Published on July 22nd, 2021 | by Laura Pierson2
Uncharted Territories: The Comfort and Alienation of Mom Instagram
Like too many of us, I have a mild to moderate addiction to social media. And, like many millennial moms, my drug of choice is Instagram. Moms of my generation have ceded Facebook to our Boomer parents and their conspiracy-hawking friends; TikTok remains the mysterious domain of our hip younger-cousins; and Twitter is for our unmarried college acquaintances who perhaps still hold political aspirations rather than crying children. But just like I’m still listening to pop-music from 2013, my social media preferences have never moved beyond Instagram, and over these past half-dozen years, my feed has slowly turned into nothing but artifacts of millennial parenting.
Like me, my friends and acquaintances with kids have also stuck around Instagram, and we all seem to follow the same handful of mom-influencers whose advice has become ubiquitous with our parenting generation (sensory bins! Food exposures! Acceptance of “big feelings”!).
In the first months after my son was born, I suffered from an acute sense of imposter syndrome. I felt none of the maternal fierceness I had always seen in my mom and aunts; instead I felt weak, clumsy, and uncertain. Curating an Instagram feed with other moms and parenting advice was an easy way to gain a sense of belonging; it became a way to placate my anxieties and even engage in some petty self-righteousness. I would compare my experience with the glimpses Instagram offers of others’ lives, soothing myself with “this is normal” when I found a similar struggle, and feeling secretly smug when I discovered a challenge I had somehow avoided.
Just when I was starting to settle into my role as a mom, my parenting life took an abrupt turn. On the day my son turned nine months old, he had his first terrifying episode of unconsciousness that was later identified as a seizure. Then, a month later, my husband called me from the back of an ambulance just as I was arriving at work on a Monday morning—it wasn’t a one-time incident; the seizures were recurring. We spent the next six days at the hospital while our son had nearly a dozen more seizures, was hooked and unhooked from EEG sensors three times, and put under general anesthesia twice for an MRI and a spinal tap. That week filled me with levels of exhaustion and despair that I had never experienced; it also forced me to find that fierce maternal strength I didn’t know I had.
There is no Instagram-able infographic that can teach you how to breastfeed a baby with 19 EEG sensors attached to his head, a pulse-oximeter on his foot, and an IV coming from his arm. No influencer’s account posted advice on how to get a baby to sleep in a hospital room with blinking machines and vitals-checks from the nurses every four hours. This may have been an extreme situation, but I imagine this is how most everyday parenting challenges felt only a generation ago, without the Internet searches and social media accounts to turn to for instant guidance.
My husband and I found a way to care for a baby in a hospital and navigate medical systems because we had no other choice. Over the next year and a half, we had five more hospital stays, each of which have been the most miserable experiences of my life, but, perversely, have also been the times I gained the most confidence in my ability to care for my own child. Without a world of moms to compare myself to or seek advice from, I discovered how to get myself, my son, and our little family to the other side.
This all should have taught me a lesson about parenting in the age of social media. I should have deleted my account, understood each of our parenting experiences as unique, and kept away for good. But crises subside and everyday parenting returns, and I continued to use Instagram as a source of advice and also incessant comparison. Shortly after my son’s first birthday, genetic testing revealed a rare chromosomal deletion. This confirmed that the seizures had a genetic rather than environmental cause, and also opened up the possibility of other associated developmental issues ranging from minor speech delay to autism.
The vague and inconclusive genetic report upped my obsession with other people’s parenting on social media. The most innocuous videos—a friend playing red-light, green-light with her son on the sidewalk, a toddler sorting silverware out of the dishwasher—sent me into comparison-overdrive. I would do the mental math, calculating our children’s relative birth dates to see exactly how far “behind” my kid was from theirs. I obsessively took photos and videos (although rarely posted) my child’s relative strengths to reassure myself of his abilities. I secretly resented my friends for their “boastful” content and told myself that they were surely posting their children in the most impressive and extraordinary moments.
Worse than the posts from friends and acquaintances at this time were the supposedly informative and advice-oriented content from Instagram mom-experts. I hesitate to criticize or bemoan these women (and I will not call out their accounts by name) as many are qualified professionals who have used Instagram as a platform for entrepreneurial success. Regardless, they peddle their credentials as moms first and professionals second, presumably to make themselves more relatable and credible to the moms-of-Instagram like me. They regularly feature their own children in their content as “proof” that their methods work.
I remember being particularly pained by a story from an educator-turned-Instagram-influencer on promoting early language skills. Her post insisted that we don’t need to do anything “special” to teach our kids how to talk as long as we are talking and reading books to them as often as possible. Meanwhile, I, a high school English teacher and lover of language, spoke and read constantly to my son who hardly uttered an intelligible word before his second birthday.
Instead of just enrolling him in speech therapy, I spent months vacillating between thinking that I was over-stressing (let the child meet his benchmarks in his own time!) and not doing enough (I’m not reading the right books or using the right words). I was unable to view her advice in a reasonable context: that she was just one woman, speaking from her limited experience with her own children. The sheen of Instagram, her one million followers, and her blue check mark crushed me. I couldn’t decide if it was something wrong with me or (terribly) with my kid.
