had a birth day earlier this week. I re-read her birth story and the details came rushing back.

37 thoughts on “Comparing Yourself To The Perfect Instagram Mother (She Doesn’t Exist)”

  1. I would not vote for Mother’s Day to go away. I recognize that it is painful for some and leaves out many women who are not mothers. But while mothering is a vital and joyous job, it is also – no matter how well resourced – never ending, challenging, often frustrating, and brings with it a lot of societal blowback (mommy track, anyone? or just board a plane carrying an infant or toddler and see how you’re treated). If we do not honor mothers and the tremendous effort that goes into mothering, we are, once again, minimizing “women’s work.”

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother’s Day as well. I even looked up its origin in the United States. Anna Jarvis appears to have gotten it on the calendar of holidays and then worked the rest of her life to get it off because of commercialization. I don’t have strong feelings really but I’d be glad to see it go for the same reason. If someone wants to honor a mother, I think daily actions would do a better job then a once a year holiday in May when you buy obligatory gifts.

  3. Ha, Mother’s Day is pretty much whatever I, the mom, plan and carry through. So perhaps it’s just another task for mothers? This is a great topic, though. I often feel that we do other women, and ourselves, a great disservice by making the difficult things look effortless. (because we’re supposed to look like pinterest moms) I’m trying to let go of that, and to show the cracks more, for everyone’s sake.

    1. Yes, absolutely. I’ve been feeling in a big funk about Mother’s Day this year precisely because I know that unless I plan out the whole day it’s just going to be another day with perhaps a card at the table when I serve breakfast. And even if I’ve told my husband what I want to do – say a day at the beach, I’m going to spend the whole morning running around making sure we’ve packed all the things that go into a family day at the beach so that once we get there I’m going to be so stressed that I don’t even enjoy it.

      Related to that – why do typical Father’s Day activities revolve around letting Dad’s have the day completely off, i.e. a day on the golf course, whereas Mother’s Day activities revolve around still making Mom be Mom all day long – coupled with an early breakfast in bed, that generally results in having to wash the bedding because of toast crumbs. Don’t we deserve a day off too if that’s how we’d rather spend our special day?

      1. If you want to go to the beach and don’t want to take care of the details, tell your husband you are going to the beach solo for the morning/afternoon/day. Or if you want the family to go, tell your husband to take care of the organizing. “Making Mom be Mom all day” only happens if you let it.

    2. “Mother’s Day is pretty much whatever I, the mom, plan and carry through. So perhaps it’s just another task for mothers?”

      Oh boy. I have felt that on many, many mothers days.

  4. As a new mom I have definitely found myself comparing not only my own actions to Instagram moms, but my baby’s actions. Most newborns are portrayed as always happy, sleeping, not fussing. When my own baby is fussy and not sleeping it’s easy to feel like he’s the only one. I have to remind myself that people only portray the best of themselves and their babies on social media. I find it really refreshing when someone will post about being exhausted or how baby won’t nap without being held. That’s real life and more helpful to all moms IMO.

  5. Allison Cordrey

    I just read that NYTimes article this morning! I was blown away and wished I had read the books about matrescence. It would have been so useful in the first few weeks/months/year to have even considered some of the points the article raises. 5 years into my matrescence I think I’ve finally reached an endpoint without the guilt and shame. There will always be a little guilt though.
    I keep remembering one of my friends who asked me how I’ve changed since having a kid a couple of months after and I said that I hadn’t because at that point I think I was in “it” and couldn’t even see that slowly I was changing.

  6. I was just remembering that when my son was 2, he really liked Finding Nemo and wanted to play “Nemo” often so he assigned us each a character to be – he was Nemo, of course. His sister was Dory, his dad Marlin, and I ….was The Water. Now admittedly, the water is in just about every scene, nevertheless I was a bit underwhelmed by my role. But if you look at the casting, it wasn’t particularly imaginative – his sister played the main female part, his dad played the dad – and I think it followed that I should play the water since (symbolically) I kinda am the water for my kids …or the air when we’re on land.
    I permeate/surround/inhabit every part of their existence – they have an ingrained confidence and faith that I am there. They don’t necessarily acknowledge when I am there, but they feel it and acknowledge it when I’m not. It’s not much for the day-to-day ego perhaps, but as moms, we’re playing the long-game anyway.

  7. So, to finish that comment :)
    I think Mother’s Day works as a conscious acknowledgment opportunity for the young kids.
    And I think the more often I remember the long-game, the less often I get caught up in the guilt and comparisons.

    1. I love the comment about “I permeate/surround/inhabit every part of their existence”. That is so lovely an explanation of a mother’s role in a child’s life….. So, beautifully said.

