Finding out that an Instagram influencer you love holds a wildly different worldview than you do can often feel weirdly personal. Take Arielle Charnas, an OG fashion blogger at Something Navy, who just as the pandemic was sweeping New York City, announced to her more than 1 million Instagram followers that she’d pulled strings to get a Covid-19 test, was positive, then moved to the Hamptons with her family and nanny without quarantining first. Predictably, fans were furious.
Now imagine that the disappointing influencer had not only impacted your style or home decor but some of the most intimate decisions of your life, someone who you’d turned to for advice on motherhood, pregnancy, or postpartum depression. That’s what happened to thousands of moms on the internet last week when baby sleep expert Cara Dumaplin, known by her (admittedly brilliant) nom de plume Taking Cara Babies and her Instagram account of more than 1.3 million followers, was revealed to have donated multiple times to the Trump campaign.
Who is Taking Cara Babies, and why is she so important to parents?
On January 19 and 20, parenting forums and new mom group chats lit up after word began spreading on Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit that Dumaplin and her pediatrician husband had donated in total around $2,000 to various Trump campaigns in 2019 and 2020, according to Federal Elections Commission data. Parenting influencers like Jamie Grayson spread the screenshots on Twitter and Facebook, where they percolated among progressive parents. Author and screenwriter Bess Kalb, for instance, tweeted “OH MY GOD TAKING CARA BABIES IS MAGA.”
Facebook groups, along with Instagram direct messages, subreddits, group chats, or any one of the myriad ways people can connect online, have become a hugely significant part of many of our lives over the past few years, but especially for new parents. Real relationships are formed on these platforms between folks dealing with the same terrifying concerns and complicated questions, just as they would in any new mom’s group. It’s because the topics are so personal that what’s known as the “mom internet” or the “mommy blogosphere” can often feel intense, toxic, or unwelcoming to parents who aren’t well-versed in the parlance (and even those who are).
Moms who are active on social media told me they’d been part of what felt like “millions” of Facebook parenting groups since becoming pregnant: groups for working moms, groups for moms of a certain podcast fandom, Peloton moms, moms from the same synagogue, or moms of babies born around the same time. During the pandemic, the mom internet has become even more of a lifeline as mothers continue to shoulder the majority of the workload at home.
Taking Cara Babies’ star has risen directly alongside the importance of Facebook groups for new parents. For the many new parents who’d paid to take her online sleep courses, which range from $179 to $319, the Trump donation news came as devastating. “We put our trust in her when we were at our lowest and vulnerable,” says Katelyn Esmonde, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins and mother to a 12-week-old. “She made me feel like not getting my baby to sleep perfectly was okay. Being a mom is to feel like you are constantly failing, and she made me feel like I was doing a good job.”
Esmonde had signed up for her online newborn class, which cost around $75, and says the techniques helped her daughter’s sleep schedule significantly. “In my house, I can say something about what ‘Cara’ says and my husband knows exactly what I’m talking about,” she adds. But now, “it’s really hard for me to separate what I know about her now from the sleep advice that she gives. I can’t square that with supporting a candidate who put children in cages.”
Though Taking Cara Babies’ sleep training techniques are heavily borrowed from the well-known Ferber method, which stresses the importance of self-soothing, as well as Dr. Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby” books, Cara succeeded by meeting parents where they already were: Instagram.
“As you’re holding a baby, it’s easier to scroll through an Instagram video than to read a book,” explains Conz Preti, content director for Motherly and mom to a 3-year-old and 10-month-old twins. “The format is very parent-friendly — two- to five-minute videos that you can easily watch with a baby on you, or like, during a bathroom break.”
“Facebook groups are super important, and I think that’s also why they’re imploding,” Preti says. “I’ve been seeing over the last two years mom influencers blow up and Facebook groups implode, like when the [UES Mommas] Facebook had that huge implosion where people were calling out racists. I feel like parents have a lower tolerance for stuff like this. It wasn’t like this when I had my first three years ago.”
