How Ballerinafarm's husband made me start a newsletter.
Because not all of us live lives lit up by buckets of light courtesy of an apparently callous window.
Taking a deep breath before I begin. Because guys. There’s so much here.
I highly recommend you stroll over to Instagram before continuing. Here’s the inciting post.
So I’ve been obsessed with Hannah Neeleman (@ballerinafarm) for a few years now. And my obsession may or may not have been the seed that led to me writing a piece for Harper’s Bazaar interrogating my fraught relationship with momfluencer culture, and that Harper’s piece may or may not have led to me writing a book proposal unpacking my obsession further. MOMFLUENCED is due April 1st to my editor, but I’m feeling decent about where I’m at and also I couldn’t not write about this so here we are.
Way back in January, 2021, I wrote this about Hannah for Harper’s:
She is a new face to the momfluencer stratosphere, but one of many conventionally beautiful, straight, white women who perform a version of motherhood that feels like pioneer cosplay hit with a dash of Brooklyn hipster aesthetics. Hannah presents her life as a utopia of yesteryear when women cooked hot lunches for their hardworking men and smiled whilst serving them. She announced her sixth pregnancy with an actual pirouette.
I just rewatched that pregnancy announcement video and I was wrong about the pirouette. I apologize. It’s more of a jaunty knee-lift (surely an actual ballet term).
In the video, Hannah is surrounded by kids. She is beaming as if she knows a juicy secret and is a little smug about no one else knowing it. Most of all, though, in the video, she makes motherhood and pregnancy look like a lark. Upon first watching the video (IN APRIL 2020), Hannah’s throw-away smile crept into me and still lives somewhere inside me, sitting heavily between my ribs.
But this essay is not about Hannah. Not really. If you want more Hannah musings, you can read my Harper’s piece (and buy my book when it comes out! She’s all up in there!) And definitely check out this excellent conversation between Meg Conley and Anne Helen Petersen published in Anne Helen’s newsletter (Meg also has a brilliant newsletter but I’m sure you already know that), which delves into Mormonism, the performance of femininity, the realities of farming (versus the Instagram version of farming), and the mythology of the nuclear white family. If you want more momfluencer content in general, Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s newsletter is a delight and a joy (she wrote a legendary essay about @rudyjude which I will treasure forever), and Jo Piazza’s must-listen podcast, Under the Influence, will lay bare the truths of how momfluencer culture became a multi-billion industry, and what that industry can reveal about motherhood, social media, and all the things.
But this essay is not about Hannah. This essay is about Daniel. Or, as he can be found on Instagram, @hogfathering.
Daniel Neeleman is one of the heirs to Jetblue, which isn’t really part of his brand, since his brand is contingent on a pulling-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps type of ethos. The fact that Daniel likely inherited a bunch of money with which to start a working farm on a huge swathe of land in an extremely desirable part of Utah isn’t necessarily a secret, but it’s also not something Daniel or Hannah ever publicly address.
@hogfathering is a relatively new account. Daniel’s first post went up in February of this year and features a carousel of photos of Daniel and Hannah, the first of which looks like a legitimately shitty iPhone pic of the pair holding one of their first newborns. I took note of Daniel’s (I keep finding myself wanting to call him Dan or Danny) nascent account when it was created, but the fact of it did little but cause me mild bemusement. Like, oh yeah, totally. Of course he’s finally getting online. Being online, after all, has been an intrinsic part of he and Hannah’s livelihood, and Hannah’s massive online following is probably almost wholly responsible for Ballerina Farm frequently selling out of Ballerina Farm long-sleeve tees and Ballerina Farm freeze-dried sourdough starter (her name is Willa, folks).
So yeah. Of course he was eventually gonna get on the ‘gram.
But this morning, as I sat in my usual corner with my usual cup of PG Tips wearing my usual pair of earplugs which I wear to drown out the sweet musical offerings of my kids’ morning viewing of Cocomelon, April Daniels Hussar, the managing editor at Romper, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a few pieces (a couple of which are about momfluencers!), DMed me on Insta with a link to THE POST, writing simply: “I need to share this with someone who understands.”
April. You came to the right place.
Ok. So the photo features Hannah and four of her kids piled atop a couch. There’s another kid on the adjacent window-seat (and that kid is, I guess, getting doused with more “buckets of light” than the rest of the family).
The couch itself has been the subject of much debate in momfluencer circles. It’s golden in hue and looks vaguely like a stiff, threadbare couch you might find in your grandma’s house. It doesn’t look particularly comfy, nor does it seem particularly practical for a family of eight (almost nine).
The kids are all either smiling or looking fully engaged with whatever they’re reading so right off the back I’m suspicious. Hannah has written in the past about homeschooling the kids, which is another topic that endlessly fascinates people in my group chats. The idea that one single human (Hannah) juggles the huge amount of interior domestic work (the cooking, the sourdough baking, the time-lapsed cleaning) combined with the ample outside work (so much milking!) combined with being a full-time momfluencer combined with merely keeping six kids alive let alone EDUCATING them has always seemed mathematically impossible.
But Hannah looks nonplussed in the photo. She looks calm. Peaceful. She looks relaxed. Certainly more relaxed that I would be if I was in my third trimester of pregnancy and trying to teach five kids age-appropriate material.
