Here's What It Takes to Be an Instagram Mom — And Why We're So Fixated With Them

Here's What It Takes to Be an Instagram Mom — And Why We're So Fixated With Them

Wake up. Homeschool three children and send the oldest off to public school. Fill the spaces in between with day job duties, snap photos and try to keep house and sanity in check.

This is an average day in the life for Hannah Carpenter, an award-winning freelance illustrator and mom of four in small-town Arkansas. Carpenter is an Instagram-famous mom with more than 49,800 followers.

When it comes to managing her daily online presence, such as choosing the products she needs to promote in her dreamy stills and videos, like custom-made jewelry, stylish children's footwear or certain designers' clothing, Carpenter said it's difficult to balance her schedule.

"I keep track of what we may need to take photos of that week," Carpenter told Mic. "If I have a product to shoot, I try to just fit it in here or there. I really don't want stuff like that to be a burden on my kids, so I try to keep it fun." 

Carpenter's schedule might be difficult, but her feed doesn't reflect that. It's full of carefree front porch, backyard and around-town adventures, as well as spirited video renditions of her daughter Enid singing and dancing to Adele and Drake. The photos are a combination of spontaneous and posed shots. "I try, even when I plan a shot, to get a real and natural expression," Carpenter said. "I may set up the shot (and push clutter out of the frame), but I do my best to let my kids act naturally. Many times, kids just doing what kids do ends up better than anything I could come up with on my own."

It doesn't always go that way.

"Of course there are times when I'm really needing to get a shot and I flip my lid or something because the kids aren't feeling it, but I'm only human," she said, "And so are they! For the most part, my kids really quite enjoy the photos. I think the key there is to let them be relaxed and be themselves in photos. Anytime I try to force something, everything falls apart."

Like any other Instagram star, the reality behind her photos is different than what followers are privy to in the 640-by-640 pixel views on their screens.

The unique appeal of Instagram motherhood: Carpenter is one of many well-known "Instagram moms" who've built their social media presences into a picture-perfect lifestyle brand, even when the reality of motherhood is anything but. 

Joy Cho is perhaps one of the best-known Insta-moms out there, with over 271,000 followers and counting, as well as collaborations with brands like Target. Followed by nearly 13 million users on Pinterest and featured in virtually every magazine, the Los Angeles-based designer, author and lifestyle icon is hugely influential — not just for her posts about her joyful offspring, but for all the vibrant colors, DIY decorations and whimsical ensembles she lays out for her and her daughters.

With over 237,000 followers is James Kicinski-McCoy, a Nashville-based creative director who specializes in strategic marketing and branding, as well as sugary sweet, light, airy photos that make it seem as if perhaps the pages of your favorite lifestyle magazine have come to life — a child in bed with a head of curls, half-cocked Batman mask, napping in luxurious swaths of white linens. McCoy's daily posts regularly rack up likes in the 6,000 to 8,000 range.  

Trolling beautiful people on Instagram for "inspiration" is social media business as usual at this point, but these moms have a special allure. Jason Dominy, a social media manager at Dalton Agency in Atlanta, said Instagram moms appeal so much to women in particular because "we're living in a voyeuristic society where we not only like to see how others are living, but live vicariously through them," he told Mic. "Young females who don't yet have kids are still working on figuring out what it looks like to be a mom and taking notes.

"There is also the minority of women who themselves aren't able to have kids, and really do live vicariously through the social media lens of their friends who do have kids."

"Young females who don't yet have kids are still working on figuring out what it looks like to be a mom and taking notes."

Hanna Jacunski, 22 and from Austin, Texas, said she follows several Insta-moms because she wants her own kids one day and enjoys daydreaming about the future — by looking at cute baby photos on Instagram — without the commitment of reading through a full blog post (much less, you know, having babies).

"Instagram is where I go to see motherhood look like Pinterest," she told Mic. And she's well aware only one side of their lives is being shown, she said. "I feel like it's OK, though? Instagram is my go-to for pretty things. Since it's just a quick scroll through, I want aesthetically pleasing things."

The resistance to showcasing reality: On social media, teens — particularly teen girls — are scrutinized and judged by how thin, attractive and popular they are. For mothers, the pressure is to fit another kind of mold, one notable for its "accessories" — a clean, beautifully styled house, a perfect marriage, adorable kids, etc. 

