Media Mania: The Mommy Worries Algorithm

Lately, the media seems to work overtime to plant anxieties and insecurities in moms across America. Are teachers making it harder on working parents by giving out too much homework? How much is too much iPad time? Should the terms ‘Mommy Lawyer’, ‘Mommy Blogger’, and ‘Mommy Supreme Court Justice’ go the way of Akkadian and other dead languages? How does a modern mother ensure that her children are academic overachievers?

Beyond the everyday care of our children, modern parenthood comes attached with an endless checklist of guilt-ridden worries. Savvy media outlets and advertisers clearly have this figured out and with the midterm elections over and ISIS-Ebola having saturated the news, the “Mommy Worries” stories are here to fill the gaps. They prey on middle and upper class mothers’ anxieties and latent guilt about our parenting choices and we, in turn, gobble them up.


7 Retweets, 7 Times the Worry

When I make the daily rounds on my favorite online media sites, the “Mommy Worries” headlines are never far from front and center. And by the number of Facebook shares and retweets I see on my social media feeds, I’m not the only one who gets worked up into frenzy of parental doubt every time I see another article alerting me to the fact that I am indeed a horrible mother for feeding my children pasta and cocoa puffs for dinner last night.

The armchair social science researcher in me can confirm that our social media feeds inform and are informed by the daily sidebar conversations that happen in real life. When I sit down with female friends and colleagues over lunch or a coffee break, it’s apparent that even the impending doom of climate change can’t compete with the “Mommy Worries” these media blitzes trigger. We unburden ourselves, grumbling at the notion that, according to magazine articles, our limited free time should be spent instagramming pictures of our children delighting in homemade autumn leaf cookies to rival Martha Stewart’s. Snarky laughs about these ridiculous Etsy-fueled expectations of modern women follow, but they always seem to belie our unease. None of us has an answer to the perennial work-life balance dilemma.


Work-Life Listicles

Contrary to the popularity and ubiquity of these “Mommy Worries” blog posts and magazine articles, research and age-old wisdom both reveal that there is little evidence to suggest that any of these small variables make much of a difference in the way our children turn out in the long run. And so, as our feminist inclinations are appeased through the mere act of sharing and retweeting articles that barely move the social needle, we mistakenly check the box on doing our part to promote better work-life balance for all.

Instead of using existing data to determine the nudges that would have the greatest impact on our busy lives, our feminism takes on a muted, privileged filter. Uncertain of whether anything we do has any impact, we waste our time crafting irreverent, clever tweets for our like-minded followers and friends– “Isn’t it so weird how the New York Times ‘Recommended For You’ section knows me so well? Someone make a ‘Modern Love’ matchmaking app out of that algorithm.” Work-life balance be damned.



Cry it Out, Co-Sleep, or Access to Full Time Jobs?

With Facebook updates and Instagram photos, we’ve allowed the airing of our most inane middle and upper-class worries to masquerade as a win for feminism. Every time we rest our laurels and reserve our moral intuition for the subset of the population that is hooked on “Scandal,” in other words the “well-educated, worldly and likely affluent”, we completely miss the opportunity to raise the boat for all working parents and their children.

Just as flimsy research demonstrates that the choice between the “crying it out” or the co-sleeping method will decide if your child will turn into an ax murderer, conclusive research shows that improving access to full-time jobs, healthcare, and childcare for single mothers makes a tremendous difference on their children’s futures.


The cost of focusing on small variations versus big impacts

Put more directly, we, who applaud ourselves for our social justice-oriented values, entirely neglect the concerns and narratives of the mothers in our communities who face deep economic and social struggles, but aren’t being targeted by social media or advertisers. Poverty, limited or no access to quality childcare and child homelessness are very real issues for the nearly 35% of children growing up in single family homes. These issues should be the very cornerstone of the ‘mommy’ coverage that we’re leaning into for better work-life balance.

So while we all might be entitled to our individual worries, our lot and the future of all of our children rises or falls together. When the parenting issues that incrementally change the least for our children’s lives are the ones that get the most attention, we have a problem. Are workplace policies contributing to the neglect of children living in our cities and communities? Do all of our children have the basic resources needed to thrive? Now that’s something for everyone to worry about, mommy or not.


(Photo Credit: Samar Kaukab) 


As the Managing Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise and is Mama to three children.   

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