One year ago today, a then 20-year-old Kylie Jenner gave birth to her first child, Stormi Webster.
The social media star kept her pregnancy a secret from her followers, meaning news of Stormi’s arrival “dropped” out of nowhere like a surprise Beyoncé visual album.
And it really was akin to a surprise visual album. Stormi’s birth was heralded to the public with To Our Daughter, an epic 11-minute, 32-second video shared on Kylie’s YouTube and Instagram accounts documenting her until then unseen pregnancy journey.
To Our Daughter isn’t a home video. It was directed by professional music video director White Trash Tyler (he also made Kanye West’s Famous music video).
I watched the whole thing.
Between the sentimental backing music, nostalgically grainy footage, and close-up shots of Kylie’s nude pregnant tummy, the video tugged at my womb-located-heartstrings in ways John Howard’s $4000 baby bonus would have killed for.
In the 12 months since, Kylie has transitioned hard and fast into elite “mommy blogger” territory; drip-feeding us tender images and clips of her and Stormi that play into an easy, breezy covergirl version of motherhood where poop, chores, or financial stress just ain’t a thing. And, as a young woman who follows her social media channels, I’ve started to feel its effect.
Throughout 2018, I literally had recurring dreams where I would find out I was pregnant. Part of me blames Kylie – I often watch her content before going to sleep. Stormi is ridiculously cute. Part of me also blames my 26-year-old uterus’ own increasingly vocal biological agenda.
Having a baby right now doesn’t square with my career ambitions or financial reality. And, yet, Kylie has somehow hacked my brain into thinking having my own little Stormi right now is exactly what I want.
I find this somewhat amusing, but also troubling.
Now, Kylie is not a bad influence for being a young mum, and I’m thoroughly against other people arbitrating when is and isn’t a good time for women to have kids. My point is rather that, given 77 per cent of her followers are between 18 and 24, the way Kylie mediates her experience of being a mum as part of her broader “lifestyle brand” is worth critiquing because it is misleading; it uncritically makes motherhood look like some sweet party.
Becoming a parent still has different social and economic consequences for women and men. Patriarchal societies have a vested interest in making motherhood look like the ultimate utopic end goal women should prioritise above all else.
This keeps women feeling “bad” if they can’t have or don’t want kids and naturalises their role as “caregivers” in society, thus helping to keep them from accruing the same influence as men in other domains like business, law, politics and culture.
Kylie’s version of motherhood shared on social media is a simulacrum of the actual experience. She’s always pictured glammed up with her makeup beautifully done and decked out in (very cool) luxury tracksuits. Her content is saccharine ASMR – dripping with giggles, cuddles and filters.
But with Kylie set to become one of only about 2,208 billionaires globally, she’s just not a useful test case when it comes to thinking through the ramifications of motherhood for younger women.
Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies published last year found the minimum cost of raising a child in Australia is around $140 per week ($606 each month), while ABS data shows the average monthly income for someone aged 18 to 20 is only $1850 each month.
Further, a 2017 investigation into how to improve outcomes for young parents in Australia by National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell found pregnant teens are at greater risk of anaemia, hypertension, renal disease, eclampsia and mental health disorders, particularly depression.
Children born to teenage parents have lower birth weights, higher rates of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) and experience other health problems. Healthcare outcomes also vary during pregnancy and birth, based on other forms of privilege. Babies born to Indigenous women, for example, are twice as likely to be of low birthweight than were those born non-Indigenous women, an issue that increases the risk of death in infancy and other health complications.
Then there’s the problem that parenting duties still predominantly fall on women, which is not only an additional labour burden, but also detracts from their opportunities to occupy positions of influence and power outside the home.
Kylie has spent a year aestheticising her experience of young motherhood for social media consumption.
At times it’s tantalising. I really want to have kids one day (and I am thankful I have that choice), and I’ve been lucky enough to previously work teaching and looking after children, experiences that have affirmed a personal view that being a mum is definitely for me.
But I’m suss about Kylie’s role over the past year in uncritically projecting the lure of maternal salvation, and annoyed by my own unconscious buy-in to this vision.
Because, ultimately, motherhood doesn’t come with a filter.