Kristin Hensley and Jen Smedley are the wry, inappropriate mom comedy-duo that the pop culture rebellion against perfect motherhood hath wrought. In their viral #IMomSoHard YouTube series, and elsewhere, they dish outrageously on post-baby “ski slope” boobs, hairy nipples, flabby tummies, and “broken” nethers (“like a basset hound with its head out the window, just flapping in the wind”). They rant about kid germs, clueless husbands who put clean diapers on top of dirty diapers, and the tyranny of Pinterest cake pops. And, of course, they are fixated on wine (i.e. the “happy juice” that gets them through it all).
Wine is so essential to their brand of motherhood that they hold glasses of it on the cover of their new book, #IMOMSOHARD, which was released on Tuesday. An illustration of a glass of red wine appears on the bottom of every other page. The generously poured glass slowly empties—only to be refilled and emptied again. In a YouTube video titled, “I Wine So Hard,” they cheer and Smedley says, with exhaustion, “Made it through another day.” Hensley replies, “You know what’s in this glass? Hope.”
The real-life best friends, who grew up in Nebraska and now live in Los Angeles, started #IMomSoHard out of an earnest desire to make other moms feel better about themselves by revealing their own imperfections. In their YouTube clips, and Facebook Live videos, they sip red wine—mimosas, if it’s early—in the kiddie play area at Smedley’s house. Toys are often strewn emblematically in the background. They talk about such subjects as lying to your kids, mommy poop breaks, and the embarrassing contents of their “mom bags” (“I do have a razor, because I have a sweet mustache and full beard”). Occasionally, they tackle weightier topics, like postpartum depression.
The talk often segues into physical comedy—for example, a failed attempt at exercise that ends with the pair trying to drink mimosas while wearing boxing gloves. In a wildly popular video, they try on swimsuits with youthful cut-outs for humorous effect. “Can’t even call it baby weight anymore,” says Hensley of herself during the segment. “Just call it weight.”
Their schtick is one of rebelling against, sometimes guiltily succumbing to, but never actually escaping the paradigm of perfect motherhood. Hence the interminable need for a “#heavypour” and “#wine” and “#morewine,” as they often put it on social media. It’s a brand of laughs with the potential for catharsis and mild disobedience, but it also runs the risk of bolstering stereotypes and numbing the pain of parental inequity (like so many glasses of red wine).
It is somewhat concerning, then, that this schtick appears to powerfully resonate with quite so many moms—or, at least, white, heterosexual, married, middle-class moms. But it’s also not surprising, given the broader mainstream backlash against maternal expectation. The past decade has seen the rise of “wine mom” culture, which has found commercial expression in countless “mommy juice” wine tumblers on Etsy and “mommy needs her wine” memes. In 2015, the popular Facebook group Unicorn Moms launched with the tagline, “Perfect moms are like unicorns; they don’t exist.” A year later, the same year the #IMomSoHard YouTube series launched, there was the release of Bad Moms, a Hollywood film written by two men about a group of imperfect moms who endeavor to “bring down” the perfect moms at their children’s school. We’ve also seen the phenomenon of “brutally honest” post-baby photos unflinchingly depicting women’s supposed bodily imperfection.
Hensley and Smedley have successfully tapped into that market. Late last week, they posted a video alerting fans that their book was very close to hitting the New York Times bestseller list thanks to a massive influx of pre-orders. The book’s early success is no doubt helped by their 1.3 million Facebook followers. On YouTube, their top video—titled “I Spanx So Hard,” in which the pair humorously contort themselves into multiple layers of modern corsetry—has 1.2 million views.
In 2017, following the success of their YouTube series, they went on a Yoplait sponsored cross-country stand-up tour, complete with a bus emblazoned with their smiling faces, and are about to embark on another one (also sponsored by Yoplait) to promote the book. (They’ve also received sponsorship from Walmart and Amazon.) There’s even a CBS pilot in the works starring Freddie Prinze Jr. as one of their fictional husbands. The #IMomSoHard moms recently filmed a comedy special for an unnamed producer, although one could make an educated guess.
Their success is probably worth celebrating. They are whip-smart, wildly funny, highly likable, and dirty-minded. It’s certainly an improvement upon the suffocating cult of Pinterest-perfect motherhood, to which #IMomSoHard is a reaction. “While we were checking our Instagram accounts and happily scrolling through Pinterest, this little worm started to whisper in our ears that to be considered a good mom, everything has to be homemade, it has to be the best, and it has to be photographed within an inch of its life, using the right filters to showcase how incredibly charming and adorable your children are,” they write. “Heaven forbid we just go to Target and buy some stuff.”
In the book, which repurposes much of their YouTube material, they say something that has been said, but cannot be said enough: “Doing things perfectly takes away from what your kids actually need—a happy mom.” And they have found a way to deliver this message in a fun, mainstream, and highly digestible context.
This reaction to Pinterest-perfect motherhood, though, often finds its expression at the expense of “imperfect” moms. Jokes are made about all aspects of “mom bod.” They write of their “mommy feet” (“I’m standing in uncomfortable shoes all day and have no time for pedicures”) and “mommy ass” (“I eat a lot of leftover chicken nuggets and don’t have time for the gym”). They compare their legs to “kebabs from one of those Brazilian barbecue places” and clothed torso to “a football wearing clothes.” They post pics of their tummies, along with hashtags like “#dietstartstomorrow.” Their four most popular YouTube videos all deal with bodily imperfection: “I Spanx So Hard,” “I Swimsuit Season So Hard,” “I Body Hair So Hard,” and “I Fitness So Hard.”
