The Young Moms Of TikTok Work Hard To Keep It Light
All over TikTok, young women are depicting motherhood more honestly than Instamoms did. But are their lives any easier?
It’s bedtime on the East Coast, and Maia Knight is outnumbered by babies. Standing at her kitchen sink, she measures out formula for Scout and Violet, the twin girls to whom she is, as her TikTok bio states, “mom and dad.” The overhead light is unsentimental, and the walls are unadorned. “We’re doing all formula tonight, because I don’t feel like waiting for milk to thaw,” Maia says into her phone’s camera, which is set up so that her 7.9 million TikTok followers have roughly a faucet’s-eye view of the plastic bottles as the formula slowly dissolves into the water.
Maia looks tired, but at 26 there’s a freshness to her face that is indelible. With her sweatshirts and messy topknots, she looks like a member of a college women’s soccer team as much as a single mom. She talks to the camera as if to a best friend, narrating the day without an ounce of hyperbole. “They’re just sitting in the living room, and I cannot believe they didn’t follow me in here,” she says, counting out the scoops as she goes. “Shoot, I don’t know how many scoops that was,” she says, pausing.
Soon, her followers will chime in, “It was 3 scoops!” “We got u girl.”
For someone who’s spent the last decade as a mom on Instagram, it’s moving — and a little unsettling — to watch Maia stumble through her daily routines with her babies while being cheered on by her followers. Until recently, Instagram was the forge of mom-representation, shaping our image of 21st century motherhood as relentlessly aspirational with a dark undercurrent of barely repressed wine-abetted rage. But the Instamoms never quite succeeded in representing what early motherhood was really like — the bleariness, the repetition. It’s a feeling that is not easy to capture in a still photo, and one that Maia’s TikTok feed makes riveting. All over TikTok, young women are depicting motherhood in ways that are at once more honest and less depressing than Instamom life, and that leave room for experiences outside of motherhood.
The feminine urge to write lengthy captions that anticipate the criticisms and concerns of every possible audience segment? Couldn’t be the Gen Z moms of TikTok.
Part of this change has to do with the platforms themselves. TikTok videos (and Instagram stories and reels) reward spontaneity and the unexpected rather than Instagram’s picture-perfection. Perhaps inspired by the editorial photo shoots of the print magazines that Instamoms grew up poring over, their photos seemed meant to accrue a sense of a life when scrolled through, the grid as a vision board of your own life. TikTok has none of the same visual permanence, and even though it doesn’t disappear, its content feels even more disposable than stories. But it’s not just the shift to video that is behind this change — it's the moms themselves. Gen Z parents have started bringing a new sensibility to their content, and if the Instamoms of the 2010s are any indication, they stand to have a profound influence on the way we think motherhood should look.
The first Gen Z mom I followed was Mada Graviet, after she was given a shoutout on Instagram by goddess-mode Instamom Amber Fillerup Clark. An up-and-comer anointed by Amber is a must-follow, for committed observers like myself.
What I immediately noticed about Mada was her nonchalance. All her pics are selfies that appear to have been snapped at the spur of the moment. Instamoms are typically photographed by invisible husbands (or assistants), often in front of the Insta-ready murals and the pops of color lately strewn conveniently around North American public spaces by municipalities and businesses.
Mada would never pose in front of a giant painting of angel wings. Her captions are wry, self-deprecating, and sparse. She’s about as verbose as, say, a skateboarding influencer. The feminine urge to write lengthy captions that anticipate the criticisms and concerns of every possible audience segment? Couldn’t be Mada.
Mada has the look and pedigree of a traditional Virginia-native LDS momfluencer, but the similarity pretty much ends there. She seems disinterested in creating the impression of being the proud head of a nuclear household. She does not seem to be burdened by the need to make excuses for her behavior, and that might be where I feel the most potent shock of the new.
Mada Graviet’s social media presence falls under the category of “aesthetic” — Gen Z-speak for a stylized life — but many young TikTok moms with sizable followings aren't cultivating a look. Danielle Ruppert and her husband John spend 30 to 40 hours a week making content and they look like regular people living regular lives. I spoke briefly with Danielle earlier this month; she was joined on the call by a handler from her influencer management company. (The influencer-management layer is another dimension of this generation of social media that didn’t exist just a few years ago.)