In the spring of 2020, my son’s developmental differences were becoming harder to ignore or explain away, but it also became terrifying and logistically challenging to seek professional help as our world went into lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, in July of 2020, at the height of the summer wave that had Houston’s COVID cases surging, my two-year-old and I donned masks (a still unfamiliar accessory) to visit a developmental neurologist. There were no toys for my son to play with in the appointment, and the doctor wore a mask, goggles, and face-shield, all of which made me doubt the authenticity of their interactions. Still, she confidently diagnosed him with Autism Spectrum Disorder, labeling him as “severely autistic.”
Since COVID safety protocols only allowed one parent in the appointment, my husband waited in the parking garage. I told him the diagnosis as we navigated rush hour traffic on our way home, our son asleep in his car seat, yet another surreal experience in a thoroughly bizarre year. We weren’t sure what to make of the diagnosis and I found us both starting to say “but other kids…” and then stopping ourselves; neither of us was really familiar with what other kids did anymore. For the past four months my experience of other young children had been only Instagram posts and the occasional Zoom call with friends. Parenting experiences shared through a screen failed to comfort me. I felt utterly alone.
Twenty-first century parents are already more isolated than practically any previous generation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, taken this isolation to new heights. Family’s social circles were extremely limited for most of the last year, and many will continue to place limits on their children’s interactions until the vaccines are approved for kids under twelve. Parents are now even more reliant on internet communities, including Instagram influencers, for parenting advice and camaraderie; meanwhile, medical professionals are concerned that developmental differences, like those seen in autistic children, are going undetected in the period when intervention is the most important.
Recently, rather than just stopping at the end of the Instagram caption of various mom-influencers, I have ventured into the comments. Here you find the anger, confusion, and despair of so many parents right now. I imagine many, like me, find themselves parenting in exceptional circumstances. They ask questions like, “but what if this just doesn’t work for MY child?” They attack the credentials of the account-holder, forcing a reply of, “of course I’m not a medical professional and only speaking from my own experiences.” Multiple users get in circular arguments where one user insists yes this works! while the other says no, it doesn’t! It feels like there are two worlds of moms out there: those who get to parent “normal” kids in “normal” circumstances, and those of us who are navigating more rugged terrain.
Discovering that I am a mother of an autistic child was almost as profound of an identity shift as becoming a mother the first time. Just like that first year of my son’s life, I once again felt out of place and unsure of myself as I navigated a whole new world of discussions and debates. And also, just as new mothers are inundated with the importance of their babies hitting milestones, practically everything I read about autism stressed early intervention, as if a clock was ticking over my child’s head, counting down his window of opportunity for “success.”
When faced with this sort of pressure, it is no wonder that mothers of autistic kids turn to social media as a ready resource: #autismmom has 1.1 million posts on Instagram and some of the most popular accounts that produce content about parenting autistic children have hundreds of thousands of followers.
But the world of Instagram autism moms is still, in my opinion, fraught with peril. Mostly, I find many of the accounts unsettling from a privacy standpoint. While these parents have good intentions in opening up about their children’s strengths and weaknesses, it seems ethically dubious to share the details of an individual’s disability when they are too young to give their full knowing consent.
Moreover, Instagram simply isn’t the right way to learn about something as complex and important as raising a neurodivergent child. Parents of autistic kids face weighty decisions: which types of therapy will be the best fit, how much time our kids should spend receiving these services, how and when to disclose to friends, family, and acquaintances.… the list could go on and on. Sure, all parents make difficult decisions for their kids, but the stakes are arguably higher for children with autism or other special needs. Very few Instagram accounts contextualize their content, so parents may see a wide range of approaches without any adequate discussion to determine if this is in fact the best path for their child. Do we really want an entire generation of parents informed by nothing more than memes and photo captions?
The autism diagnosis did not change my son, but it did change me. Empowered with a new sense of freedom from other people’s expectations, I took an intentional break from social media. I shifted my attention away from other people’s children and parenting advice and toward my own kid. I began to really see him and his unique way of being in the world. I stopped stressing about how he was “supposed” to be playing, and instead saw what brings him genuine joy. I began to celebrate his learning and progress without comparing him to other kids who may have learned these same skills at a younger age. It brought me back to those weeks in the hospital when I first realized that I can care for my son in extraordinary circumstances.
The best tools we have as parents are our own abilities to observe and connect with our children; in seeking better parenting advice or expertise online, I wonder how many of us are ironically missing our chance to really be there for our kids. I don’t claim to hold all the answers, but I am now more conscious of the places I go for parenting advice, mostly learning from autistic self-advocates and a growing neurodiversity movement.
Still, I occasionally re-download my Instagram app and wade back into the world of parenting social media. I feel the dopamine rush of easy-to-digest advice and funny, relatable memes. I also see the suggestions that I know will never work for me, and the comments from confused and angry moms who wonder why these things don’t work for them. And I wonder if there is a way for us to seek a sense of parenting together without feeling an obligation to parent just like one another.