I Thought Making Money as an Instagram Momfluencer Would Be Easy
Advertisers are willing to spend big on women who show off their perfect lifestyles on Instagram. Could I fake it enough to cash in?
About a year ago, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of perfect motherhood on Instagram.
I found myself awake well past midnight, unable to stop scrolling through pictures of bohemian mamas walking barefoot with their naked babies through fields of lilies while their scruffy yet independently wealthy husbands gazed lovingly at them from a distance.
I coveted images of pristine kangaroo cupcakes sculpted with homemade buttercream icing. I ogled white bedrooms, white walls, white sheets, dozens of white throw pillows, not a ketchup stain in sight.
One night during my infinite scrolling, I realized that with just one click, I could purchase what I needed to be like the women in these photos. They weren’t just moms; they were mom influencers. And they weren’t just documenting their perfect-seeming lives. They were making money — real money — through sponsored posts and affiliate links that sent a reader directly to checkout for a retail site. Some of these women were pulling in thousands a month.
It seemed like an excellent side hustle — a scam, almost. I have to be a mother anyway. My children don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Why not take some pictures and get paid for it?
Granted, there were some obstacles. First off, I’m a perfectly imperfect mother. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I wake up in the morning after three hours of sleep with one toddler wedged firmly into my armpit and the other about to fall into the chasm between the mattress and the wall. I let my kids watch too much TV. I pack nuts for lunches at their nut-free school. My children rarely wear pants, and our walls are covered in giraffes that look a lot like penises, all drawn in permanent marker. Sometimes I drink a White Claw on the playground. In fact, I moved home to Philly from San Francisco two years ago because my tribe of mom friends here appreciates and celebrates these imperfections. Every mother I met in the Bay Area was competing with the next to craft the most artisanal child.
But before I had kids, I used to make magazines. I used to airbrush cellulite off famous women’s butts to put them on our covers. I knew how to make the imperfect more perfect. And I’ve followed enough mom influencers that I thought I could crack the code. The secret sauce seemed to be a mixture of gorgeous images and vaguely confessional captions: Make your life look beautiful and clean while admitting that your child took her diaper off at the grocery store.
I have the ingredients — two adorable children, and my own scruffy yet purposeful husband who regularly gets mistaken for Chip Gaines. And I had the experience. What else did I need?
I started to approach the world of these mom influencers like the reporter I am. I asked questions. I did research. I tried to uncover what lay behind the ochre-hued perfection. And what I found was the promise of money — lots and lots of money.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” says Emily Hund. She’s a research fellow with the Center on Digital Culture and Society at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, and she studies social media influencers. “Every year, advertisers and marketers are increasing their budgets to the influencer space — to Instagram, specifically.” Based on my reporting, I estimate that social media stars are expected to bring in more than $10 billion from Instagram this year, and $15 billion by 2022. Mom influencers make up about 30 percent of that. I met women earning in the high six figures — women who were supporting their entire families, whose husbands had quit their jobs to manage their wives’ “brands.”
I also discovered a baseline formula for how much a sponsor will pay an influencer for a single post: about $100 per 10,000 followers. That means the top influencers, with half a million followers, can make $5,000 for a single Instagram post — for one picture!
At first I was jealous. Then I began to respect the game. Lyz Lenz, one of our most astute social commentators and writers on motherhood, put it to me best: Mom influencers are essentially profiting off the unpaid labor of motherhood.
“The expectations on women are just out of control,” Lenz told me. “We’re doing three hours more childcare a week compared to moms in the 1970s and we’re also working more. So no wonder women break and say, ‘You know what? Peace out on this. I’m going to take my kids to the park, take a couple pictures of it, and earn some money that way.’ A woman who can make money, who can innovate and find a way to make money, gets power and gets freedom.”
I wanted power and freedom. Oh, and money too. Money would be very, very nice.
As a working mother with a full-time job, I have a permanent mom-guilt knot in my stomach. Maybe I could unravel that knot by trying to imitate these perfect women on Instagram — by crafting birdhouses out of trash and making color-coordinated bento boxes of beautiful nut-free lunches. If I could get paid to practice aspirational mothering, maybe I could cut back on the stuff that’s kept me from aspirational mothering all these years.
That’s how I found myself parading my family down our street in Fairmount in the dead of winter wearing matching pajamas. My inspiration was Reservoir Dogs, but cute. And in reality, only three of us were wearing matching pajamas. My three-and-a-half-year-old son refused them because they were too soft. He hates soft pajamas. He opted for a scratchier variety.
I hired local photographer Andrea Cipriani Mecchi to do a mom-influencing photo shoot for me. We may think influencers take pictures like the rest of us, in the moment. But most hire a photographer to shoot a week’s or even a month’s worth of content in a single day. Then they post the pics to their Instagram feeds and make it look like they shot everything on the fly. It’s quite brilliant, even if it is a bit sneaky. This hack made me feel like I was on the path to the commodification of better mothering.
