Motherhood, interrupted: brands must be sensitive to the stresses of digital parenting

Motherhood, interrupted: brands must be sensitive to the stresses of digital parenting

At a time when parenting is endlessly interrupted by digital communication and social media, brands must beware of exacerbating the pressure on women, writes Nicola Kemp.

Feminist writer Betty Friedan coined the phrase "the problem that has no name", in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, to describe the widespread unhappiness felt by US mothers and housewives. More than 50 years later, the problem not only has a name, but also a Facebook profile, an Instagram account and a blog. 

‘Performative motherhood’, where seemingly endless scrolling through other people’s lives on social-media platforms, combined with a virtual flood of content from brands, is in danger of becoming a form of oppression, rather than a source of inspiration, for mothers.

"Insight about the reality of parenthood and the bond of shared social experience provide a huge opportunity"

Jordan Stone, We Are Social

There is no question that mothers are spending more time on social channels. According to parenting website BabyCentre’s 2016 ‘21st Century Mum’ report, first-time mothers-to-be spend 7.8 hours a day online, up from 7.5 hours a day in 2014. Almost half (45%) of women with children below the age of five agreed they "need to check social networking sites daily".

Lisa Freitag, director, Sales Marketing at BabyCentre, says its research shows that mothers feel under intense pressure, and don’t need that made worse by brands. According to the research, two-thirds of mothers sense a great imperative to achieve perfection. 

Freitag believes their vulnerability is not always understood by brands, which simply add to this problem. "Motherhood is not something you simply switch into and automatically feel secure and confident from the start, it is a journey," she adds.

While social media has provided a creative outlet and sense of community, in many ways the burdens on new mothers can be worsened by its insatiable demands, endless unfiltered information, unwarranted expression of opinions and airbrushed imagery. Brands, many of which are investing an increasing proportion of their marketing budgets in social media and content, cannot afford to ignore the fact that many mothers feel swamped online. 

Great expectations

While the weight of this is nothing new, the advent of social media has brought with it a new wave of unrealistic expectations, delivered in a way that feels more direct and personal to the recipient. 

Caroline Whaley, a former global marketing director at Nike, turned female-leadership expert and co-founder of leadership workshop Shine for Women, says that the era of Lean In and social media has added a new dimension to this stress. 

"Women will never believe they are successful until they are successful in all their roles," she explains. "They want to be the best mother, the best wife; they want to succeed in their career and look good. Yet they will never define their success by just one thing – there is a sense that they will only feel successful if every single aspect of their life is doing well." 

Whaley believes brands that insist on marketing that demands women fit a mould only make this problem worse. "Women do not compartmentalise their lives, and brands need to acknowledge that," she says. "If they focus on only one aspect, they are simply adding to the pressure by not recognising that mothers do not operate in one dimension."  

UK Motherhood In Numbers


 The number of births annually.


Average age of women giving birth.


Average cost of raising a child.

BabyCentre’s 2016 21st Century Mum report

‘Total motherhood’ vs opinion overload

When a simple Google search for the words ‘parenting advice’ returns more than 85m articles, it is no surprise that, according to baby-products brand Tommee Tippee, 56% of new parents feel overwhelmed by the advice they receive.

Joan Wolf, associate professor of women’s studies at Texas A&M Uni-versity, has identified the ideology of "total motherhood", in which mothers are responsible for eradicating every imaginable risk to their children, as a key source of tension. 

A mother’s complete identity is subsumed by the inherently unachievable goal of keeping abreast of and navigating any and all hypothetical harm. Powered by guilt and fear, this serves to diminish the mother’s ambitions and narrow her vision. For agencies, it provides an easy audience for clickbait.

Nikki Cochrane, the founder of social-media management company Digital Mums, contends that many brands are guilty of simply churning out content targeting mothers without a real understanding of the audience needs. 

"Marketers who are convinced that mothers want to watch three hours of content in the day are completely ridiculous," she says. "They are still pushing out content like a broadcaster rather than using social media to genuinely connect."

In the face of this deluge of opinion, brands need to work harder to create the space for honest conversations by addressing the guilt mothers feel. "This is where brands can have a role to play and make things easier, whether it’s through reassuring mothers they are doing it right or reminding them you don’t have to listen to everything you read or hear," says Whaley.