  8. When reading the NYT article – did anyone else feel like this is a reincarnation of the unhealthy body image, eating disorder, airbrushed fantasies of their teenage and young adult years? It’s like we’re replaying the same issues of identity, hormones, peer pressure, unrealistic standards, and distorted media representation. Is this like fundamental – like we’re locked into this cycle, circling through with each big stage of life? Is it something endemic to gen x? Did generations prior to the media proliferation have these issues (or did they just have different issues …no escaping issues)?

    1. Oh. I’m super interested in where you’re going with this line of thinking. I didn’t see a reincarnation of teenage issues while I read the article, but now that you point it out, and I can see why someone would.

  9. I typically enjoy Mother’s Day but it’s definitely not a “day off”. We’ve had varying success over the past few years. My husband typically books brunch somewhere and then that’s it. I get a card, maybe a small gift. Sometimes I get to sit out in the sun and read for an hour. I am usually still doing all the mom things. This year I sent a list of things I’d like to do and made my husband decide which we do. We are going to Napa for the day. So, I guess in answer to your question, it definitely should not go away. Even if it’s a forced hour to ourselves and a nice meal, we deserve it. This year for father’s day we’ll be away camping. So my husband won’t have a relaxing day per say, but we’ll be together as a family and I believe that’s all we really want.

  10. I associate Mother’s Day with a lot of pain. I have a wonderful, if somewhat laid back, mom and we never made much of mother’s day when I was a child. As a young adult I felt meh about it, but did send my mom cards. My brother would typically give flowers, which is so not my mom. But then during years of infertility and miscarriages the pain was just searing! Asking all the mothers to stand up in church was awful! Even now, with 2 teens, I’d rather not acknowledge Mother’s Day at all–I still remember and feel for others who may be suffering. And really, why one day devoted to mothers? Shouldn’t you love and honor your mom every day? I still send my mom cards, but I think she appreciates regular phone calls and visits a lot more.

  11. I had to give that talk a few years ago. Focused on Eve as the mother of humanity and Mary as the mother of divinity, and felt like that was a great approach. Good luck!

  12. I really enjoyed this article, as well. I had to give a talk on Mothers Day three years ago and was asked again this year. I was happy to do it the first time but this time around I’m feeling rather ambivalent. I cringe at Mothers Day because I know it’s a very difficult day for lots of women for a variety of reasons. In my selfish fantasy, Mothers Day should be the one day free from responsibilities. It never happens that way, of course, since my kids are small but come on…couldn’t a couple of teenagers and a man speak that day so we can sit back?

  13. My birthday generally falls on or near Mothers Day, but I am pretty laid back about both. My husband and kids give me the gifts they’ve chosen (last year I got a rocks!) we do something as a family, and then I go and get my nails done. If there is time, I go to the gym sans children. Swoon!

    I like being a mom – sometimes I love it! When I surprisingly became a mom at 40, my personality and sense of self was already developed. Being a mom is part of who I am, but since motherhood arrived so late in my life, it’s taken a lot of time and effort to integrate into my overall perception of myself. Maybe that sounds weird to people, but it’s my reality.

    And people who compare themselves to others on the internet? I spent enough years as a teacher to know that what people show us and what lies beneath are not always the same. The people who tried the most to look together were usually NOT. And people who felt the need to look “perfect” the world? In my experience, there was usually a neediness and insecurity that anchored that. If I am fulfilled in my own life, then why would I need to build myself up to others? That’s so needy.

    Truth: let us all try to celebrate the humans we share a planet with, every day, with kindness, compassion, humility, and empathy. Every day should be People Day and then perhaps the struggles we all face would be a little less burdensome.

    I know your talk will be amazing! Please report back to us how it goes and what kind of feedback and thoughtfulness it inspires. Cheers to a fabulous weekend!

  14. I would hate to see this holiday fade. I think, especially today, celebrating mothers -who I think have the most important job, would be sad.
    I too recognise the hurt this celebration brings to so many women, even women who are mothers, but especially to those who have been denied children for whatever reason. I tell myself “Eve was called ‘mother’ before she ever had children.”, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t much comfort to those who long for a child of their own. I’m not sure how to fix or how to help those who hurt while they feel the rest of the world is rejoicing.
    As far as my personal ‘Mother’s Day’-s have gone- I have vacillated over the years between dread and completely enjoying it. I think it came with growth. I also have an incredible husband who understands me and has, since day one of our relationship, tried to help me heal from a childhood that was lacking. One way he did this was to acknowledge that I was equal -even as a SAHM, and that “…due to being a mom, no matter what, I would always be “on duty”, no days off until I die, because that’s what being a mom does to you.” So, during vacations, *he* would go to the laundromat while *I* played with the kids at the beach, he would actually and literally help out with housework or preparations without my asking him, he changed diapers without asking, and got the kids ready way before someone would post a photo of his superhuman dad skills of ponytail making on social media. He was ahead of his time and mocked for it by some.

    When our kids were little, he helped them decide what *they* wanted to “do for mom” and just took over (sometimes it was a breakfast, sometimes it was a gift), so I was one of the lucky ones who really did have a day where everything was done by someone else.