“I try to be as open as possible so that others don't feel alone like I have in the past,” she told me, echoing the stated mission of hordes of momfluencers that came before her. The difference is that coming from Instamoms, that’s always felt a little bit disingenuous. Success on Instagram has required that moms apply so much buff and polish to their lives that the outcome has had the unintended consequence of making a lot of us feel very badly indeed. Danielle Ruppert’s goofy kitchen dances with her husband do not make me feel bad. A little bit matronly, maybe (I’m 39, and after spending the last month consuming motherhood through TikTok, I feel like a grandmother), but definitely not like I’m doing life wrong.
Other popular TikTok moms are straight-ahead hot-girl influencers who have a baby but mostly just do the dances or post mommy-daughter fit pics (Savannah Marable, Abbie Herbert, and Alliah Harmon fit this mold). There’s nothing revolutionary about a lovely young woman dancing in front of a camera but, even here, I see a loosening of the vise grips of morality that have governed social media motherhood. The mere fact that heavily pregnant young women are body-rolling in their bathroom mirrors feels like a sort of progress when you consider how hard momfluencers were straining to convince their audiences that they had their shit together on Instagram in the year 2015.
These girls appear to party. They appear to be sexual beings. They appear to be working on identities that don’t fully overlap with the mother role, without defensively insisting that they can still “be a good mom.”
What I don’t see among TikTok moms is the nagging anxiety about class and consumer culture that forms the terrazzo tile bedrock of Instafamily life. On Instagram, a gorgeous kitchen or nursery could be shown off to its full potential with the help of clever angles, lighting, and filters. Video is unforgiving of backgrounds and requires huge expertise to light properly, so most TikTok moms don’t even bother. Instead, we see suburban interiors as they really are, not as a real estate agent might like to stage them.
It’s the Simpsons, not the Kardashians. We see hollow-core bathroom doors and dingily lit kitchens. Kitty litter boxes, dirty dishes by the sink, the jumble of a hairdryer’s cord. Instagram sometimes feels like an ad for America for people who have never actually been here and don’t know any better. TikTok looks like America as it is — hyper, bored, cluttered, and precarious.
Back at Maia’s place, it’s the next morning and the girls are eating breakfast in their highchairs. Maia posts with rigorous regularity; when six hours pass without a post, her commenters begin to fret. In the kitchen, Maia opens a jar of baby food and holds the camera up to each girl’s irresistible punim as they messily gum the rubber spoon.
Of all the TikTok moms I follow, Maia includes her kids in her content the most, and her identity as a parent is foremost. But even she doesn’t genuflect to gender norms the same way my mom-peers did on Instagram a decade ago. She cracks a White Claw on camera and announces she’s about to clean the house; she drops the kids off at her mom’s place so she can go out with her best friend (who also cares for the babies sometimes), and they post college-girl bar-bathroom selfies while they’re out. Showing the support and shared work that goes into child care is so important, and I hope that Maia is influential in doing so.
Sometimes watching a whole bunch of TikToks can give the impression that you’re watching people broadcasting from their own little cubicles within the giant factory that is TikTok.
If motherhood looks looser and less perfect on TikTok, does that make being a TikTok influencer easier than being an Instagram influencer? I’m not convinced. Alongside the increased freedom of expression comes the increased enclosure within the virtual world of TikTok. TikTok’s trends are like volatile weather systems and keeping up with them requires being immersed in the app. Sometimes watching a whole bunch of TikToks can give the impression that you’re watching people broadcasting from their own little cubicles within the giant factory that is TikTok. This effect is heightened by the trend of wearing neutral colors (and decorating one’s home in neutrals), a habit that some influencer management companies encourage, since sponsored products show up more vividly within a neutral color field. The logic of the Hype House extrapolated across the family rooms of America.
Instamoms were under pressure to display a perfect life, but the pressure they felt was more social than algorithmic. TikTokers are encouraged to produce content at a breakneck speed to feed the voracious appetites of their followers; most TikTok moms I follow post multiple times per day. The app’s demand for content has changed the nature of momfluencing; whereas maybe 10 years ago, the hardest part of the job might have been getting the kids to behave for the photo shoot, now the kids are largely out of frame, and the hardest part of the job is making enough content to keep yourself visible in an evermore torrential feed. As Danielle Ruppert told me, the work is fun, but it’s never done. “It almost feels like it never shuts off,” she said. “It’s kind of a wheel of information in your brain that never really stops.”