All these self-styled experts online drown out the intuitive voice of the parent and sow doubt in every decision that they make.
One evening, when my daughter was about six months old, while I was alone and hanging laundry in my closet, I burst into tears. My partner of six years walked into the room. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes. I didn’t explain anything. I just said, “Can I have a hug?” We went to Target that night and bought formula.
I had been exclusively breastfeeding and pumping before that moment. When I was pregnant, the teachings of the radical midwife Ina May Gaskin were my guiding light. I hired a doula to help me deliver Alma at a birth center, rather than a hospital, so that I could achieve the low-intervention water birth I envisioned. But fantasy rarely matches reality: At around thirty weeks, my midwife discovered that Alma was in the breech position. A month later, her head had still not lowered into the birth canal, and we scheduled a C-section.
Alma’s birth was lifesaving for both of us, but it was devastating nonetheless. I pictured vaginal birth as a spiritual, ecstatic experience that would triumphantly mark my passage into motherhood—the cold, surgical C-section, which took away all my agency in the birthing process, held none of that promise.
Breastfeeding was the last vestige of my plans for how I would bond and connect with Alma in the moments (and months) after she was born, doubly important now because after the surgery, I had a panic attack while on anesthesia and didn’t want to hold or touch her. To abandon breastfeeding would be to give up on the type of mother I wanted to be—one deeply connected to the power and capability of her body and the needs of her baby, which I wrongly assumed I could only be if I breastfed exclusively. The immense pressure I put on myself was not sustainable.
While I was on my six-month maternity leave, I breastfed Alma curled up on the left side of the couch for arduous forty-minute breastfeeding sessions. Then I would put her down and pump right after to stimulate my milk supply. I was terrified of a sudden drop in my supply—I’d read extensive anecdotes online about it happening—but the process was exhausting. It made me feel like an unwilling passenger in my own body. In the early months of Alma’s life, I pumped five to seven times per day, sometimes waking myself up at three in the morning to squeeze in another session.
My grip on my pumping schedule only loosened once I went back to work, but I still pumped at least three times a day. My partner would head up to our bedroom at around nine, but I would sit in the living room for another two hours, waiting until I could pump one final time before bed. The couch, where I sat with my legs curled up under my butt until my bones stiffened, became a cage.
Every time I tried to talk, my head felt empty. It was like pushing my tongue through cotton balls. My short-term memory was so shot that I had to tape a note to our oven that read “Don’t forget to turn OFF.” But at least I had a freezer full of pumped breast milk to show for my efforts—just like all the other moms on Instagram, who portrayed themselves as hardworking and determined. I felt like one of them.
Once I got into bed at night, though, I scrolled through Instagram accounts dedicated to support and information for moms who chose formula. The feeling of the flange suctioning my exposed nipple made my skin crawl. I just needed reassurance that it was okay for me to stop pumping. I read long comments from women telling their stories: how they had spiraled with anxiety over low milk supply, tongue ties, the perfect latch, a baby who cried constantly and always seemed hungry—and decided, for their own mental health, to switch to formula. I felt a kinship with them.
Their stories brought me little comfort, though. My own mental health struggles—brain fog, exhaustion, bouts of despondency—are what motivated me to begin supplementing Alma’s breast milk diet with formula, not the advice I read on social media. So many voices and opinions, so many people claiming to be experts and to have the right answer. Online, I only felt more reason to question the kind of mother I turned out to be.
There is no limit to the information pouring in from every corner of the internet. For parents in particular, this situation is probably more curse than blessing. Every parenthood Instagram account claims to have the answer to the riddle that is your child.
Why won’t my baby sleep in her crib? There’s a baby sleep coach for that. Why do you believe your baby even needs to sleep in a crib? There’s an all-natural mama influencer to help deliver you from that limited mindset. You think you’re getting answers to your questions when you click a tile or watch a video, but what you’ll really find is more contradictions, especially when you start reading the comments. Is it dangerous to co-sleep, when the baby sleeps in bed with the parents? Yes, there is no way to co-sleep safely. But wait! Every culture outside the West co-sleeps, so actually co-sleeping is not dangerous at all!
But there’s some helpful information to be found amid all the noise too. There are, for example, infographics explaining the difference between powder and ready-to-feed formulas, and how to use an electric toothbrush to help loosen a clogged milk duct. Parents can access these resources quickly (as long as they know where to look), forgoing a call to the pediatrician or a pricey appointment with a lactation consultant—although it’s probably smart to verify with a doctor any health-related information you find online.
I found these resources helpful too. Despite reassurances from Alma’s pediatrician that she was growing normally, her weight caused me relentless anxiety. Afraid that a poor breastfeeding latch was preventing proper milk transfer, I turned to an Instagram video of a real child demonstrating a successful latch. It includes a breakdown of how the chin, nose, and lips should be positioned and doesn’t distract from the content with any harmful “breast is best” messaging.
