Freshly cut roses. Sumptuous Marie Antoinette-style birthday cakes. Vintage Liberty dresses in Strawberry Thief fabric. Shetland ponies. These are some of the ingredients of my Instagram posts featuring my kids. I wouldn’t call myself a “sharent” by any means – someone who overshares their children’s intimate lives on social media in one long, parental “humblebrag”. But whenever I do post, it is picture-perfect. My kids look like they’ve walked straight out of a fairytale. But is it naff? Like tablescaping your kids? A form of digital narcissism?
Is it, in its own unique way, a parental kind of “thirst trap”? To an extent, I’m luring others into a fantasy that doesn’t exist. I like to project a wonderfully idyllic life as a single mum… when quite frankly, it isn’t. It’s like when people try to woo their ex-partners back by posting shots of themselves half-naked and having the best time of their lives, despite crying into their pillow heartbroken all day and night.
Some mums are professionals at posting perfect dreamy shots of their kids. Look no further than Carrie Johnson, Tamara Ecclestone, Stacey Solomon, and Kate and Rio Ferdinand. For celebrities and influencers, a picture-perfect ideal is the norm on social media – there are lots of cream interiors and matching Christmas jumpers. They might be promoting a homeware brand, or tagging a pram they got for free. Even when it’s tastefully done, like the former PM’s wife’s Instagram, it always gives the impression that motherhood is wondrous. That life is one big, happy Timotei advert.
Even when celebrities try to be more candid, it doesn’t work. Mum-of-two Millie Mackintosh, formerly of Made in Chelsea, recently posted a “toddler tornado dump” on her Instagram. “I feel like it’s so easy to always share the nice, polished, life,” she wrote. “Well, today, I’m here to break that pattern.” The glimpse “into the delightful chaos” of Mackintosh’s maternal life included photos of a toothbrush and toothpaste on a bathroom basin, a bedroom littered with hair bows, and a make-up drawer with a few brown concealer stains on it. Really? Is that as bad as motherhood gets?
For me, it’s simply more interesting to post magical rather than mundane shots. But why on earth do I want to present my kids as if they’re living in one long, tasteful pastel-coloured dream, where everything looks enchanting? No messy hair. No sleep deprivation. No kids bored out of their minds. I don’t require a filter, either – I’m already looking at life through rose-tinted spectacles, and expecting everyone else to do the same. But am I totally deluded? And, more than anything, could it be damaging to my children?
Dr Charlotte Armitage, who is currently the duty-of-care psychologist on ITV’s Big Brother, has big concerns. “First of all, it’s impacting the relationship between the parent and a child because the relationship is contingent on the creation of these images and the number of likes that follow,” she says, adding that when you are “truly happy” with your situation, “you don’t tend to post perfect images”.
As parents, she continues, we are modelling behaviours to our children. “They learn by imitation – if mum is taking photos and seeking validation from likes, the child starts to become validated by these likes themselves and will develop an external focus of control; they will learn that validation comes from what others think of them. This is unhealthy because, throughout life, a child’s self-esteem and self-worth become based on what others think about them rather than how they feel about themselves.”
The key, she says, is realising we shouldn’t use social media to fulfil our self-worth. “It’s more important to ask ourselves the question of why we feel the need to present this kind of picture-perfect image of ourselves to the world,” she says. “Is it because, in reality, we are discontented with our lives?”
According to research, the average child today has had their image put on social media 1,300 times before the age of 13 – I can see this trajectory for my kids unless I put on the brakes. There are already widespread concerns over the data. In France, an anti-sharing bill continues to be discussed in the country’s senate, and parents could potentially be banned from sharing photos of their children on social media. It could also become mandatory for influencers to admit if a photo or video they posted was retouched or filtered. There is controversy over whether pictures of kids should even be posted online at all, as many are too young to even give permission. How will they feel about the spread of their image in the future? What happens if their identity is stolen – or worse, used by paedophiles?
Does it promote a distorted reality of motherhood, compared with which other “normal” mums feel inadequate? And can it backfire on the parents when children’s rights in the digital era are not honoured?
“Children tend to be frustrated or critical of the way their parents share images of them,” says Professor Sonia Livingstone, from the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Not because they are made to seem ‘perfect’ but because they can be embarrassed, even shamed, in the eyes of their peers. Meanwhile, parents feel hugely under pressure in many ways, both to be perfect parents and also because such images leave parents competing with each other and isolated in their own seemingly inadequate lives.”
Dr Cosmo Duff Gordon is the founder of leading addictions clinic Start2Stop, and a psychologist in private practice at Chelsea Recovery Associates. He says that in his 20-year career as a psychologist, he’s “never had a parent sit in front of him and say ‘I’m addicted to Instagram,’” but that’s not because social media addiction doesn’t exist. He puts it largely down to “denial” – “not least since the use of social media can involve so many of the processes that usually characterise classic alcohol or drug addiction”. Denial being the number one culprit. “Obvious ones might be obsession, compulsion, capture of attentional focus and loss of control,” he says. “More subtly, social media use can involve the same sort of self-medication, or escape from reality, that addiction offers – and being a parent is hard. That’s why drifting into a fantasy land can be a relief from the daily grind of motherhood.”
Parenting expert Hannah Keeley – aka “America’s #1 Mom Coach” – is more upbeat about mums posting potentially inauthentic photos of their kids. “The hardest truth to accept is that there are some mums who are actually professionalising motherhood to this level,” she says. “Not that they have achieved perfection, but they take pride in their performance as mums and use social media as a way to confirm that to themselves and boost their confidence to encourage their efforts. Should these mums also be obligated to ensure that all mums feel good about themselves, whether or not they have invested in their career to this level? Mums don’t have to be responsible for other mums’ perceptions.”
After great debate and reflection, I’ve decided I’m happy with my Insta posts. They might be driven by my background, where my sister and I ran around in white nightdresses as if we had starring roles in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Or because I was conditioned to believe that how we look – even how thin we were – equalled self-worth.
I’m not setting myself up to be a supermum. I don’t look at how many likes I get. It’s true that us mums also need to share our parenting experiences honestly, to let other mums know they are not alone. But for now, I’m not doing a U-turn – I’m just living the fairytale dream.