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What's the point?
Why am I spending so many hours of my one wild and precious life writing about Daniel Neeleman's disdain for windows?
A friend of mine recently DMed me with some questions about my intense scrutiny of Ballerina Farm. She shares my fascination with BF, but wondered about me zooming in on so many uber-specifics of Hannah’s platform. Hannah’s a real person, after all. Are my snarky deep-dives really necessary? Are they productive? At the end of the day, what’s the point?
It’s a good question. And one I’ve asked myself more times than I can count. Because ever since becoming a mother myself, my fiercest desire has always been to support and champion other mothers, to understand their needs and desires, and to add my voice to a chorus of voices screaming for change NOW.
The momfluencers I choose to aim my cultural criticism lens at are real people with real lives and real struggles, and I have no desire to contribute to anyone’s struggles. I do not want to “take anyone down.”
But. Just like my work exists on a public platform for public consumption, so too does theirs. Hannah Neeleman has one million followers. That’s one million people who consumer her version of motherhood. One million people that might be influenced (for better or worse) by the content she chooses to share.
And yeah, it’s complicated because her content includes her family and children; her content is personal. Her content is her SELF.
But so is mine, right? I’m out here trying to figure out what triggers me personally in the mamasphere, but mostly I’m trying to figure out what individual behaviors and individual content choices reveal about systems much bigger than any one of us.
What does Hannah’s decision to post a video of her cleaning the house less than two weeks after giving birth to her seventh child communicate about the expectations of mothers in this country? Does it make any of her 1 million followers feel inspired to not let postpartum healing get in the way of being productive? Does it contribute to the toxic narrative that moms don’t need (or deserve) paid leave to heal their bodies, rest, and be taken care of? What does it mean when Daniel posts about the “ups and downs” of being a first generation rancher without giving his 72k followers any background context about the cost of ranch land and the realities of making a profit on a working farm? For context, less than one acre of land in Kamas, Utah (where Ballerina Farm is located) costs over a million dollars. Ballerina Farm owns over 300 acres. As Meg Conley wrote in Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter:
They’re not feigning normalcy in the direction of middle-income people. They’re feigning normalcy in the direction of very upper-income people. Buying a 328 acre ranch for millions of dollars to start a direct to consumer beef business is not normal.
These types of questions also beg the penultimate question: To which standards do we hold momfluencers, and are those standards reasonable? Because the influencer economy is still so new, because it’s constantly shifting and morphing and transitioning, it’s still unclear how much onus should be on individuals (regardless of the size of their platforms) to share their political and cultural views. Perhaps if we want interrogations of social justice and issues impacting mothers more broadly, we should get off Instagram entirely?
But I do believe all of these questions are worth asking. I do believe there is inherent value in unpacking how media texts both reflect and influence our real lives and our personal belief systems. I do think it’s worth asking if the images we consume on social media impact legislation and reform. I think we should ask ourselves if what we view on Instagram is harming or hurting.
There are plenty of momfluencers who explicitly cause harm with racist rhetoric, the spreading of anti-vaxing misinformation, and QAnon conspiracy theories. But when it comes to momfluencers like Hannah Neeleman, momfluencers’ whose brands are reliant on a celebration of traditional values and the presumed goodness of a certain kind of motherhood, but who isn’t wearing a MAGA hat or claiming that her sourdough will prevent Covid, what’s the point of nitpicking?
When I first started researching Momfluenced, I emailed this very question to Koritha Mitchell, author of the indispensable book, From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture, and Koritha made the following case for interrogating the effect of seemingly apolitical, seemingly innocuous brands like BF.
These accounts reflect the pleasure to be found in a particular kind of escape: insularity. They maximize the sheen of respectability and implicit justification that come with traditional homemaking. By default, the heteronormative nuclear family configuration is viewed as ideal and beneficial, even as those assumptions are constantly contradicted.
White women can justify ignoring any responsibility toward the public good by aggressively prioritizing motherhood. How can anyone say their priorities are in the wrong place if they're elevating motherhood? But it's a particular motherhood, one whose politics are rooted in keeping things as they are rather than working to make the world less hostile for more people. In other words, a motherhood that pretends to be apolitical is cherished. Whenever politics revolve around maintaining the status quo, everyone is taught to see that as devoid of politics and somehow pure. Meanwhile, a motherhood that prioritizes improving current living conditions for more people is not so easily and pleasingly digested. And that's the case even as such motherly priorities are also about leaving children a world with more justice and more peace.
