How Gwyneth made me obsessed with momfluencers.
And why clean countertops loom so large.
Like all good origin stories, this one started with Gwyneth Paltrow.
I saw the Gwyneth version of Great Expectations when I was in high school and Gwyneth’s icy performance of cool (plus the fact that she played a star-crossed lover to my crush of all crushes, Ethan Hawke) made an indelible impact on me, which I wrote about here. Largely thanks to this movie, and Gwyneth’s performance in it, I spent most of my twenties trying to be whatever the guy I was with wanted me to be. It was all super chill and did great things for my sense of self.
Fast forward a few years, and Gwyneth became a mom. But not just any mom. Because she’s Gwyneth, her motherhood was special. And cool. Shortly after Apple’s birth, a photo of Chris Martin (basically Ethan Hawke except with music), Gwyneth, and baby Apple lit up the pages of Us Weekly and In Touch. In the photo, Gwyneth’s beachy waves are windblown and she looks up at her hot British husband with kinetic joy. Chris cradles the baby and can’t seem to believe his luck. The hospital id bracelet is still on Apple’s tiny foot.
Everything about Gwyneth’s vibe in this photo made motherhood look like something I should want. The love, the boho top, the almost palpable sense of effortlessness the photo communicates. She’s a goddess in that photo. Or at least, she was to me, back in 2004. And my subconscious, which had relied so heavily on Gwyneth for so long as an instruction manual for how to be, started to view (if subconscious selves can view stuff) motherhood as not just something my mom and aunts did, but a performance that could imbue me with magic. That could give me a sense of self. That could make people see me. The real me. In 2004, I had no clue who the real me was, but this photo of Gwyneth as blissed-out maternal goddess seemed as good a thing as anything else to aspire to.
After my motivation and ambition petered out for my first professional goal (acting), and then another (academia), I got married and flushed my birth control pills down the toilet on the honeymoon without telling my husband (BAD I KNOW). Shortly after, I emotionally manipulated him into getting on board with having kids like immediately. Brett wanted kids but also wanted to just, like, be married for one second and take a breath. He was rational and probably had seriously considered how significantly children would irrevocably change our lives. Would change us. I was not and did not.
Following a pregnancy that fulfilled all my fantasies of pregnancy (the glow, relatively low-key symptoms, a “cute bump,” external praise and attention), I had my first baby. I’ll write about it more in a future newsletter, but my first few months of motherhood did not fulfill my expectations. I did not feel like Gwyneth. I felt like a stranger to myself. I felt like I was wearing an ill-fitting costume. I eventually got a prescription for Zoloft which helped a LOT, but the first year of motherhood mostly made me think that I was a victim to a culture-wide scam. I’ll write more about this in future newsletters too!
Anyway, when my second baby was born, I discovered Taza, who supplanted Gwyneth as my ideal of performative motherhood. So colorful! So adorably freckly! Most of all, so joyful. So, so, joyful in a role that for me, was sometimes joyful, sure, but was mostly lots of doing. Lots of diaper changing, lots of picking up of toys, lots of calendar reminders, lots of clock-watching, lots of forced patience, lots of rage. I didn’t get Taza. How was she the way she seemed to be? What could I change about my own motherhood to be more like her? Was it something I could buy?
I started writing professionally largely as a way to process my existential crisis of maternal identity. I wrote about sleep. I wrote about wanting to be a hot mom. I wrote about sexist parenting tropes. I wrote about rage. I wrote about wanting a third kid partly to bolster my still shaky sense of self as someone who mattered. Momfluencer culture is about all of these things. But it wasn’t until an editor at Harper’s Bazaar said yes to a pitch which began with the line: “I'm addicted to momfluencers,” that I began to see the connections between performative motherhood on social media and all of my personal maternal angst.
Taza led me to Amber Fillerup Clark which led me to Amanda Watters which led me to Courtney Adamo which led me to Julia Berolzheimer which led me to Bri Heiligenthal. So many pretty mamas. So many beachy waves. SO MANY CLEAN COUNTERTOPS.
I named this newsletter In Pursuit of Clean Countertops because I suck at keeping my countertops clean, because I feel calmer when my countertops are clean, because clean countertops are aspirational, because momfluencers make clean countertops look like clarity, because the “right” clean countertops speak to “good taste,” which speaks to class, which speaks to race, which speaks to gender, which speaks to performance which speaks to momfluencer culture. I could’ve named the newsletter In Pursuit of Beachy Waves. Or In Pursuit of the Perfect Red Lip. Or In Pursuit of Ecru Linen Jumpsuits. Or In Pursuit of Maternal Peace. The point is, momfluencer culture, for me, is always about pursuit. And that’s what I want to explore in this newsletter. What am I pursuing? What are momfluencers pursuing? What are marketing execs at Huggies pursuing? What are you pursuing?
And how is the pursuit impacting you? Are you (like me) simultaneously enraged, inspired, revolted, and full of desire?
I’m obsessed with momfluencers. Are you?
Please tell me all the things. And if you have a friend who you think might dig this newsletter, please share!
Oh, and if you want to read more about me and Gwynnie, here’s a thing. And if you want to read the opus of all Gwyneth pieces, read this absolutely brilliant profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the last line of which will occupy a special place in my soul for all of eternity. And if you want a link to a seriously life-changing travel tea kettle that will save you from shuffling into hotel lobbies un-caffeinated, here’s one. I used it this weekend so am freshly awash in gratitude for its assistance in keeping my introverted self safe from prying eyes and basic social pleasantries.