Mom Culture on Instagram Is a Toxic Lie
“Perfectly imperfect” still implies a state of perfection.
MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy
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Her face was practically a Sephora ad and her hair, a cascade of smooth, shiny, strategically mussed waves. She was holding her newborn with glossy manicured nails in a slightly messy room—a burp cloth on the arm of the couch, a pacifier on the table, toys on the floor. The caption of the Instagram photo began, “Life isn’t always picture-perfect.” I wondered how she had the time to do her hair and makeup when I couldn’t remember the last time I showered. I was holding my own newborn, so I couldn’t throw my phone across the room out of sheer frustration. Instead, I cried. A lot.
People think they know what postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety look like. It’s the scary headlines of new mothers doing unspeakable things to hurt themselves or their children. It’s ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order episodes and controversial movies starring Charlize Theron. But postpartum depression doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes, I’ve found, it looks like me.
Postpartum depression and anxiety isn’t black and white—there’s a whole lot of grey. It exists along a continuum, and because unrealistic standards make women reluctant to open up to friends and family, more than half of women with PPD go undiagnosed.
As new moms, we are thrust into a massive shift in identity and responsibility. Naturally, we look for solidarity and reassurance online and on social media. But in our current Insta-fame-obsessed society, moms are so caught up in their “perfectly imperfect” rhetoric and images that they’re inadvertently alienating the very people they think they’re connecting with.
You know the types of posts I’m talking about. That done-up mom who’s “getting by” even though life is “so hard.” She’s lost all the baby weight yet her body “just isn’t the same.” But wow, isn’t motherhood the most amazing miracle of life? And sometimes she looks legitimately disheveled, but if she's got the time and wits about her to post on Instagram, then she's better off than a lot of us.
These “perfectly imperfect” moms aren’t helping women through their time of matrescence (the transition into motherhood). In fact, they may be more deleterious than the moms who peddle perfection. Perfectly imperfect content is a way to commiserate with women on a superficial level without revealing any wounds that are deeper than a paper cut. This can lead to more feelings of isolation and deter new moms from seeking help from a professional when they need it the most.
“In an effort to validate just how hard it is to be a mom under normal circumstances, social media may be minimizing the experience of very real pathology such as postpartum depression and/or anxiety,” says Leslie Ackerman, a New York City-based psychologist. “As a result of being bombarded with information, new moms experiencing PPD or PPA may be less likely to seek help as social media has inadvertently normalized atypical responses to stressors or emotional states that require clinical intervention.”
When my son arrived one year ago, I was overwhelmed and stunned. I knew I loved him, but I was terrified. Our hospital room was tiny, but I didn’t want to leave. There were no nurses at our apartment, and my bed didn’t have a button I could press when I had a question. We soon learned our baby had jaundice and were asked to stay an extra night. I was so relieved.
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Going home, it was dark—and not just because it was 8 PM. It was a different kind of dark, like someone had put a blanket over my whole world. When I think back about the weeks after we brought our son home, I can only see black, as if it were nighttime the entire time.
I was overcome with anxiety. I dreaded changing his diaper, because he would scream and scream and scream. Breastfeeding wasn’t working, and I wasn’t sleeping. This was compounded by mastitis, an abscess in my breast, and not one, not two, but three allergic reactions to the different antibiotics I took to treat it. I was so worried about sudden infant death syndrome and suffocation that I would have nightmares about it or lie awake at night because of it. The thought of taking him outside seemed impossible and imprudent because of viruses, loud noises, the temperature, the sun, strangers, bugs, and dogs, among other things.
At my six-week postpartum appointment, I explained to my doctor how I was feeling, only to be given a multiple-choice postpartum depression test that anyone could pass. I looked for articles on PPD that matched my symptoms and tried to find personal accounts of women who were experiencing similar levels of anxiety. There wasn’t much—just surface-level blog posts with cloying resolutions and cursory links to mental health sites.
Research says 70 to 80 percent of women experience baby blues (which tends to be less severe), while 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression. Already, we’re being told what is normal and what is not—the majority of people have the baby blues, while only a small percent have PPD. We associate PPD with deep shame for not being the perfect, happy mother. Worse, PPD is often confused with postpartum psychosis, a stigmatized disorder that makes women reticent to reveal how they’re feeling.
“Many people do not seek help due to not having enough information about what postpartum depression actually is,” says Ariela Vasserman, a psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Others attribute some depressive or anxiety symptoms to the natural course of motherhood, believing it is ‘normal’ to feel a certain way after giving birth. Worries about one’s ability to parent—or worries about others’ judgments—as well as shame and stigma are further obstacles for women to seek treatment.” In my experience, the glamorization of postpartum chaos and consequent feeling of being less-than can add to this shame.
I knew something was wrong. Thankfully, I had been seeing a wonderful therapist before I got pregnant, so I ramped up our sessions. We came up with a plan: I’d try to get more sleep (yeah, okay), make more time for exercise, and get out of the house for 15 minutes every day, no matter what. If there was no change within a month or so, I’d seek a psychiatrist and look into prescription medication.
The plan worked for me. The walks, the workouts, the fresh air, the occasional meet-up with a sympathetic new mom—all of it made the scary tears less frequent. I could see how dark of a place I was in before because I was now basking in some much-needed light. There were setbacks, of course (like the time I was stuck in traffic with my crying son and let out a frustrated guttural scream behind the wheel, which completely terrified him), but I was given the tools to identify my triggers and deal with them. After several months of my therapy plan, I finally understood what all the moms were talking about—I was able to be with my baby and truly enjoy it.
I’ve always spoken candidly about my experience, even in the darkest times, but I’ve found that a lot of women don’t want to talk about motherhood in the context of mental health. Instead of keeping it surface and light with paradoxical Instagram images, we need to take down this shame curtain by being open, honest, and kind with each other.
We need to be more forthright about our feelings in order to normalize them, maybe on social media, maybe not. So many of us are suffering in silence because we’re not being truthful. Admitting that you really don’t want to deal with a shit-filled diaper and a screaming baby while your vagina is still swollen and bleeding? That’s, well, real.
New moms: Let’s talk about wearing spit-up on your jeans all day, which are actually your maternity jeans because they're the only ones that still fit you and the baby weight you have yet to lose. Post a photo of your baby standing in a puddle of his own pee because you ran out of diapers and thought a swim diaper would do (pro tip: swim diapers aren't absorbent) and admit aloud that you felt deep despair, not just amusement, during the debacle. “Perfectly imperfect” still implies a state of perfection. The key to breaking down superficial barriers and impossible expectations for ourselves is by opening the lines of communication and creating safe spaces for women to ask for help if they need it.
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