Our September Salon guest, Alexis Barad-Cutler, is a social media genius. Her 8000-strong online community Not Safe For Mom Group (nsfmg) has taken a medium famous for highly-curated branding and careful self-presentation - Instagram - and turned it into a space for authentic storytelling and self-disclosure. Along the way, (nsfmg) has hosted conversations on everything from identity, to infertility, to anti-racism. If you want to learn how to leverage social media for deep audience engagement, you need to be watching Alexis’s work. And if you’re looking for a space to discuss the thornier side of motherhood, you need to join (nsfmg).
Powerbitches sat down with Alexis to learn more about how (nsfmg) developed its unique style of social media dialogue, how her personal and professional experiences shape the community, and the conversations that still aren’t “safe for mom group.”
Powerbitches: How did (nsfmg) come about?
Alexis Barad-Cutler: I had been writing for parenting magazines for a couple of years - anything from personal essays to sponsored posts, event coverage, listicles, research-based articles, gift guides and holiday roundups. But when I wrote about my own life, it tended to be me writing about my deepest darkest confessions as a parent. It was cathartic, a way to get over the parts of motherhood that I struggled with, and I felt like if I put them out there it was sort of therapy.
I also wrote humorous essays about dark things - in this case, an article self-examining about how I tended to hire the best-looking babysitters when using online babysitting services, because when you’re hiring people based on a profile picture on an app, that’s kind of what the technology drives you to do. It was a dark truth about myself, and it was also kind of funny. I submitted it to a popular parenting website, it was approved and published, and a couple of days later it was not there. I called the editor I was working with, and she said there had been some controversy around it. Readers said it was too sexist and it objectified women. I said, “That's interesting, I would love to see what people wrote and get into a conversation with them about it,” but that wasn’t possible because the comments had been deleted along with the article.
“I felt like that whole first year of motherhood was colored by a feeling of otherness.” - Alexis Barad-Cutler
I got so boiling mad, and coupled with the sense that everything else I was looking at online was so beautiful, it made me ashamed of the type of mother I was. At first I thought (nsfmg) was going to be a literary magazine, but it ended up evolving into something a lot more dynamic.
PB: You’ve spoken publicly about your experiences with postpartum depression. How did that play into your decision to start (nsfmg)?
ABC: My experiences with PPD were a major impetus for Not Safe For Mom Group. At the time that I had it, it wasn’t really talked about. I didn’t know what was happening, and after I was diagnosed, it wasn’t like “other women have this, too.” Even after I was cured, I couldn't shake this feeling of having a very different experience, and it lingered. I felt like that whole first year of motherhood was colored by a feeling of otherness. I would be at my mom group, and I felt like there was this smoke screen between me and everyone else. I was different and my kid was different and I had been given the raw end of the deal.
Now it seems just laughable - I feel like everyone has a story - but at the time, I felt very isolated. I’m always surprised by how that feeling is echoed in the stories and experiences of other mothers.
PB: Not Safe For Mom Group uses Instagram - and in particular, Instagram stories - in a more compelling, authentic, and conversation-based way than anyone else I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a brand. It’s a genuine space for community, conversation, and storytelling. What gave you the idea to use it like that?
ABC: I think it was because people started writing to me. I started receiving all these messages in response to my posts, and I just felt like they weren't for me. We were talking about such delicate topics - mental health, marriage, body image - and I wanted to throw it to the group every time I got a question.
Once I started posting questions to the group, I saw how powerful it was. There is a lot of strength, insight and knowledge that comes from people who’ve experienced these things before or who are going through them now. I love this idea of a group coming in to be supportive because that’s what we're looking for when we’re in crisis in the middle of the night. People would be like, “It's like you're seeing me for the first time.” They didn’t necessarily want to be connected with each other in real life, they just wanted to disembody themselves, and connect with each other in the online space.
PB: (nsfmg) has experienced incredibly rapid growth over the last year. What challenges have you faced in growing the community?
“There is a lot of strength, insight and knowledge that comes from people who’ve experienced things before.” - Alexis Barad-Cutler
ABC: I feel like it's been hard to grow followers! I want to have that “swipe up” [that users get on Instagram when they reach 10,000 followers]. I struggle with the idea of having anyone do a takeover because what people write to me is so personal. I would hesitate to let anyone have access to my site. A lot of the methods my cohorts use to grow their audiences don’t work for me because of (nsfmg)’s intimacy and how the conversation is often driven by what the community needs and wants to talk about at the moment.. I just have to be okay with that and be slow and patient. It’s also hard to put a price on health and wellbeing in this space. Whether you charge people to go to their event is something I don't know is right. Even though I have to pay for things, I want it to be accessible to mothers. These are all questions that I’m still trying to work through. What is the business side of something that has so much heart in it?
PB: What are your hopes and dreams for (nsfmg)?
ABC: I would like to find a way to extend the conversation off of instagram. There have been times I have been censored, which is part of a growing trend in censoring motherhood spaces, the trans and queer community, and people of color. I would like to have an alternative forum where we can have these conversations. I hope there’s a way we can entice people to engage, but not on the app. I’d also like to partner with brands that are doing good and have these hard conversations with their audiences. If there is say a fertility vitamin and I want to host a conversation about the stigma of fertility, that would be a great marriage between (nsfmg) and their brand. There are different branches I’m working on for the business that would support the conversations that we’re having on the app. I’d like to host more live events, and I also have a product that I’m developing. If that works out, I would like to eventually create more of the types of products that “nobody talks about.”
PB: What are the missing motherhood conversations we still need to have?
ABC: This is a question I think about a lot. What are the things that I’m afraid to write about on Not Safe For Mom Group?
When people were writing about the “mom rage” and how much they're losing it, I had some big feelings when so much of it came down to breastfeeding. So many of us lose sight of ourselves because of what we believe we have to do as mothers. I wanted to ask, had you considered not breastfeeding? “And give my baby poison?” There are certain topics that cause these factions - breastfeeding, sleep training, or working versus staying at home. There are maybe three or four topics that we can’t really talk about head on.
Another thing is politics. People like to believe that politics is separate to motherhood, that motherhood is its own special little corner, but it’s not. We have to talk about white supremacy. I want to talk about it more, but when I bring it up, I only get a couple of people who are like “right on, that’s what I want to talk about.”
Alexis Barad-Cutler will be in conversation with Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills at our next Salon event, on September 17. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.