Still sucked in even though I wrote a book about it!
On momfluencer pregnancies and the ineffable power of momfluencer culture
A few days ago, Julie D. O’Rourke announced her pregnancy.
O’Rourke is the creator of the Rudy Jude clothing line, and I’ve been following her for several years (and devote quite a few pages to her in Momfluenced), because I’m frankly owned by her irresistible combination of lush, earthy aesthetics; her creativity and craftiness; and her enviable sweater collection. I also happen to be a person who overthinks and second guesses and tries to mindfully breathe away intrusive thoughts about how I responded/reacted/seemed/performed in nearly any given circumstance, so perhaps the most alluring component of O’Rourke’s Instagram account (for me) is O’Rourke’s conspicuous lack of self-consciousness. Her sense of self seems solid as hell, and even though I’m acutely aware that I know absolutely nothing about O’Rourke as a real person, I’ll admit to fully believing that her IRL self more or less matches the self she’s performing on social media. Maybe that’s the power of her storytelling and imagery. Maybe that’s the strength of my parasocial bond with her. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither!
Since wrapping up book edits a few months ago, I’ve made a concerted effort to release myself from the pressure of keeping up with some of my pet momfluencers (Julie D. O’Rourke included). I’ve enjoyed the quiet, and it’s been relatively easy to stay up to date with zeitgeisty momfluencer news without actively following the momfluencers involved, since I am far from alone in reporting and writing about momfluencer culture.
But when my cousin sent me O’Rourke’s pregnancy announcement post, I swan-dived in without a second’s pause. In the days since, I’ve checked her stories compulsively. Looking for - what?
The pregnancy announcement reel starts out as a typical O’Rourke ‘fit video (which she usually saves for stories rather than posts). She’s wearing cream colored leggings and turtleneck, a loden colored corduroy jacket, a chunky and serviceable pair of winter boots, and a Wes-Anderson-quirky black furry hat. She looks like she always looks, self-assured, comfy, and effortlessly cool. Kitschy instrumental music plays in the background. She throws on the boots and the hat while crouched down, and then stands back in profile to provide a classic bump side view. She smiles.
I’m parasocially happy for O’Rourke’s happiness. I remember her posting about a miscarriage a bit ago. I’m in awe per usual of her devil-may-care confidence. I notice that Hannah from Ballerina Farm has congratulated her in the comments. I wonder if they’ve ever DMed before. I try to imagine their conversations. They both like making things but surely their politics are different? My mind starts running away drafting an imaginary momfluencer meet-cute.
It’s widely understood that pregnancy announcements and birth announcements raise momfluencers’ engagement. The post immediately preceding O’Rourke’s pregnancy announcement/reveal/whatever elicited approximately 5k likes while this one garnered around 18k. I don’t want to discount the fact that it’s infinitely human to find the objectively unbelievable experience of pregnancy voyeuristically fascinating. People can create people within their actual bodies! It’s bonkers level magic! So there’s certainly that.
But why, when I was doing just fine living a life unfettered by any knowledge of Julie D. O’Rourke’s social media presence, do I find myself so eager to jump back in?
Do I want to track her changing body? (ghoulish) Am I looking for maternity-wear inspo? Nope. Do I hope she’ll share something vulnerable about the pregnancy? Maybe. Why? What do I hope to gain from her vulnerability? Validation that she’s human? I already know that. Don’t I?
I wrote an entire book in an effort to explore my own preoccupation with momfluencer culture, and here I am, still feeling compelled, still feeling pulled, and still struggling to understand what I’m being pulled towards or why.
While much of Momfluenced is reported cultural criticism, a decent chunk of the book traces how I came to the be the person I am, a person deeply ambivalent about motherhood, a person always searching for versions of motherhood that might fit more easily despite suspecting that motherhood as constructed by the US is not an identity that fits anyone particularly easily.
In thinking about my increased interest in Julie D. O’Rourke’s Instagram presence post pregnancy reveal, I wonder if the central draw is the uncomplicated and indisputable fact of a shared experience. While I’ll never know if Julie D. O’Rourke’s experience of motherhood is something I could replicate in my own life (unless, I guess, I move to a remote coastal town in Maine, teach myself how to sew, start a clothing brand, and begin harvesting rosehips when seasonally appropriate), I do know what it’s like to be pregnant.
I know the attendant anxiety of pregnancy, the sometimes wonder, the achy hips. I know what it’s like to live through an indelibly internalized experience that is necessarily private to you and your baby. I know that pregnancy is an exercise in surrender.
Most of us understand that parasocial relationships are restricted by the nature of their one-sidedness. But I think pregnancy tricks us into feeling a more legitimate connection to whichever momfluencers enrage, fascinate, or delight us. It’s one of the few human experiences that is both fundamentally unique and fundamentally universal, and I think following momfluencers’ pregnancies not only provides a satisfyingly linear narrative experience for consumers, it also compels us to feel something.