The pressure to attain that standard is amplified by living life in the spotlight. When 18-year-old Instagram star Essena O'Neill famously announced her retreat from social media fame in a video addressed to her half a million followers this year, she made a point to highlight the adverse effects of social media, especially when it comes to comparing ourselves to the curated images we see, which she said affected her and undoubtedly her followers as well.

But by and large, these moms aren't really interested in lifting the veil on what being a mom is like. 

Madelon, a Dutch mother of two who lives near Los Angeles, has over 58,600 Instagram followers, and her feed is populated with fairytale images of her son and daughter. She manages to capture the magical reverie of childhood similarly to a M83 music video featuring young people smiling and running through open spaces with kites. Her son wears a lion cap and roars in the middle of an empty field, while her daughter runs through city streets clad in a pink tutu and a golden crown headband. The next photos may spotlight adventures in a bicycle sidecar.

Although her Instagram serves as a daily log of sorts about her life, it doesn't show the full picture. When deciding what she should share on Instagram, she told Mic, "I don't want to talk about hard times, or things that are not going like I wish, just to make others feel better."

Similarly, Sandra Swital, an Instagram famous mother of three in Sweden with around 60,600 followers and a design shop associated with her account, said, "Instagram is not my reality, it's like a pretend world. This is a family home, not a showroom, and the kids are not always smiling. I choose to show the good parts because that's what I want to show."

That may be partly because such parents are on social media for a different reason in the first place. Larissa Greer, a creative consultant based in San Francisco, said many of these women arrive to social media with branding savvy under their belts. Cho, for example, was a professional graphic designer-turned-blogger before she even had children. Kicinski-McCoy used blogging to market her clothing boutique and stylist work before Instagram even came along. 

"A lot of these women worked in editorial [and] social media professionally," Greer told Mic, "and I think many of them transitioned into bloggers (who are already product-, marketing- and partnership-savvy) so they could be stay-at-home moms. Young moms are the most profitable purchasing market from a purely marketing standpoint... So if you knew that already, why not try to get a piece of the [money]?"

"A lot of these women worked in editorial [and] social media professionally."

And followers seem to be eager for a certain kind of feed. If Madelon and Swital feel pressure, they expressed, it's not to lift the veil but rather keep it firmly down — nobody wants to be brought down by seeing behind the curtain.

Swital said her followers prefer to see the prettier, more stylized moments, though she doesn't necessarily feel pressure to be "positive and smiling." When asked if she was interested in showing the reality of life as a mom online, Swital said, "No one wants to see my dirty laundry on Instagram. But mostly I don't feel like sharing it. There are other Instagram accounts for that."

Alternatively, Carpenter admits to hiding the literal clutter of her home but openly admits some of the hardships of parenting, like in a post in which she talks about the fact that her eldest daughter is not hers biologically, and that one of her sons is not biological to her current partner. "But we are family, and we are evidence that family has little to do with biology and everything to do with love and sacrifice, suffering and celebrating life together," she wrote to her followers.

She said she tells those who comment or write to her praising her for being perfect and having everything together to "come see my house. It's regularly a pretty intense mess. And even though I push mess out of frame for shots, I do try to convey enough reality through my Instagram self so as not to make people feel like they aren't doing enough. I want to be inspiring yet relatable."

Do we really need to get real on Instagram? While many in the elite community of famous Instagram moms admit that their online images aren't the "full picture," to a certain extent, these moms and their followers think that's OK.

"It's a bit of inspiration, a bit of rose-colored glasses, a bit of pipe dream," Jacunski said. "My mom or any other mom I know in my personal life can tell me about the nitty-gritty of parenting."

The moms Mic spoke with all repeated similar sentiments. "It may look perfect, but there is no such thing as a perfect life," Swital told Mic. "Never forget to enjoy what you have."

There are, of course, other concerns, ranging from the psychological effects on the children, potential predators lurking online and how parents grapple with their own identities as mothers. Dominy pointed out the consequences for followers, mainly that the concept of being "Instagram famous" plays on our worst strains of narcissism.

"It becomes an ugly beast when we rely on and place great value on what our worth is through social media," Dominy said. "I think we, as a culture, more than ever crave real affection and love, and sadly it can come in the form of likes and hearts on Instagram. This leads to the unhealthy practice of staging our lives for small photos on social media platforms."