Marketers could be forgiven for scratching their heads as trend-forecasters predicted a shift from ‘authenticity’ to ‘being real’ this year. For what is authenticity if it is not real? 

Nonetheless, it is an important attribute, as shown by the experience of this former marketer at a leading media agency. "When I came back from maternity leave, I felt like I crossed an invisible line. While the agency certainly embraced the rhetoric of the importance of motherhood, the roadblocks I encountered attempting to introduce flexible working for my team members [made it] clear there wasn’t anything real behind the rhetoric." 

Coupled with the willingness of senior staff to talk disparagingly about "yummy mummies", she believes this lack of realness and empathy naturally bleeds into a lack of understanding of this audience.

However, empathy is not always in short supply, and smart marketers are investing in servicing their social-media channels to provide advice and support round the clock, rather than simply sending out more content into the abyss. 

UK Motherhood In Numbers


of mothers describe themselves as "busy".


of mothers re-evaluate their purchases


stop using brands they had purchased previously.

BabyCentre’s 2016 21st Century Mum report

Real connections

Susie Clark, managing director of social engagement agency Things Unlimited, has built a team of mothers as community managers for Danone Nutricia Early Life Nutrition. "The social landscape of the new mother, particularly the older new mother, can be isolating, and peer support hard to find," she says. "We support those looking for advice and friendship in the social-media frame-work. There is no shame in asking a ‘stupid question’ to a friendly supporter, a fellow mother on Facebook."

These real connections are becoming more important. Clare Groombridge, founder and owner of social-media and marketing agency South Coast Social, believes that the rise of instant video-sharing through platforms such as Periscope and Meerkat will lead to a shift to more honest, genuine reviews of products that mothers can identify with in a positive way, and help brands forge a more personal relationship with them.

Every advance in technology has brought with it some degree of social panic, and the intersection of motherhood and social media has spawned a particularly vitriolic range of damning headlines slamming mothers for neglecting real life in favour of Facebook. Yet it would be a mistake to stereotype all social-media channels as simply a source of tension. 

Jordan Stone, deputy head of strategy at social-media agency We Are Social, says that, rather than adding to the pressure, the vibrant array of bloggers in this space has thrived, often because of their brutal honesty. "The insight about the reality of parenthood, the observational comedy and the bond of shared social experience provide a huge opportunity for brands to connect," he adds.

In line with this, many bloggers view social media as a source of release. Jo Middleton, author of the Slummy Single Mummy blog, believes that, like most media trends, the negative impact of social media on motherhood has been exaggerated. 

"Brands can have a role to play and make things easier, whether it’s through reassuring mothers they are doing it right or reminding them you don’t have to listen to everything you read"

Nikki Cochrane, Digital Mums

"It is actually pretty insulting to women to imply that we are so easily distracted that we make our parenting decisions based on what we read online," she says. "As a new parent, you want to connect with other parents – to hear their experiences, validate your own choices and take your mind off the boredom and loneliness. People might do this in different ways now, but the need to connect and feel part of a community has always been there."

However, many analysts believe the industry is approaching an inflection point in how consu-mers manage their connectivity. As William Powers writes in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: "There’s a preoccupation with what’s going on ‘out there’ in the bustling otherworld, rather than  ‘in here’ with yourself and those right around you…

In less connected times, human beings were forced to shape their own interior sense of identity and worth." 

As the gatekeepers to the home, simultaneously idealised and admonished, the danger is that mothers find social media and the use of tech-nology become yet another source of anxiety.

The challenge remains for brands not to shy away from these conflicts and contradictions, but adopt them as the very basis of a new wave of real communication based on embracing flaws.

At the heart of this lies not the dried-out marketing rhetoric of authenticity, but the wider, grittier challenge of being real and honest. 

This is where my conclusion should be, but I can hear my daughter stirring in the pram beside me; when she wakes up I want to be looking at her, and not this screen. 

I’m coming up short, but that challenge is not mine alone. The onus is on brands to understand the innate vulnerability, contra-dictions, seemingly endless interruptions and unadulterated and uncompromising love that are woven into the fabric of modern motherhood.


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