As part of the university-wide celebrations for International Women’s Day, I would like to share some of the early findings from my thesis, which centres around the digital experiences of first-time mothers.  

The main aim of my thesis is to investigate how idealised displays of motherhood by Instagram influencers impact the self-concept of first-time mothers. It seeks to achieve this by offering deep and rich insights into how mothers respond to images and words they see on Instagram in the moments directly after using the social media platform, via participant-created video diaries. The diary exercise is then followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews that aim to uncover whether the content mothers consume on Instagram is perceived as being real, even though they may be aware that such images are edited/filtered, thus exploring whether mothers believe there is an ideal and/or actual display of motherhood on Instagram.  

Data collection is in its early stages, but a pilot study with two first-time mothers has been concluded and yielded two different participant narratives: Olivia and Ava. 

Olivia expressed clear views in her interview about observing her friends losing themselves in motherhood and she was adamant she didn’t want that to happen to her; she was very clear that she didn’t want her former identity to disappear.  

Olivia had clear views about her own Instagram consumption and admitted being part of this study had made her question and reduce the length of time she was spending on social media in general, as well as Instagram in particular. She admitted that when she started to think about what she was doing on Instagram she didn’t care about what she was seeing; she thought a lot of the content was fake: 

“Sounds awful, but I don’t care what someone else is doing in their life. I don’t, Do I care? A lot of it (content on Instagram) I just find a little bit fake… even friends I’ve got on there (Instagram) I look at it and I think that’s not life. And it’s what I would put on if I was putting it (adding photos to Instagram) on, I wouldn’t put the rubbish on. But I just think ohh I don’t know, I’m not really that bothered. If I want to know or if you want to tell me, you’ll tell me.” 

Therefore, her time on Instagram was conducted with a sense of purpose. Olivia used Instagram to escape the ties of motherhood and instead made a conscious effort to pursue content about her own interests, such as football, interior design, and inspiration for her job as a teacher.  

While Olivia didn’t specifically follow any Instagram accounts for content on motherhood, she did see posts about motherhood from family and friends as well as more public figures, like celebrities and footballers she followed. What she preferred to see were the realities of motherhood, but she said it was rare to see this type of content displayed on Instagram. Instead, what she consumed was the type of motherhood content she termed as the fake, perfect depictions. Olivia felt she didn’t see herself as a mother reflected on Instagram and she wanted to see the tantrums, the potty-training accidents, the rawness of motherhood, but she felt it was very rare to see that type of content. It was clear there was a mismatch between motherhood on Instagram and her lived experience of motherhood: 

“A lot of the things that I follow (on Instagram) are things like that when you look at it, it’s like that’s real. That’s not um, that’s not airbrushed, and that’s not someone trying to make me feel good or bad. That’s just trying to share. So the way that I feel I wanted to be as a parent in that sense.” 

Olivia carefully curates what she prefers to see on Instagram but despite this, the algorithms of the platform still serve her content on motherhood that she felt was fake, like gender reveal parties, beautiful pregnancy images and serene home births. She rarely creates any posts or stories about herself and doesn’t post any content at all about her daughter on Instagram or any social media, as she believes that engagement with social media is her daughter’s choice to make when she is older. Olivia came across as confident in herself as mother and didn’t seem to be affected by online influencers as she was very aware of how fake the content was: 

“They’re airbrushed and they’re made to just be just not quite the real person, they are that just airbrushed enough to make them look perfect… Yes, I just, I don’t believe it. So, I just don’t want to see it, I just think if it’s not real life then I don’t want to know.” 

Like Olivia, Ava was aware that some images on Instagram were perceived as fake and unrealistic, but the main theme or thread that cropped up regardless of what was being discussed in Ava’s interview was the concept of time and Ava feeling she never had enough time to spend with her son. Ava kept referring back to the sense that others appeared to have a lot more time than she did. For example, when talking about whether the mums she sees depicted on Instagram are good mums, Ava said: 

“I don’t think they’re a better mum for doing that. Like, you know, do certain things over me? I don’t think. Ohh wow, they’re like this amazing mum, I just think like ohh I wish. Maybe I had a bit of time to do that and I wish you just think like maybe I should. Maybe I could manage my time better and I could be doing that.” 

Ava felt the mums she saw on Instagram had better support networks for looking after their children than she did and, therefore, they appeared to have more time than she did. Ava also felt the mums she saw on Instagram spent more time with their children than she did. The context for Ava’s interview was that she had just gone back to full-time employment six weeks prior to the interview, so it seemed like she was feeling ‘mum guilt’ for not spending as much time with her little boy as she was doing during maternity leave. In the interview Ava expressed that she thought mum influencers appeared to have an easier life with more time than her in more regular employment.  

“And they’re self-employed and they’re looking after their kids like through doing things like this (being an influencer on Instagram), that’s their job. But when I see people that are out for like walks with the children, it’s like Wednesday morning, I think I wish I could be out like doing that. I wish I could be doing this because I feel very restricted in my job.” 

There was also an underlying theme that came through in a lot of Ava’s discussion about mothers on Instagram that there is a certain Instagram aesthetic or rules everyone adheres to. Ava herself even admits to not posting photos unless she looks nice and everyone expects houses to look neat and tidy – even though everyone knows how messy your house gets with a baby or children. But people do not expect to see the reality on Instagram: 

“Like houses like you’re not gonna post something when it’s a mess in the background. Even I know when I post pictures. Even if it’s like, wires (in the way) or something like ohh. I’m like I’ll edit that so that it looks like a certain way. It’s just it’s like when you’re selling a house you’re not gonna show like the clutter are you so and you know to be like that (on Instagram).” 

At present not enough interviews have been conducted to draw any formal conclusions, but the two narratives above demonstrate two different attitudes and opinions on motherhood and Instagram. But there were themes that came through in both about how the Instagram algorithm feeds the idealised imagery of motherhood to people even when they don’t actively seek it out. Instagram is failing to demonstrate the realities of modern motherhood and instead just provides mothers with a snapshot or glimpse into how others experience it and so my research will continue with more first-time mothers.  

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *