Information overload and its assault on mothers

There’s an account I’ve followed for a while now on Instagram curated by an absolutely lovely, smart, and seemingly great-hearted woman who lives local to me. She’s has PhD in literacy and shares principles and tools on her account for parents wanting to inspire a love of reading in their kiddos. Her videos are cute and include bite-size interventions like letting kids wiggle and move while you read. The information is solid and wonderful.

And a few weeks ago I muted her posts.

She didn’t post a hot take or offend me. In fact, I probably would have continued following if I hadn’t been scrolling by her post in the midst of a moment of total information-overload.

I’m finding myself in these moments increasingly often, and I imagine you are too. We’re living these days in the information and attention economies, after all. It’s been true that we’ve had almost any information we could desire at our fingertips for a couple decades now. But while googling required us to already be aware of what we wanted to know more about, being chronically online via social media is a whole other animal.

On social media, we’re delivered micro-lessons in perpetual stream. In an era of suggested content, it’s not even just accounts we already follow. The algorithm gods saw that we paused for .06 seconds on a post about how to manage a grocery store tantrum and suddenly our feed is flooded with toddler and teen whisperers. We’re offered more easy three-step processes and downloadable audio guides than we know what to do with.

If you’re like me – that is, an information junkie – that little saved flag in the bottom right-hand corner is well worn. I’ve talked before about my own seemingly insatiable drive for more knowledge and how it’s led to a feeling of total oversaturation. I included in that essay some things I’ve been doing to try to mitigate the information overload, many of which have been really helpful.

But in this one, I want to hone in on the parenting content that’s consumingly available and I want to offer some ways to discern its usefulness and impact.

And as I write this, I’m all too aware of my own role and stake in the attention economy. As someone who writes and creates content online, I’m absolutely part of the noise. I mention this both to acknowledge my position and to emphasize that I’m not out here saying there’s no value in all this information. In many ways, there’s so much value – too much value – that it has a paradoxical effect. Give me a little more of your time and attention and I’ll explain.

I’m a parent and bonus parent myself to a bunch of kids ranging at this point from preschool to teen years. I’m also a psychologist who works a lot with maternal mental health. And, as I’ve laid out, I’m also online a ton, a knowledge hoarder, and always down for interesting psychological and developmental info. This translates to my feed absolutely brimming with everything from how to soothe a crying baby to how to reinforce safe sex practices when kids are leaving for college. I feel steeped in parenting advice.

What I’ve observed is that when I take in parenting content, one of three things happens.

1. In the best-case scenario, the information I take in inspires me in some significant way. That often happens when it resonates with a part of my experience I’m particularly struggling with at the time and offers me a novel way of thinking about or approaching the issue. Psychologists confirm that to inspire action, information generally has to feel familiar enough that we trust it based on our experience, while also giving us something new to chew on. I’d add that we also have to be in the right mood and mindset – one that allows for curiosity and openness.

When the stars align in this way, new ideas take root in me and I get excited to try them out. A place where this happened for me was in listening to Dr. Becky Kennedy talk about the difference between requests and boundaries. She was making the point that what we think are boundaries are often requests (“Don’t push the button on the elevator.”) and that enforcing a boundary is something that we as parents do, not a guideline the child follows (e.g. putting myself between the child and the button). While I’d been familiar with this differentiation for a long time, I heard it in her posts in a way that finally integrated for me. I started practicing much more effective and actual boundaries with my kids. It took more physical effort on my part, but I quickly saw that payoff.

2. In the worst-case scenario, I confront parenting guidance that makes me feel frustrated, hopeless, or down on myself. To be fair, the way that this information lands usually has much more to do with me and my mental and emotional state than the content itself. Maybe I’m already oversaturated that day or season. Maybe I’ve just had a blowout with my kid that’s left me feeling guilty and activated my “nothing I do is right” neural pathway.

That said, there are aspects of the advice itself that can make these responses more likely. If the guidance is given in a tone that  feels too authoritative or lacks flexibility and nuance, I’m going to notice that surge of cortisol in my body. Honestly, as a mom of a large family, I find myself in this space often when I read advice for managing an issue of one child that doesn’t account for the needs of other kids or people in the family. (I wrote a post about that issue here.) Anything that feels too aspirational or judgmental is going to irk me. Anything that feels too demanding or complicated is going to do the the opposite of inspiring action in me.

3. The third scenario is honestly the most common, and it can seem so subtle that I think we forget that it’s happening. The vast majority of parenting advice feels like it floats by by consciousness. I read it or watch it and I don’t think too much about it. And yet, it’s doing two interrelated things.

First, it’s consuming my time and attention. That’s no small investment, especially when I don’t consider myself to be making it intentionally. And second, it’s becoming staticky background noise in my already frayed brain, particularly in the area of my brain focused on the imperative to “be a good mom.” Just because I’m not actively incorporating or rejecting this advice doesn’t mean that I don’t have a nervous system response to it. This is the cost I want to highlight.

When we are inundated with information, particularly information that takes the form of “do this, not that” or “improve your situation in these six steps,” the ideas can become part of an unconscious mental to-do list, or perhaps more accurately, “should-do” list. These are things that I may know I’m not intending to implement, but that are not in my realm of awareness as things that I could be doing. Perhaps what other people are doing. Perhaps what a “good mother” would be doing.

It’s sneaky, how this happens. Ways I could be engaging my pre-teen to talk to me more or bath time games I could be playing with my preschooler stay with me below my conscious awareness, but there, living in the ether of the ways that I’m not doing all I could be doing to optimize this whole motherhood experience.

And while the wiser and more grounded part of me knows that I’m doing perfectly – and imperfectly – enough to raise whole humans, other more insecure and tender parts of me get activated by the implication that there is always more I could be doing. I may know better than to get sucked in, but my unconscious is and will always be vulnerable. Plainly, our brains have not evolved quickly enough to deal with the barrage of information about the how to do things, supposedly, better.

Muting accounts is an option, as is unfollowing or even – gasp! – minimizing or discontinuing social media use altogether. But I think most of us want some parenting support and guidance, and in the absence of a true village infrastructure in most of our lives, online is where we tend to turn. Not to mention that an overload of parenting info isn’t only found online. We’ve got books, in-laws, mom-friend group texts, and more to contend with.

So how do we determine how the information we’re consuming is impacting us? How do we assess if it’s actually getting us closer to the parent we want to be?

I’m going to suggest some reflection questions, as I often do. As I share them, I want us to be aware that a process of discernment is a conscious process. That means we are considering in an intentional way, i.e. it takes effort. We’re not going to be asking all of these questions for each post we encounter. My suggestion would be to spend a few minutes reflecting more generally, and then perhaps scrolling through your feed and whittling down the accounts you are consuming.

  1. What shifts do I notice in my body when I consume this information? Do I feel lighter or heavier? Do I feel tension anywhere in my body? Do I feel tired or energized?
  2. What urges do I notice in myself when I consume this information? Do I have the urge to act immediately or do I feel frozen? Do I feel an urge to shut down? Do I feel the urge to share this with others? What might that mean?
  3. Which creators or sources do I find feel like a deep breath versus a sharp inhale? Can I identify just a small handful of places where I get solid and affirming information?
  4. What about this source feels supportive and helpful for me? What feels less helpful? Am I able to take what I need and leave the rest? 
  5. Does this source leave space to incorporate the uniqueness of my own experience, culture, or needs? 
  6. Where might I be holding fear about missing out on information? Is that a place where I hold more insecurity or anxiety? How can I tend to that without consuming more?
  7. Does this source help me connect more with my own knowing rather than reinforcing the need to constantly seek knowledge outside of myself? How can I get just enough information to feel empowered, but not so much that I feel lost, conflicted, and away from my own wisdom?

The attention economy paired with a cultural obsession in parenting perfection is a recipe for more anxious and burnt-out caregivers. That does no good for us as parents, and perhaps even less for the kids we are raising.

Surviving and thriving in this age means developing discernment skills and protecting ourselves from information overload. It means connecting with ourselves and our amazing abilities to know what’s helping and what’s not when we tune in not to our brains as information-processing machines, but rather to our bodies as the arbiters of what we need less and more of.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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