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Leslie Bruce
Contributing Writer

Why Real-Life Motherhood Looks Nothing Like Your Instagram Feed

One mom’s advice on how to handle the Instagram Mom Phenomenon.

Take it easy, Beyoncé.

I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Sasha Fierce as much as the next girl, but I think it’s time we all just take it down a notch—Queen Bey included.

The world had been waiting with bated breath for Beyoncé and Jay-Z to bestow upon us another gift, and, never to be outdone, America’s royal family announced they are expecting—drumroll, please—twins! (Bow down.) What the world didn’t necessarily need was the image of the flawless mama sitting beneath a veil in a FernGully rain forest.

The reality of motherhood—at any stage—is not best reflected in a highly stylized, uber-filtered Instagram-worthy moment, and we all need to stop pretending that it is. Those are the single shots out of 100 tries that you slap on a holiday card and shove in the mail once a year. They aren’t what we, as mothers, should be launching out into the world each day as our new normal.

Before I go on, I need to get this out the way: Yes, I have a heart. Yes, I think the photo is resplendent. And, yes, I want to pack a suitcase, move to a rain forest, climb under the veil with Beyoncé and never, ever leave. But that’s not the point. The point is, when did your pregnancy ever look like that? Forget all the fuss and frills—her physical flawlessness is exhausting for non-pregnant women. My concern is that putting that image on a pedestal creates unrealistic expectations for other new moms and moms-to-be. Because it does—and I’m speaking from experience.

To be fair, Beyoncé isn’t the real culprit here. Celebrities live by their own set of rules, which I’m actually quite grateful I don’t have to adhere to. It’s the domino effect it can spur, particularly when it comes to social media. The world of motherhood as seen on Instagram is already a high-stakes poker game, and Queen B just upped the buy-in. Last week, a pregnant girlfriend texted me, “When does cherry blossom season begin? Before June? I’m desperate to find a farm for my maternity shoot.”

This is what I refer to as the Insta-Mom Phenomenon. It’s the promotion of the hyperbolic, dreamy-filtered, overly glamorized version of motherhood that captures a perfected moment in time (and not the actual reality). And it’s no longer a rite of passage reserved for the rich and famous—social media has ushered it into our own backyards. It’s a risky game to play with pregnant, hormonal women, but the real danger comes when baby is born and new #momlife begins.

We’ve all seen those cotton-candy-filtered photos of a suspiciously put-together new mama. The one with impossibly long eyelashes and beachy blonde tendrils who looks so serene as she breastfeeds her cherubic newborn (who’s perfectly shaped head shows zero wear and tear from labor). Both of these flawless creatures are nestled into a swirl of crisp, clean sheets and she’s most likely sporting a gorgeous, envy-inducing necklace, which you’re convinced had to be a push present.

My life as a new mom looked nothing like that.

Becoming a mother for the first time heightened my every possible insecurity. Not only was I suffering from some serious baby blues and some ridiculous swelling (my nose temporarily tripled in size), I was also sleep deprived, hormonal and recovering from surgery. If I was going to completely blow this whole motherhood thing, I now had this beautiful, screaming tiny human who would pay the price right along with me.

Basically, I was one Adele song away from a total meltdown. Since I spent countless hours rotating between breastfeeding and pumping, I had more than enough time to scroll through my iPhone and become intimately acquainted with the Insta-Mom Phenomenon. And that, my friends, was a slippery slope.

I bore witness to countless new mamas who appeared to have mastered this whole motherhood experiment, while simultaneously managing to always exist underneath perfect lighting. I never took my newborn on sunset beachside strolls while wearing a perfectly flowy boho maxi dress, my forearm lined with gold bangles. My daughter never slept in a Moses basket filled with fresh rose petals. We didn’t even own a Moses basket. She spent most of the day screaming in a three-year-old Fisher-Price Rock-n-Play. And when was the last time my husband, my newborn and I stumbled upon a conveniently placed tufted velvet sofa in a random back alley? Never! Why did everyone else have such luck?

