Proud, bold, feminine yet threatening, and frequently touting alcohol use and caffeine dependency, the slogans American mothers plaster on their shirts, mugs, and sweaters broadcast their identities as exhausted super-women, as well as their need for recognition and connection. For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explores what she calls “sassy mom merch,” which has proliferated in our era of Etsy, Amazon, and social media, but whose spirit Tolentino recognizes from her years eating at Cracker Barrel as a Texas youth. Where does the desire to wear the slogan “This mom runs on caffeine, wine, and Amazon Prime” come from? What does this #momlife phenomenon say about being a woman in America? As one successful t-shirt maker told Tolentino, “When you put out a little signal on a shirt, like, ‘I’m struggling too,’ it starts a conversation. Anytime I wear something like that, I always have people comment, or I get those random smiles. It’s sort of like when you’re nursing in public: someone gives you a smile and a thumbs-up, and you know you’re O.K.”
Social media exacerbates two competing impulses in the performance of one’s everyday self: aspiration and honesty. Women, in particular, find these impulses rewarded on the Internet, where the ever-present cultural interest in female desirability and failure—in encouraging women to balance atop pedestals in part because it is satisfying to watch them fall off—is codified in the form of public comments and likes. My colleague Carrie Battan recently wrote about the rise of the “getting real” moment for Instagram influencers, in which women who have built their public identities on meeting an ideal version of womanhood offer a moment of catharsis to their audience: all of this is constructed, they say, and it’s anxiety-inducing, and there’s so much that you don’t see. But this form of expression doesn’t seem to cut back on aspiration so much as complicate it—women are now encouraged to be both very perfect and very honest at once.
The mom-centric Internet has been working out this tension for almost two decades: so-called mommy bloggers turned aspirational honesty into a profitable genre long before Instagram existed. (Quite a few of the best-known mommy bloggers have since upended the lives that looked so perfectly-imperfect-but-mostly-really-perfect, getting divorced, or leaving their religion, or both.) Social media and smartphones have brought motherhood real talk to minimally hierarchical online spaces, such as Facebook groups and messaging apps like Marco Polo. “People ask for support, people talk about things that might be embarrassing elsewhere,” Heather Plouff, an Etsy seller in New Hampshire and a mother of three, told me. “The hashtag #momlife is this big community, where we’re all a little sassy, and we love our children, but we also know that children can be a real pain in the ass.”