The photo is well-lit.
I’m gonna go ahead and post the entirety of the caption here because it, like the photo, is a RICH TEXT.
“Hannah prefers cooking, cleaning, and reading during natural light hours. She calls it the clearest and most invigorating light, irreplaceable by artificial contributors. The children, diurnal creatures in their own right, agree. In light of this, I often stumble upon a jam packed school study session stationed near the ample living room window. Stunningly crafted and presenter of breathtaking mount views, this treasured window is a people magnet in our home as it carelessly dumps buckets of natural light onto grateful recipients below."
The first think that struck me as I read this while simultaneously telling my kids to get their own toast because I’M VERY BUSY RIGHT NOW is that Hannah, in this post, is rendered voiceless. We are told about her preferences regarding domestic labor and reading (for pleasure? we don’t know) by her husband, who, as is clear from the effusiveness of his words and the beatific quality of the photo, likes what he sees.
Hannah doesn’t tell us about her preference to clean by the “clearest and most invigorating” light of daytime; Daniel does. We can’t be sure if she thinks lightbulbs are “artificial contributors,” and we certainly don’t know if Hannah thinks the huge “treasured window” is quite as thoughtless about how it sheds light as Daniel seems to think it is. I’d love to know what Hannah has to say about cleaning and cooking. I’d also love to hear from the window. Does the window truly give as little fucks as Daniel would have us believe? Or is the window very carefully and deliberately gathering sunlight in multiple buckets with which to grace the inhabitants of Ballerina Farm. Let the window speak.
So yeah. I don’t love the fact that a man in a marriage apparently defined by extremely traditional gender norms (he does the outside tractor-ing and she does the inside butter churning) is speaking for his wife. Don’t love it.
I also don’t love how the idealization of natural light is intrinsically connected to access to wealth. Many, many, many people cannot afford “ample” windows (let alone windows that not only can wield buckets but can also conduct presentations of “breathtaking mount views”). Many, many people work jobs and live lives that require the use of light bulbs. And the implication that “natural light” (just like “natural mothers,” “natural childrearing,” “natural foods,” and “natural living”) is morally superior to an entirely blameless electric light bulb is annoying and maddening. We know it’s ridiculous to assign morality to light but its undeniably true that the idealization of rural “back to nature” lifestyles is predicated on a vilification of urban lifestyles. It’s no coincidence that many of the people who can afford to live in big houses on big stretches of land are white and that many people who live in the city are not.
And then there’s the use of the word “stumbling,” which I think is doing a lot of work here. Daniel is not “purposefully striding” into the home-school session to, say, bring his wife a snack or announce that lunch is ready, or even to help with the teaching. He is engaged with his own affairs, and only privy to this cozy domestic scene because he happened to “stumble” upon it.
Let’s not forget about the “creatures!”
The children, diurnal creatures in their own right, agree.
Do they? Has Daniel polled the kids to see if they really find the nastiness of “artificial” light (what is artificial about it?! light is light is light!) a true imposition to their studies? And why is he calling the children creatures (and Hannah too) at all? The use of the word “creature” is inherently demeaning, no matter the user’s good intentions. Would Daniel call himself a creature?
Which brings me to diurnal which brings me to mount which brings me to the rapturous comments below Daniel’s post praising Daniel’s prowess as a wordsmith. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE. The vaunted language! The loftiness! The “stunningly crafted” people-magnet of a window incessantly hauling and dumping buckets of light! As I write this essay, I’m not wholly convinced Daniel is serious. Is this a joke? A tongue-in-cheek passage meant to satirize the often flowery language used by some momfluencers to describe their rosy tinted lives?
I DON’T KNOW.
But if Daniel is serious, apparently his verbal stylings are attracting fans. Here’s a wee smattering of reader responses.
Listen, I’m a snarky bitch writing an entire essay about a stranger’s Instagram post, but I’d like to think that were I to write an ode to a window, I would at least first figure out if I love the window as a “treasured” part of my household or if I thought the window was a careless piece of shit. The language might be pretty Daniel, but your thesis is muddy.
Before I conclude, this entire post encapsulates the darkness at the heart of some momfluencer spheres: the celebration and perpetuation of idealized white motherhood. The glorification of the beautiful (as she should be) thin (as she should be) non-disabled (as she should be) white (as she should be) cis-het (as she should be) mother (as she should be) surrounded by her beautiful children (as she should be) engaged in domestic tasks (as she should be) in her home (as she should be) and apparently made wholly happy (as she fucking should be!) by complete devotion to serving others. I say apparently, because, of course, we don’t know if Hannah is happy about any of this because she is the object of this post, not the subject. Daniel is the one telling us the image is beautiful. Daniel’s gaze, and Daniel’s point of view, is essential. Mother and children (in this case and in many cases in momfluencer culture) only exist to please an external gaze.
I hope this fever dream of an essay was worth reading because I enjoyed writing it!
Here’s a few more momfluencer-centric pieces if you feel like going on a tear.
My take on a momfluencer thriller and why we love to hate momfluencers
I apologize in advance for any careless typos (I wrote this in haste!) I promise to make this newsletter prettier and figure my shit out as soon as I turn my book in but in the meantime, thank you for indulging me and feel very free to share your feelings about our favorite father of hogs below!