There are jokes, too, about jumbo packs of high-waisted cotton underwear and bad mom dance moves and unseemly chin hairs. This is exactly the sort of critique one would expect from mainstream culture, only it’s self-directed and done with more comedic zest.
Of course, there is potential healing, as well as the power of coopting critique, in laughing at oneself. That is especially true when it comes to bodily changes after giving birth. As the book points out, the “loss” of one’s pre-baby body is about more than what you see standing naked in the bathroom mirror. There is a certain limited power associated with embodying a particular beauty ideal, and the loss of that can be very real, and very painful. They write of the sense of invisibility that can overtake moms:
One day, you are shaking your hair and getting a lot of “This one’s on me,” and the next, poof, you’re gone. It sucks. If you’re a hot twenty-something carrying a phone and a key fob outside an apartment building, you will have the door opened for you, but if you’re a lady pushing a double stroller and a toddler fussing under one arm? Forget it.
Given that, these jokes may feel cathartic, but they also participate in cultural myth-making around moms—as laughable, sexless, embarrassing, irrelevant, and pathetic. It’s humor that is reactionary, not revolutionary. As Hannah Gadsby said in her brilliant genre-defying Netflix special about the ways in which self-deprecating comedy can be toxic, “Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.” Sometimes gallows humor just keeps you in the gallows. Then again, #IMomSoHard fans likely aren’t looking for radical intervention; they’re looking for visibility within the status quo.
The book thoroughly fails to engage, even lightly, with the ideologies and inequalities that turn moms into martyred, wine-swilling jokes. Traditional notions about gendered divisions of labor are often accepted as fact. In the book, there are sentences that begin with things like: “The reality is that, as a mom, you roll out of bed and make lunches... .” On a Labor Day Instagram post, they write, “Enjoy a day off. (Unless you are a mom, then look forward to a day of making sandwiches, packing sand toys, a cooler, two diaper bags, constantly applying sunscreen and when you get home hanging towels, giving baths, and applying aloe.)”
The #IMomSoHard universe doesn’t make distinctions between stay-at-home moms and moms who are working full-time outside of the home. Hensley, in particular, makes it clear that she works full-time, but motherhood is nonetheless treated as an all-consuming identity. (Of course, that might be true when your job is talking about your experience of motherhood.) Paid childcare is rarely discussed, with the exception of dishing on the challenge of finding babysitters for date night. Once a woman becomes a mom, she ceases to be much of anything else, regardless of how she actually spends most of her days.
Never mind moms who struggle against tyrannies that are much more formidable than Pinterest-perfect cake pops, like nonexistent maternity leave, and the high cost of childcare. That’s just not very funny, I guess. I like to think that it could be, though, if comedians like Hensley and Smedley focused their talents on those more deserving targets of our laughter. But they, like this pop culture moment of mom rebellion, are determined to be apolitical. In the book, they write: “In our videos and live shows, we tend to steer away from politics.” They don’t want to be “divisive,” they explain. But, of course, their message is unavoidably political in its upholding of traditional notions of motherhood and family, and its avoidance of the social issues that impact mothers’ lives.
Occasionally, Hensley and Smedley direct their teasing toward their husbands—for things like asking “every time” how much medicine to give the kids and not knowing their offspring’s shoe sizes. “Don’t get us wrong—our husbands make us insane, but we have no intention of leaving them. We would never give them that freedom,” they write. In one case, their husbands’ parenting abilities are defended, but then followed by another stereotype: “They are knuckle-deep in kid shit just as much as we are, and they can even be pretty emotional when the occasion calls for it—like when they talk about sports.”
Many #IMomSoHard fans seem to hold similar views and experiences. On a video about sleep deprivation, a commenter writes, “Who wants to sleep like a baby? I wanna sleep like a husband!“ In a video about kid germs, a woman comments that her whole family, including herself, are currently sick. “My husband whines constantly about feeling like crap but [what] do I do? I still make a freaking gourmet meal for dinner last night while running a fever,” she writes. “Pan seared ribeye, butter poached lobster tail and stuffed mushrooms.” She even included a photo of the ribeye.
The eye-rolling at husbands and dads seem to underscore their masculine incompetence, and the hyper-competence of wives and moms, rather than to demand more. It’s poking fun at accepted “facts” about men and women, as opposed to actually challenging them.
These assumptions about, and actual experiences of, inequitable gender roles seem to lead directly to the maternal suffering that necessitates all that wine. “We will pour a glass of wine, the signal that we are ‘off duty,’” they write in the book of a typical evening. “Only we are not, of course—a mom is never off the clock. She’s simply on call, as at any moment someone could barf, have a nightmare, want to know why people die, or simply think their pajamas feel too ‘bally’ all of a sudden.” Amid a move, they posted a photo of a box full of wine bottle and glasses. Scrawled on the side of the box was “FRAGILE: Just like my emotional state!” and “THIS IS THE ONLY BOX THAT MATTERS.”
What Hensley and Smedley are doing is observational comedy—they are comedians and they are good at poking fun at the inanities of motherhood and aging—but their popularity reveals something serious about the current state of motherhood, at least among the demographic privileged enough to worry about Pinterest cake pops. It speaks to the degree of isolation, insecurity, and stress that many mothers experience. These pains should be expressed and validated, and even laughed about until those weakened pelvic floor muscles betray us. But we should remember to ask why we mom so hard, and what it would take for us to mom so soft.