  15. I would so love to hear or even read your talk! I bet it will be educational, uplifting, and heart warming just like everything you post here.

  16. What a wonderful article in the NYT, thank you for the link Gabby! I could relate to so many things, but especially to the point that already when the baby is born, the new mother has in her mind created an image of how the baby will be and that reality might be very different. This is exactly what happened when I had my first one – everything was the complete opposite of what I had imagined. From how the baby looked to how he slept or how much cuddling he wanted. I was so so overwhelmed and frustrated, but most importantly felt very alone. I really would have needed other, more experienced mothers by my side to reassure me that even though the baby is different and much, much more challenging than I had imagined, everything would still turn out to be ok. That the baby would grow to be a wonderful, clever and beautiful (and well sleeping) child and I would grow to be a confident, loving mother.

  17. Well, with that photo, Maude has a very clear visual image of how she will look when pregnant! You guys look so alike.

  18. I kind of dread mothers day but I’m not sure why. Its sort of hard to put into words. Maybe because its a Hallmark holiday? Its kind of like Valentines Day…why am I being given a gift because society says I need to feel loved that day. I’m just not sure why we are celebrating. I feel like the day is dripping with expectations that no one can fulfill. I hear from so many moms about how their Mothers Day sucks.
    Here’s how life is at my house: My fantastic husband works 45 hours a week, he makes dinner at least 4 nights, he bathes the kids, reads to the kids and puts the kids to bed EVERY NIGHT, he stays home with them on Saturday while I go to work for 6 hours, he makes a meal plan, creates the list and gets the groceries, he cleans 1 outta 2 of ours bathrooms, and does 99% of the laundry. He knows I love a clean kitchen at night so he’ll make sure all the dishes are put away and counters are clear. EVERY NIGHT. If I say I need a rest and want to read outside for an hour, he practically plumps the cushions for me and brings me water. And that’s just scratching the surface. What more could I possibly ask for on Mothers Day?!?! This man celebrates me every day and shows me love in so many non-verbal ways it makes my heart burst.
    So when people ask me what I got or did for Mother’s Day it makes me cringe, because I say, “Nothing”. I honestly want for nothing. I have everything I could want and am deeply aware that its not like that for ever mother. I wish that every person was celebrated and loved every day, not just once a year because the calendar says so.

  19. So interesting to read the varying thoughts/feelings on Mother’s Day! I don’t think I’d like it to go away. I might like to see the approach to it change, however. Too many mothers feel as though the day is not actually FOR them, and end up burdened by the planning (or execution) of the day. On the other side, there seems to be prescribed elements to the celebration that can put pressure on the rest of the family and may not actually honor the mother figure in the way intended (i.e. flowers, cards, brunch, etc.).

    I wish I had thoughts on how to fix this, but I don’t. I love the idea of honoring mothers (and fathers on Father’s Day), but like just about everything else I’m certain it looks different different for every family…and may look different for each family from year to year.

  20. I just wish I didn’t have to share Mother’s Day with my husband’s mother. I feel like I’m the one mothering in the trenches with small kids, but she expects gifts and a visit that eats up the whole day. So, it never feels like a special day for me. And, on top of that, we share the same birthday too!

    1. That’s such a tricky thing. As mothers, we’re told the day is supposed to be about us, but as daughters and daughter-in-laws, we also feel the need to celebrate the women that came before us.

    2. I feel the same way. My mother is very relaxed about the whole thing, she doesn’t care if you show up or not, and is kind of like me – doesn’t need material items to feel loved. She’s even away on a trip this year during Mothers Day. However, my MIL needs that stuff to make the day complete.

  21. My mother’s birthday is so close to Mother’s day we combine the two events. We traveled down to help her spring clean the yard and porch. She was just so happy to have us all there. You can’t top the family togetherness. We were instantly reminiscing with our smartphone portraits. It made me think that mother’s day is not just about mother’s but about the family as a whole.

  22. giselle taminez

    This is such an interesting topic. I think as women we need to say what we want. A few years ago I made it very clear that I wanted to be the queen for the day and THEY (husband and teenage daughter) were expected to plan it. They have actually kept it up so far. A couple of years ago, there was a concert I wanted to go to so we had lunch together and I left with a girlfriend. My husband was upset but I explained that on that day I needed to to what made me happy. Mothering is an everyday job, we have added to babies to the brood so the younger the kids the harder to take the whole day off but time goes by quickly. Also, I love the homemade cards and getting loved on all day.

  23. Johanna Ostrum

    This photo of you is amazing. I wish I had a photo like this of myself when I was pregnant! It’s such a special time and who cares how many chin rolls you might have! (Me, not you).

    Thank you also for sharing such an important topic. Honestly, the way to stop it is to not read blogs, instagram, or Facebook. Disconnect and just follow your own instincts. Don’t compare by not being exposed is my best advice!

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