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We tell ourselves stories in order to live/laugh/love
Plus: A helpful lesson from Led Zeppelin
When I was in college, two of my friends got into a big fight and one accused the other of living “on a sucks/rocks pendulum.” I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned while pursuing a BA in modern European history, but I never forgot that burn issued forth by my friend Alex in the year 2003. For me it coalesced the concept of unintentionally having a narrative orientation to one’s life.
Sometimes even still, when I’m sick of myself I ask, am I living on a sucks/rocks pendulum right now? In other words, am I lazily reducing my life to assessing whether things are cool or lame to me? It’s a very limited way to experience life but it’s a rut we can all fall into. Especially given how rapidly the aperture of daylight during which we’re not existing as consumers is shrinking.
The more we are compelled to relate to the world as consumers, the deeper the sucks/rocks pendulum groove. Our narrative orientation defaults to “Is it good enough for me? Or am I disappointed?” because as consumers, we are engaged via our egos. Some people seem to find that microdosing on psychedelics helps beat back this condition but I refuse to accept that this is the only way out. I mean, mushrooms and whatnot are cool, but I demand additional options.
Thinking about influencers means thinking about narrative orientation because all they’re doing on there is telling stories about themselves. The other day I read a paper by Dr. Helen Ringrow about religious metaphors in motherhood discourse, and kind of like Alex’s sick burn, it jolted forth my thinking in a very satisfying way.
Ringow analyzed a bunch of Mormon and Mormon-adjacent mom content, and found that three scripture-based metaphors re-appeared again and again throughout: The metaphor of motherhood as a “journey,” motherhood as a “job”, and the metaphor of “seasons of life.”
So, I don’t really focus on religious momfluencers per se, but I think we can all agree that these Christianity-based narratives have saturated the mamasphere completely. (There’s an Excellent analysis of some of this in this interview with Meg Conley about @ballerinafarm.) There’s also this whole OTHER narrative orientation that’s deep inside the mamasphere, where the language of marketing and the language of selfhood are basically becoming one. That’s what I’m trying to work through in my thesis right now, prayers welcome please, thank you.
What we’re talking about here are the narrative orientations of motherhood online which, if you’ll allow me to go out on a fucking limb here, have the power to become — indeed HAVE BECOME! — important narrative orientations of motherhood in real life, among regular folks.
Something I’m noticing in my own research is adjacent to Ringow’s: That momfluencers feel compelled to wrap their narratives up in a tidy bow. If a struggle is underway, it’s part of a journey. If a bad thing happened, it was a lesson, and now they are grateful for what was learned.
Ambivalence: The spice of life?
The other day I realized that I had listened to the Led Zeppelin song Going to California eight times before noon. It’s a quiet acoustic one and I promise you can listen to it without getting harshed or having to listen to Robert Plant fake an orgasm.
Now, it’s possible that my little jag with this song has to do with subliminal seasonal affective disorder, and I just really need to leave Montreal. But I also think it was helping me through something: The last verse of the song sounds unresolved, like he’s going to keep singing, but he doesn’t. It’s a rad effect, a feeling of cosmic ambivalence, and I love it. And it’s the opposite of the way moms post on Instagram. Yes, I realize that maybe I’m stretching here, but this is what I’ve been consuming, and therefore what I can discuss. Momstagram and Led Zep.
Why is live/laugh/love like that?
There are many ways of explaining why momfluencers are stuck with this narrative orientation of personal growth (and I talked about some of why in a previous newsletter), but a big reason is the burden of always being accountable to an audience of demanding, relentless commenters.
On Instagram and TikTok, audiences are a lot of work. The other day I was chatting with a momfluencer for my thesis research and she remarked that work-life balance is the hardest part of her jobs these days. Instagram punishes you for taking breaks by withholding your content from your audience (naturally I don’t have confirmation from IG about this, but this has become common knowledge among creators), which means you really can’t take much time off without setting yourself back.
Creators are expected to post ever-increasing amounts of content, while still spending time tending to the comments section. Have you ever noticed how some momfluencers, even ones with big followings, will be in the comments answering every single inane question that comes up? Where’s that sweater from? Where’s the rug from? The wall hanging that’s barely visible in the background — where’s that from? I could never maintain the patience to do this work. But it’s part of their job, so they do it.
So if the exigencies of the platform (a phrase that I believe appears 25 times in my thesis draft — gotta figure out some synonyms for that) require increased amounts of content, how do you manage your time? One way is by creating content that isn’t going to generate too much static in the comments that would require management. By creating tidy narratives that leave no loose threads hanging. By cleaving to the familiar arcs of journeys and gratitude. As if the last line of Going to California, instead of being “tellin’ myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems,” were “So grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned on this journey to California, where I’m having the time of life!”
The feeling that the audience expects us to be a certain way, and will demand explanations or at the very least express concern if we deviate from that, has got to be a lot to carry around. I often come away from conversations with momfluencers feeling kind of overwhelmed on their behalf — not because motherhood is such a grueling job or sanctifying journey, but because Instagram fucking sucks to work with, and TikTok might even be worse.
Thanks for reading! I’ve noticed that people give “recommendations” at the end of their newsletters a lot, especially the paid ones, as a kind of bonus. I am not sure anyone needs more recommendations in their lives. However, I’ve also noticed that people seem to enjoy them. I guess Substack has creator-pilled me, and also, this feels like a continuation of the sucks/rocks pendulum conversation — does everything have to be a piece of consumer advice? Fuck. Yet here we are!
My recommendations for the month of February, the worst month in the Canadian calendar, besides Going to California by Led Zeppelin, which we have already covered:
-I’m reading Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard for my book club and I have to tell you that it has ruined my life with its gorgeous writing. It is devastating; I recommend.
-My dear friend Martha Wainwright has a memoir coming out at the end of March, Stories I Might Regret Telling You. It was actually while reading an earlier draft a couple of years ago that I started thinking about the prevailing narratives in the mamasphere, because the contrast with Martha’s approach to storytelling was so striking. Martha does not read this newsletter; you can be assured that this recommendation is not an #ad.
-I’m a devoted Poog hag, but I found that Kate and Jacqueline hit a bit of a rut at the end of 2021. I can only imagine how hard it must be to make a good pod, and I think they were just running low on energy. Anyway, they’re back in top form (IMHO) and the past couple of episodes have been so good.
-I watched the first two episodes of Somebody Somewhere and I really love it so far. I felt soothed, but also very emotionally affected, and also like my intelligence was being respected, which, as a fucking snob, I appreciate.