In the words of early Facebook: It’s complicated. We get high off the likes, but down with the doomscrolling. We feel FOMO, less-than, anxious, depressed. An April 2022 study published in Acta Psychologica found that social media is linked to poor mental health, especially among girls. There are lots of things that make us feel bad. But the authors write that the associations between social media use and mental health “were stronger than links between mental health and binge drinking, sexual assault, obesity, and hard drug use, suggesting that these associations may have substantial practical significance as many countries are experiencing rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among teenagers and young adults.”
How Finding My Ground Truth Changed My Relationship with Motherhood, Myself, and Most Importantly, Instagram
My millennial peers and I are fortunate that our brains were mostly formed before we dove into the toxic wasteland, when we posted at first to reflect our lives on a screen. (Remember those early-days albums with blurry food photos and unfiltered everything?) Now, lives slink into shape around what’s in the screen—the latest TikTok recipe, kitchen counter, cosmetic surgery trends. It doesn’t matter if you’re FaceTuned beyond recognition, all about that lo-fi authenticity or even if you never post just lurk—there’s a social media dimension that’s plastered over our reality. Or maybe it’s a black hole? Because it certainly fits the bill as “an astronomical object with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it.”
I didn’t grow up with a smartphone in my hand, but I’m hardly immune to the metaverse. And while I can only imagine how something like Instagram would've rattled my brain and body even more than the hormonal pile on that was already happening every time I cried in a bathroom at a classmate's bar mitzvah, I know that adolescents aren't the only vulnerable population that social media eats up and spits out. Of course, I'm referring to new parents.
There's a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. It destabilizes every aspect of your being, physically and mentally. In my first year postpartum, without sleep, I could not get a hold of the physical and biochemical changes from pregnancy and childbirth. I was hovering above my body, but even my spirit version could barely keep her eyes open. I was drained, exsanguinated from an overflow of love, anxiety and sleep deprivation so big and so new that the only place I could go to for all the answers in easy-to-read pastel slideshows was, of course, Instagram.
I poured over my phone in late-night nursing sessions, trying to memorize the sleep schedules that a certain Sleepfluencer promised would save my life. I bought the nursing pads that a Nursefluencer said would 100 percent save my life. I organized my freezer like one Boobfluencer guaranteed would hands-down, no questions asked, save my life. And then, in an inexplicable turn of events, I felt an insatiable need to contour. I needed cheekbones, and I needed them yesterday. I wish I could tell you that one day in early motherhood, I stood in front of a mirror and took in my pale, dull-blue skin with orange brush strokes across my "cheek bones" as I leaked through my shirt and thought: "Instagram is not the answer." Unfortunately, I would contour my problems away for many more months as I continued to let myself believe that an Instagram model with a razor-sharp jawline, $800 baby carrier and a trust fund on a hike in Runyon Canyon is who and what I need to be to be a good mother.
So, what’s the antidote to all this un-realness?
I first heard the term when my brother, an industrial designer, used it to explain something that is known to be real or true due to direct observation or measurement. I liked this. I thought of having a strong grasp of one's “ground truth.” For instance, my daughter’s ground truth is that her mama loves her forever and always. Perhaps instilling this unshakable truth can make her more resilient to low self-esteem from social media, anxiety or depression from misinformation—whether that's in the news or neighborhood gossip.
In the mental health world, the closest synonym to “ground truth” is “internal resiliency.” “This speaks to a person’s core beliefs about themselves that empower them, as well as inform their sense of self and the way they take up space in the world,” says Samantha Quigneaux, LMFT, National Director of Family Therapy Services, Newport Healthcare.
Ground truth, Quingneaux says, can come through self-awareness and practices like meditation, journaling and therapy that help us connect and understand ourselves on a deeper level, especially in relation to social media. “We have to remember that no one’s life is perfect. Yet, when we believe that others are so happy and satisfied, it can make us feel unhappy and unsatisfied, questioning our own enjoyment of life. This can lead to self-doubt and a lack of confidence in who we really are,” Quingneaux explains. Positive and supportive interpersonal relationships are absolutely essential to help us learn and grow, as well as give us a network—as in, a physical real, network—of people who see and validate who we are, as we are, she says. This is foundation of solid ground truth.
It’s easy to tell someone to meditate, journal or go to therapy. It’s much harder to follow through, especially when your self-esteem is in the gutter. I, for one, do not meditate. I’ve tried, but at this juncture in my life, IT’S NOT FOR ME :) Formatting intended: All caps. Ironic smiley face. Full stop.
Now, even coming to that simple conclusion in the age of Instagram (or worse, TikTok), took some real mental gymnastics. When I was pregnant, I prepared for labor by doing the hypnobirthing meditations “doulagram” told me to do. But it never calmed me. Instead, it rattled me even more, and yet I still felt that if I didn’t find peace at the end of imagined rainbow during day three of contractions, I must be doing it wrong.
Throughout my first year of parenting, this feeling clung to me like cellophane. Whether it was about sleep, breastfeeding, diaper rash, going outside (or staying inside!), rocking, crawling, solids, peanut butter, bath time, teething, Motrin, vaccines, diaper bags, nursing hacks, puffs, sodium, music class, walking, talking—sorry. Got lost there. Because I was lost. I had no ground truth. I couldn’t decipher what I knew and what I didn’t know. I was shoulder deep in Momstagram, spending every waking hour (of which there were too many) trying to memorize the influencer-created acronyms for calming my baby to sleep.
Diving into parenthood made me question everything I thought I knew. Hormones distorted my reality. I loved my child, but I was also stuck in one of those nightmares where my legs were as heavy as sandbags as I tried to make a million and one decisions every day.
Finally, at eight-months old, my baby quit breastfeeding. I was devastated. I scoured Lactationgram for answers and booked an “emergency” meeting with a lactation consultant who asked me questions like “what laundry detergent are you using?” “Did you change deodorants?” “Are you eating dairy?” “What about spicy food?” I answered as if I were on the stand, implicating myself for a crime. For weeks, I did everything the lactation consultant and nursing influencers told me to do to try to win my daughter back, but in the back of my mind I knew it: She was done. She’d bit me. I yelped. And she was like “wow, this restaurant has terrible service, no thanks!”
As a new parent, every first moment is an unknown. It feels dangerous to trust yourself. Earning that trust back was a yellow-brick-road journey, where it turns out I had the answer in me all along: I understand my daughter better than anyone and can therefore make the best decisions for her, and no, I don't want to meditate. There was also the fact that she was part of the rare and ever-smaller population that hadn’t ever been on Instagram. She wasn’t scrolling IG or TikTok for crawling hacks or the truth about Big Pacifier. She was/is living her ground truth every second of the day without digital feedback.
I had been trying to shape my idea of motherhood around someone’s filtered version of theirs. I unfollowed the Momfluencers whose advice I depended on even when it didn’t fit me. And still, when I feel shaky in my parenting decision-making, I revert to my ground truth: I know my baby, and she knows herself.
And, yet, perhaps even more profound, another sweeping wave of truth washed over me: maybe I didn't need the contour.