Sure, it was freezing; sure, everyone was screaming. But the photographer kept clicking away. She followed us into our newly pristine kitchen that I had painted a very influencer shade of Benjamin Moore Simply White for the occasion. We posed in front of a color-coded bookcase, each shelf a rainbow. I’d purchased some cupcakes from Whole Foods and artfully arranged them on a cake stand purchased from Etsy. I now made my family crowd around them and go Ahhhhhhhh for the camera.
It’s a cliché to say it all ended in tears. But it truly did all end in tears. My children liked being photographed for exactly an hour before everyone began crying and whining, my husband included. For one picture, I splurged on some clean white sheets and had everyone bounce around on the bed. Then my one-year-old puked on them, and my toddler found a chocolate bar I’d been hiding and smeared it all over the blankets. The room looked like a Port-a-John at Coachella. Nothing stays white in my life for longer than five minutes.
At the end of the photo shoot and after hours of photoshopping, only a handful of the images we took that day seemed at all influencer-Instagram-worthy. And nothing featured in them was shoppable, either. No brands that we were wearing were doing deals with influencers that month — something I really should have checked before I splurged on those matching pajamas.
But I refused to quit. I’d redirect my kids when we went on our pandemic walks through the city, heading down Waverly instead of Spruce because a particular brick wall there made an excellent backdrop. I had them walk up and down the stairs of the Franklin Institute five times to get the perfect shot of them walking up and down the stairs. More and more influencers started following me. More of my friends stopped.
I applied to what’s known as the Harvard of influencing: the influencer platform and agency RewardStyle. It connects influencers with brands that will pay them. It rejected me. I begged, and they let me in.
I spent hours watching video tutorials on how to write the perfect captions for my Instagrams, how to get the best lighting in my photos, how to engage with my audience and cultivate an authentic voice. I did more homework than I did in college. I took an online baking class so I could create beautiful cupcakes for my children — and take pictures of them. My brain began to change. I started to see everything in my house and in my life in terms of how it could be commodified. It reminded me of something Susan Sontag once wrote: “Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.”
According to RewardStyle, you have to post once a day to maintain your audience engagement. I couldn’t afford to continue hiring a professional photographer, so I asked my husband to take hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures. “But make sure to shoot me so I don’t have a triple chin,” I’d bark. “And get us all smiling. We have to be smiling. We’re happy!” He started spending a lot more time in the bathroom.
As I strove to be a more perfect mother online, I became an even worse mother offline. I never put my phone down. I was snappy with my kids. My little boy started screaming “No photos!” whenever I approached. One day, my little girl reached out a little hand to snag a cupcake I’d artfully slaved over. “Stop!” I yelled. “I have to take a picture first!”
Instead of staring at pictures other mothers took, I scrolled through my own at night, cropping and filtering. I hardly remembered taking the photos. I certainly didn’t enjoy those moments with my children. I had 2,000 new followers, all of them strangers. My friends started calling bullshit. “What the hell are you doing?” they would write me. “I don’t know if I can follow you anymore.”
My life looked better than ever, but I no longer felt like I was living it. Brands were finally starting to reach out to me. “We love your look,” they’d say. “Let’s find a way to collaborate.” They sent me things: hemp onesies, organic rubber pacifiers, compression leggings to suck in my floppy postpartum tummy. Suddenly, I was aspirational.
And I hated it. I’d thought it would be easy: snapping some pictures of my kids, posting them online, telling people what to buy and raking in some dough. But it was exhausting. I was essentially creating a miniature magazine starring myself every week, and I was so sick of me. And, spoiler: I never made a cent. I did haul in some free stuff, which at first seemed nice. But then it just became more crud to clean up.
Perfection is exhausting — and unsustainable. I began to crack after just a few months. I couldn’t keep up with my feed. I didn’t want to go on making new Instagram stories. In fact, I didn’t want to be on Instagram at all. I missed my actual job of writing books and articles. It may have been demanding and time-consuming, but at least my kids saw me doing something I loved.
And then, one morning, as I lay in the fluffy and formerly white Brooklinen sheets I’d been influenced to buy, watching my kids snore in their un-matching pajamas, I reached for my phone. My toddler opened one eye and murmured, “No photos.”
That’s when I decided to shut it all down. I stopped the experiment, gave up on the side hustle, and abandoned my dreams of a fully sponsored life. I didn’t want my kids to have to be on all the time. I didn’t want to make them work so I could turn myself into a brand. We all know what happens to kids who are made to perform at such a young age. I grew up in the ’80s.
I know the tragic tale of the two Coreys.
Maybe eventually it would have paid off to be a more perfect mother. But it just didn’t seem worth it. I’d rather be that mom drinking a White Claw on the playground while my kids take off their pants.
Who knows? White Claw might want to sponsor that.
Jo Piazza is the host of Under the Influence, a podcast about mom influencers. This essay is adapted in part from the podcast.
Published as “Confessions of a Wannabe Momfluencer” in the May 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.