It didn’t take long before I began to seriously question my own motherhood experience, because mine looked nothing like that. I came to the gut-wrenching (and highly misleading) realization that for everyone else, motherhood looked like a Johnson & Johnson commercial, and for me it looked more like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen. Social media made me wonder whether I was actually good at being a mom—and that was crushing, because my daughter deserved better.

You see how easy it is to slip down that rabbit hole. Some mamas may be coherent enough in those early days to recognize that those photos are snapshots and not necessarily the whole picture, but I wasn’t one of them. The whole picture of my introduction to motherhood was me spending the better part of three months whirling around in a sort of foggy tornado. On the rare occasion that I was able to stop and take a look around, I found that my once-tidy home was now littered with breast pump parts, burp cloths, piles of laundry, wads of tear-crusted Kleenex (not covered in mascara, because, who has time for makeup?!) and, most likely, last night’s pizza box. It was hardly picturesque, let alone Instagram worthy. While I was adjusting to life with an infant, it was impossible for me to see the forest beyond the trees. In fact, it was much easier to look at these dreamy photos and take them at face value, because giving actual thought to anything takes time, and I could barely remember the day of the week.

Without doing too much of a deep dive into the psychology of Instagram, I’ve come to acknowledge that maybe those gorgeous posts of mama and baby aren’t necessarily intended to be relatable. By their very nature, photos are meant to capture a single moment in time—and what new mama doesn’t want to share a lovely image of herself with her baby where she actually feels beautiful? Not to mention the sort of validation she might experience when those “likes” begin to add up. Splashing your struggles across Instagram seems a bit counterintuitive, particularly for new mothers who are already feeling pretty vulnerable, not to mention insecure from the nonstop barrage of “goddess moms” on Instagram who seem to have it all figured out.

At its inception, I believe Instagram was meant to be a digital scrapbook that users could share with friends and family. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thumbed through a baby book and seen a collection of crying newborn photos. But Instagram has become, as we all know, so much more than that. Not only has it evolved into this living, breathing community where people turn to for real-time entertainment, inspiration, news and support, it’s also become an overwhelmingly powerful platform for brands and influencers. Motherhood is just one of the many verticals this social media platform has embraced. Many of the accounts that paint these perfect moments of motherhood are using professional photographers, prop stylists and hair and makeup teams, and some influencers are even paid to produce this content. It really is a job!

As a person who uses social media for business, I often post stylized photos of my daughter, my home and myself that will hopefully attract attention from Instagram users. And yes, these call for early morning glam squads, professional photographers, countless hours on Etsy searching for snarky mommy and me T-shirts, at least a dozen failed attempts at mastering an IG-worthy lattice pie crust and days of pre-prep in order to tackle just about every overly ambitious Pinterest DIY imaginable. That being said, I try to always be honest about how ridiculous it may look and how often it goes wrong before nailing that single frame. Case in point:

Photo: Leslie Bruce

So as Instagram evolves, we have to evolve along with it. I’m not suggesting we only share photos of our beet-faced screaming baby or the closet doors we kicked off the hinges during one of our more poetic new mom moments (guilty). Everyone likes pretty pics, myself included. My advice for new mamas is to take all those beautiful Insta-Mom photos with a grain of salt. Treat your Instagram feed like you would a magazine, knowing that carefully cropped square of perfection leaves the rest of reality out of the frame. And, I don’t know, maybe keep a velvet tufted sofa in that garage on the off chance you’re having a good hair day. But most of all, always remember: Motherhood is beautiful, but it’s not always pretty.

Leslie Bruce is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning entertainment journalist. She launched her parenting platform Unpacified as a place for like-minded women to come together on relatable ground, no matter how shaky, to discuss motherhood through an unfiltered, judgment-free lens of honesty and humor. Her motto is: ‘Being a mom is everything, but it's not all there is.’ Leslie lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Yashaar, and their 2-year-old daughter, Tallulah.

PHOTO: Masha Rotari