The problem with “mom boss” culture

When I became a mother in 2015, my old life no longer felt relevant. I lost friends; I stepped back from work. I was consumed by the labor of taking care, and I found an odd solace online — a form of recognition — hanging out in mommy forums and on social media.

I lurked on TheBump’s breastfeeding boards and the ambivalently political content created by sites like Scary Mommy, which reflected the horror and delight of everything I was experiencing. I was taken by the illusion of sisterhood and commiseration online and, not incidentally, by the mothers who answered problems with product. When I dared leave the house for the park or rare mother’s group meetup, women peddled leggings, makeup, belly wraps, oils. Every mother seemed to be in a whole “find what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” mood — a seamless integration between the domestic and the commercial that I found alarming and alluring.

A year later, former Ralph Lauren executive Nicole Feliciano articulated the underlying promise of saleswomanship for new mothers in her book Mom Boss: In the age of social media, she claimed, any woman can “learn how to be a super mom.” In her bio, Feliciano refers to her company Momtrends, which began as a blog in 2007 but now specializes in sponsored content and influencer outreach, as every mom’s business-savvy BFF.

The Momtrends website remains, today, similarly chummy: It’s the self-described “girlfriend you always look forward to bumping into at yoga class” (yes, the website is the girlfriend). By way of curated products and entrepreneurial opportunities, the website-friend provides “solutions for the challenges of modern motherhood” for women who want to “live with purpose and passion.” But what it really offers is something that has become central to the story of American motherhood — personal reinvention.

The website-girlfriend says, “Wasn’t it easy before the kids came along? We all managed to look pulled together, travel, stay fit and even entertain on occasion. Well, we don’t believe motherhood is an ending. We think of it as a beginning. A time to edit what you bring into your life.”

The notion that the ostensibly natural destruction of women under American capitalism is not an ending, but rather just the beginning, is one that has come to dominate the discourse of motherhood.

Late-2000s mommy bloggers brought an overdue, if disorganized, correction of the archive, with women sharing stories of maternal discontent all over the internet. For them, motherhood was often a disaster. They depicted everything from their negative feelings about their children to their discomfort with their postpartum bodies. Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a sociologist who has written about the rise of motherhood culture on social media, calls the early years of the mamasphere “the Confessional Age” and an “emancipation.”

As with all internet trends, there were issues. Heather Armstrong of Dooce, once named “queen of the mommy bloggers,” eventually found herself experiencing treatment-resistant depression. And Lacey Spears made the disturbing quest for public power online acute when she poisoned and eventually killed her son with toxic amounts of table salt, the result of what experts have called Munchausen syndrome by proxy (now listed in the DSM-5 as “factitious disorder imposed on another”). She had been chronicling her son’s false illness, and her sacrificial care work, on her blog.

Mothers quickly learned to monetize their stories, transforming their raw and real platforms into lifestyle brands. By 2015, Jezer-Morton says, following the success of bloggers like Ree Drummond, who became a Food Network brand, and Glennon Doyle, who leveraged her blog, Momastery, to publish her first memoir, we had entered the “Influencer Age,” with momfluencers like Oh Joy and Love Taza depicting “the Insta-perfect life that everyone knows is painstakingly staged, but that we love to follow — and critically dismantle — anyway.”

Multilevel marketing corporations, which have since the mid-20th century posed as a solution to the boredom and overwhelm of housewifery, also found new footing online in the 2010s. MLMs built their digital mythos around the prospect of power and community, appealing to ordinary mothers who felt alienated from public life by offering up a ready-made digital commons — online communities where new moms could connect, build a life around products, and feel like they belonged again. By 2017, more than half of Instagram’s 800 million users were women, and mommy publications were teeming with listicles, memes, and tips about moms gettin’ that side hustle, many of which referenced multilevel marketing schemes.

Large corporate MLMs have since faced lawsuits and backlash, making them less popular, though companies like Beachbody — a fitness and nutrition conglomerate that bills a monthly fee to “coaches” who in turn sell Beachbody shakes and workout products — have profited off pandemic life, targeting mothers in particular.

But moms who build businesses online have diversified. Now they helm bad mom and drunk mom empires on TikTok, create merch lines with cheeky phrases, “help families sleep better,” and become cleaning experts. As Jezer-Morton told me, while the lure of traditional MLMs may be waning, “the content production of motherhood is still a viable MLM” with moms “creating content and teaching each other to create content.” Moms now sell their ability to sell anything, and they adapt, constantly, to social media functionality. “Anytime that there’s a new platform, there’s going to be this little cottage industry of how-to that can also turn into a low-key MLM,” Jezer-Morton told me. It’s a trend that has led some to question whether American motherhood has itself become a multilevel marketing scheme.

The momtrepreneur, or mompreneur, or more all-encompassing momboss, relies on what Jezer-Morton calls the performance of “successful neoliberal selfhood.” These are the obstinate, media-savvy daughters of Lean In. They live by inspirational stories of women finding a community and a calling, of pushing through what’s tough about working motherhood, playing off the vague “moral therapeutic deism” of American capitalism and the larger gospel of Instagram. They also sell the prospect of beginning again by positioning free enterprise as a fantastical path toward femme freedom and promising an escape from the isolation and trauma of motherhood under patriarchal capitalism without ever having to speak its name, much less question it as an economic system.

Her neon, rainbow-colored memes bring surveillance culture to motherhood — one post reads, “Your Kids Are Watching” — and they have a dizzying economic logic. She quotes Fight Club but also embraces a merit-based pursuit of the dollar, as in, “Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret.” In another post, Moreno channels that popular phrase some mothers use with kids — “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” — when addressing the gendered wage gap. “Throwing a fit,” she writes in her caption, “won’t help.”