I see women at their lowest all the time. A front-facing camera invites me into a low-lit room where a woman with greasy hair and a stained bathrobe holds back tears as a baby clutches her breast. A mirror selfie in a stranger’s bathroom documents a postpartum breakdown, and the caption beneath a seemingly idyllic portrait of a mother and child reveals that it was actually taken at a time when this woman felt her worst.
We’re blessed to be benefiting from an era of refreshing candour in the world of mam influencers, where high-profile women are generous enough to make themselves vulnerable to a mass audience in the spirit of helping others. The old days, when we were only shown the carefully curated highs of motherhood, are all but banished, and we’re all the better for having heard more about the physically and emotionally gruelling lows.
By now, I’ve seen almost every kind of social media disclosure from the honest mams of the internet. But I recently saw something I’d never seen before. Above an unpolished breastfeeding selfie and a lengthy, heartfelt caption were two words: “paid partnership”. Midway down the post, the usual soft tone and tenor of a disclosure of postpartum difficulty took a jarring turn towards a sales pitch.
Ragging on people — particularly women — who make money from sponsored content is tedious and stupid. I’m more likely to listen to and trust an influencer I like over any other kind of traditional advertising, and I’ve scarcely been led wrong by them. I am delighted for any mother who is able to use social media to give her the financial autonomy to keep working from her home, if that’s what she wants. Women can try to sell me nappies and wipes on my timeline all day long; I don’t mind. What I do care about is a new shift that makes motherhood, and even mothers themselves, the product.
We like relatable women, and brands have noticed. I have now seen sponsored content use the honesty of struggling mothers to try to sell me everything from a babysitting service to chocolate — taking the authenticity of motherhood bloggers and making it spurious, for money. Huge companies are leaning into the idea that being a mother is hard, and we sometimes need a break — so why not buy something to try to make it better? It’s basically the same strategy that destroyed the term “wellness” by stripping it of all meaning and turning it into a way for brands to sell soft loungewear and eye masks.
I do not blame the mothers making these adverts, but I do blame the brands. It looks to me like the latest evolution in the complete commodification of motherhood. A glut of paid-partnership campaigns has already created the impression that motherhood is a thing we acquire through purchases, rather than something we naturally grow into. You must buy this expensive sling because you need it to bond with your baby. These high-gloss recipe books and pricey organic foods are how we show love to our baby. Don’t you want to make breastfeeding work? Try this pump. Still not working? Well, fed is best. Buy this formula machine instead.
These adverts are potent because they carry endorsements straight from the mouths of babes. Women who we feel we know and trust look into their phones, waving the latest product, and tell us that “the little one loves it!” This advertising appears to tenaciously target first-time mothers, which is something I think verges on exploitative once you consider how willing a nervous mam would be to spend any quantity of money to make her feel like she knows what she’s doing.
This new relatability advertising, like the post I saw, creates an additional pressure on the woman to spend money on herself, on top of the unimaginable amount she is expected to spend on her baby. Buy an indulgent treat, book a spa day: a good mammy finds time for balance and breaks. One of the greatest sins of this kind of sponsored content is that it is taking advantage of the thirst women have to hear from other mothers who are also finding it hard. It’s taken an audience eager for help, advice and empathy and tried to make a mother’s struggle a commodity.
Aside from that, we don’t need any more adverts aimed at mammies. Motherhood has enough economic restrictions on it already. An alarming amount of analysis of the increasing age of first-time mothers seems to paint young women as either selfish or stupid. The reality is that the cost of living is risking making one of the most normal choices for women the preserve of those with means. Big brands can keep their paid partnerships with stressed-out mams. I’m not buying it.