If a momfluencer consumer was bedridden for most of her pregnancy with unrelenting nausea, for example, viewing Julie D. O’Rourke’s jaunty announcement video might serve as an unwelcome reminder of an immensely difficult experience. Maybe you’re struggling to adjust to the transition from one to two kids, and O’Rourke’s caption (“what’s one more?!”) floods you with feelings of inadequacy. Maybe you’re going through IVF and hoping desperately to become pregnant with your first kid in which case O’Rourke’s announcement might fill you with despair and envy. Or maybe your kids are older and pregnancy is far behind you, and so O’Rourke’s announcement presses up against nostalgia. Maybe you (like O’Rourke) are also due to give birth in late summer and feel a sense of kinship to be experiencing your own pregnancy alongside your parasocial buddy’s.
Pregnancy offers a ready-made “Momfluencers, they’re just like us” paradigm for followers to enter into, and promises a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end for them to invest in. Pregnancy is also a reminder of mortality. We are all born. We all die. And for those of us who experience pregnancy, we are only capable of birthing new life for a finite amount of years. Is this line of thinking too abstract to explain my renewed interest in Julie D. O’Rourke’s Instagram presence? I have no idea.
In Momfluenced, I devote an entire chapter to unpacking the endless number of reasons consumers feel compelled to follow momfluencers. Usually, our reasons for following reveal something not about the momfluencers, but about us. So what does this one instance of increased curiosity and momfluencer consumption say about me? That I’m nostalgic for the corporeal nowness of pregnancy? That I view archetypal human experiences as portrayed on social media as entertainment? That I’m curious about what O’Rourke will name her third kid? (I mean, 100% yes to that one)
That I crave comparisons against others as a way to know myself?
When I asked Emily Hund, fellow momfluencer scholar, and author of The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media, if she had any insight about my current musings, she pointed me to this passage from a recent New Yorker profile many people are hating to love and loving to hate.
In “Parallel Lives,” a study of five couples in the Victorian era, the literary critic Phyllis Rose observes that we tend to disparage talk about marriage as gossip. “But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding,” she writes. “We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves, yet we are taught to see this desire as an illegitimate form of prying.”
Granted, this passage is concerned with gossip surrounding other people’s marriages, but certainly gossiping about (or scrolling through) other people’s pregnancies is an apt example of “desiring information about how people live because we want to know how to live ourselves.”
I wrote a book about the impossible murk of why momfluencers make me want _____, and why they capture my attention and imagination. And while I like to think I came away from that writing experience with a better understanding of these questions, it took a single pregnancy announcement reel to underscore the fact that I’ll never really be satisfied with my conclusions. My subconscious self will continue to be frustratingly inscrutable, despite all the progressive strides my conscious self makes.
And maybe none of us can wholly understand the whys of our social media compulsions. Maybe the cultural histories written about this brave new world of virtual living will clarify that in fact, none of us are capable of untangling the various motivations and rationales behind our scrolling habits. Even if we conduct research, read all the studies, write the books, about our complicated, sometimes fraught social media proclivities, ultimately our behavior hinges on intrinsic desires (even when we’re not aware of what those desires are) and our persistent, human need to shape ourselves for ourselves.
At my stage of life, JDOs sense of confidence and ease is a little like a splinter in an already sore and tired hand. How does she do it? There’s scaffolding we aren’t allowed to see. I want that sense of possibility and beauty and I seem to have a lot more struggle and mess. I’m simultaneously aware it’s a lie while I buy in. (Not literally, because I can’t afford the clothing unless it’s second hand.)
The pregnancy announcement somehow widens the gap for me because she will wear clothes that make her look cool while I looked like a circus clown. I also know it will likely result in a beautiful home birth that “triggers” all my feelings of inadequacy about choosing a hospital births and epidurals.
It’s really never about momfluencers for me and always about my own pain-points in my life.
On a side note: I do marvel at JDOs ability to remain apolitical. Has she ever revealed and opinion about an injustice or current event? I can’t recall! Did she ever talk about vaccines or Covid other than wearing a mask for a bit? It’s interesting that someone with such a strong sense of self and point of view manages to not get involved in some of the more divisive conversations of our time and not really lose followers.
Important topic! And it's good to acknowledge our natural curiosity, even if we're not pregnant. I've always been super careful about sharing information about my own pregnancy experiences. It's really tricky. If you share traumatic or difficult parts, then you might needlessly scare someone. If you share easy-peasy parts, then you might discount someone's else's struggles without acknowledging how advantages you have made those parts easy peasy. Even if you're talking to someone IRL that you casually know, it's still hard to gauge what's okay to say because you don't really know what someone else is going through (or has gone through).