My aim with my cultural critiques of BF (and all public performances of motherhood on social media) is not to lambast individuals. It is to question how brands like BF function to maintain the status quo. It is to provide context for the maternal narratives so many of us are confronted with on a daily basis and interrogate the effect of these narratives. Are particular narratives and imagery good for moms? Which moms? Are they neutral? Are they entertaining? Are they aspirational? Are they contributing to making life easier for moms? Not just cis-het, marketably attractive, thin, non-disabled, wealthy, white moms? Should they be contributing to making life easier for anyone?
But back to my friend’s excellent question. Is there a functional point to me writing derisively about Daniel Neeleman’s prose style? Arguably, no. Me snarking about his love (or hatred?) of windows does not advance the cause of maternal rights. It does not reveal anything about systemic inequities. But I’m also a writer and as such, I try to think about what I’d want to read. Do I want thoughtful explorations of momfluencer culture that aim to peel back the layers of misogyny, whiteness, and gender essentialism that still comprise so much of our cultural presumptions about motherhood? Yes. But do I also want to laugh sometimes? Do I also want to feel cathartic release? Do I want to counter my rage and frustration with some levity about windows? Yup.
The line between personal takes on momfluencers (stuff you’d text your friends in the privacy of a group chat) and cultural critiques entirely removed from the writer’s personal background is hard to locate sometimes. I have failed to draw that line clearly for myself before. And I’m sure I’ll fuck up again in the future. But I’m never not grappling with the question of “what’s the point.” I never want to be punching down. I never want to level personal attacks at anyone. I never want my cultural criticism to just be a mask for my personal insecurities. It’s tricky! I definitely have personal insecurities! And imagery celebrating maternal perfection certainly triggers those insecurities. Because perfect I am not.
But I know plenty of folks who don’t feel triggered by BF content - they find the content fun, joyful, and lighthearted. The dairy cows are adorable. The sourdough is beautiful. I guess my point is that while I’m invested in critiquing momfluencer posts as cultural texts, I’m also a person, and it’s not possible to keep my personhood entirely removed from my cultural criticism because I’m a person living in the same culture I’m writing about. And I’m not even sure I’d want to read cultural criticism devoid of the writer’s personhood?
So maybe BF content makes you angry because of its implicit perpetuation of retrograde nuclear family ideals. Maybe BF content provides a brief, innocuous hit of dopamine by virtue of pasture raised hogs and cute kids. And maybe my writing provides catharsis for your own maternal angst. But maybe it feels unnecessarily snarky. We all have our preferences.
Here’s a confession. I obviously watched Hannah’s birth video. And while the idea of a toddler touching me during intense contractions makes my entire body shudder, I was really moved by parts of the video. I earnestly related to Hannah’s attempt to capture the potential for empowerment through childbirth. I had three “easy” (unmedicated vaginal births) births, and with each one, felt an indescribable, other-worldly awe for myself and the utter magic of corporeality. I’ve never felt more fully embodied, more present, or more alive. I’ve never felt so powerful.
But the cultural critic in me couldn’t help but wonder if Hannah had some sort of responsibility to her one million followers to make clear that not every mom has a transcendent birth experience. Not every mom can afford quality care during childbirth. Not every mom can expect anti-racist care during childbirth. Not every mom will be treated with respect and dignity during childbirth. Many mothers will experience birth trauma. Many mothers have no interest in a transcendent birth experience and simply want a safe outcome for parent and child. Many mothers will feel like failures because their births didn’t go as planned. Many moms don’t become moms by giving birth.
And then of course I ask myself if it is Hannah’s responsibility to contextualize her birth experience in this way. She’s never claimed to be an activist or an educator, right? What’s wrong with her simply posting about her personal experience? Her unique reality? Maybe nothing?
I have definitely found myself up at 2:32AM after getting up to pee or whatever haunted by fears of my work somehow encouraging cyber bullying or encouraging moms to vilify other moms in order to feel better about themselves. Will my work encourage people to post hateful messages to other people’s accounts? I DO NOT WANT THAT. PLEASE DON’T DO THAT. Sometimes I wonder if I should quote from momfluencer accounts without sharing the names of the specific accounts. Sometimes I wonder if I should make my critiques more general and less specific. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off simply devoting my time and energy to a non-profit focused on maternal rights. It’s fucking fraught.
But I should be up in the middle of the night thinking about this. I have a responsibility to consider the potential impact of my work, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
I’m grateful for my friend’s question. And I promise to keep asking it of myself. Because my intended “point” is to always invite people in, never to shut people out.