For months, each time we settled in for a feeding, I consulted that video. My frazzled nerves were calmed by the evidence that we were breastfeeding correctly. In my moment of need, this particular corner of Momfluencer culture proved invaluable. That’s the ideal: This deluge of information should educate parents, or at least give them more data to help them make informed decisions. In reality, it has the opposite effect. All these self-styled experts drown out the intuitive voice of the parent and sow doubt in every decision that they make.
So many voices and opinions, so many people claiming to be experts and to have the right answer. Online, I only felt more reason to question the kind of mother I turned out to be.
After I stopped pumping, I slept more, but I wasn’t happier. Tormented voices argued in my mind at all hours over the decision to introduce formula to my daughter’s diet. Was I selfish or just lazy? Why wasn’t I tough enough to keep pumping like those exclusively pumping moms I read about online? The more time I spent online searching for reassurance, the more I second-guessed a decision I had once been sure was the right one.
Under these circumstances, it’s not hard to understand why parents—and mothers in particular, who are often the subject and target of conflicting conversations about the “right” way to parent—are left feeling totally clueless about how to raise their children.
From the moment she was born, I observed my daughter like a scientist. I watched the way she twisted her wrists, wriggled her fingers, the way she scrunched her nose and puckered her lips. I made recordings in my mind of her bahs, mamas, and bum, bum, bums. The two of us developed an almost-telepathic connection, and it became easy work to intuit her needs. I thought I knew her.
Yet I still couldn’t resist the siren call of parenting advice. At first, I felt like a smart and responsible information gatherer. There was plenty of content that resonated with me: the video describing why parents should say “that was so brave” instead of “good job” (you’re supposed to “encourage not evaluate”), or the one about how parents can actively engage with school-age children by asking “What is something you learned today?” instead of “How was your day?”
But no matter how sound the advice seemed, it also caused me to constantly second-guess my instincts. If “Goob job!” came flying out my mouth after my daughter took a step or used a spoon, a spasm of guilt would flood my mind with a vision of grown-up Alma struggling in school because I turned her into a “praise junkie.”
All this new parenting information floated inside my head like algae choking a pond. Should I ignore it or take it all seriously? Maybe the thing to do is try every parenting method at least once—ditch the light-up toys and the occasional screen time, stop buying purees and feed her solid food exclusively, dissemble the crib and sleep with her every night. But nearly everything I watched seemed to imply that I didn’t know my daughter as well as I thought I did.
Although online parenting advice is often contradictory and conflicting, each method or strategy is presented with the same authoritative and confident voice, adding to my feeling that whatever knowledge I thought I had about parenting was somehow always incorrect. I would get acclimated to gentle parenting, then scroll past a video exposing why it’s actually “dangerous.” It all felt designed to convey the message that the way I was raising my daughter was well-meaning but ultimately harmful. It hardly matters what my day-to-day parenting actually consists of, because it will never align with the smoothed-over and simplified version of parenting found online.
When Alma and I are playing, I forget all my insecurity and apprehension. While she eats breakfast in her high chair, I read out loud to her from my most recent library acquisition. We watch Pink Floyd performances on YouTube and construct unsteady block towers. When I engage with her, the one person who might know exactly what she wants, the desire to look to strangers on the internet for parenting advice recedes.
I get more joy from observing her habits and routines—her impatient squeals while she waits for her scrambled eggs to cool down, the way she shouts “bye” a beat after I’ve already walked out of the room—than I ever did looking for someone on Instagram who claims to have solved the mysteries of parenting. But what I read there still has a hold on me: The shame I felt about using formula only subsided when she switched to milk at one year old.
Parenting Instagram elevates the parenting “hack” as a viable alternative to uninterrupted time getting to know the child you have, not the child you want. And it preys on those who desperately wish to change the type of parent they are—one that can breastfeed, afford wooden toys, or coax her baby to sleep in her crib—even when that change would never work for their body, personality, or family.
My daughter contains all the parenting information that I need.
Almost all those infographics and videos rely on the illusion that parents are doing everything wrong—saying the wrong words, feeding the wrong meals, even sleeping the wrong way. The right answer seems like it is just around the corner in the next tile, but in reality, social media–based parenting advice is designed to offer no resolution. There is no Instagram parenting influencer, no matter what package, course, or e-book they sell you, that can solve problems that have no other solution besides listening to your child with genuine curiosity.
I have learned to take comfort in uncertainty more often, in the uncomfortable truth that most of the time, I don’t know. But I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, I will still love my daughter. And she will be safe, and happy, most of the time. My daughter contains all the parenting information that I need. Intuition isn’t flawless, and it doesn’t work every time, but at least it’s based on what she shows and tells me. That’s all the information I have, and it is enough.
Elisabeth Sherman is the food and drink editor at Matador Network. She lives in New Jersey.