A year or two ago, a mom influencer could likely get away with avoiding political content on their channels, but the pandemic, the election, and the racial justice protests of 2020 have completely upended what we expect from someone with a large platform. Taking Cara Babies, unsurprisingly, steered far clear of anything remotely controversial in her content and courses, focusing specifically on her sleep training methods (and obviously, pictures of cute babies and inspirational quotes).
Preti has seen several of her own Facebook groups struggle to deal with how to approach potentially divisive conversations. “A lot of criticism in mom groups, when someone posts something political, is like, ‘We’re here to talk about breastfeeding, not politics.’ But motherhood is political. You’re building a path for children to have a future,” she says.
How Taking Cara Babies’ Trump donation turned into a familiar social media meltdown
What’s happening among followers of Taking Cara Babies is a microcosm of the conversation around the roles and responsibilities of celebrities and influencers writ large. The ill-advised social media habits of famous people over the course of the pandemic, including Charnas’s Hamptons escape, have made it increasingly difficult to justify the need for them at all. After a group of mostly white A-listers created a cringey video in an attempt to support Black Lives Matter, for instance, the Ringer’s Alison Herman asked, “What do we even want from celebrities right now? Are they capable of giving it to us?”
For parenting influencers, those responsibilities are infinitely greater. Charnaie Gordon is the woman behind the popular blog and Instagram account Here Wee Read, which reviews and recommends diverse and inclusive children’s books. As an influencer herself, she understands that speaking out on seemingly unrelated issues when you have a large platform can be complicated. “I can understand why people wouldn’t want to speak out. I didn’t always speak out on every single issue, because I’d be speaking out all the time,” she says. “But if you’re putting your business over human lives, is that right? It’s a fine line.”
It wasn’t just the Trump donations that angered fans, it was also Dumaplin’s avoidance of discussing the issue after the news broke — a misstep for influencers who trade on authenticity and accountability. “If somebody’s going to call you out, then I believe that you need to come out and make a statement yourself,” adds Gordon. “You have to face it head on, you can’t go about your normal course of business.”
“I think [Taking Cara Babies] raises a lot of questions about who gets to be the authority on parents, who gets to make money off of being a mom, and what values are being passed along as expertise,” says Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor at Eater, which is owned by Vox Media. Dixler Canavan posted about Taking Cara Babies on her public profiles, but she wondered, at first, whether by openly expressing anger about the Dumaplins’ donations that she was participating in “teardown culture” or whether her reaction was in some way sexist. Instead, she realized, “It’s like, ‘No, I’m not doing anything except saying that I’m pissed off.’”
In response, many parents say they’ll boycott Taking Cara Babies; some have also requested refunds. Other popular parenting Instagram accounts have made statements on their Stories to note that they disagree with Dumaplin’s beliefs. Dumaplin’s publicist emailed Vox a statement, writing, “Between 2016 and 2019, I made a series of donations (totaling $1,078) to the Trump campaign. As with many citizens, there were aspects of the Trump administration that I agreed with and some that I disagreed with.”
You can likely guess what happened next: Right-wing fans of Taking Cara Babies claimed that the public outcry was all just “cancel culture” rearing its head, and descended upon the people who had posted about their disappointment. “The replies on [my tweets] were about how I’m a terrible, disgusting person and that I’m committing a crime,” says Dixler Canavan, who had made a joke about how she would send the PDFs she bought from Dumaplin’s courses to friends to avoid giving more money to her business. “I was just blocking and ignoring.”
Then, the right-wing outlet the Federalist picked up the story. The resulting article is predictable; it frames Dixler Canavan as part of a “blue check” mob out to bully and dox an innocent baby expert. Yet “doxxing,” or revealing someone’s home address or otherwise personal information and thereby exposing them to potential harm, is misleading. People had posted the screenshot of the election campaign database, which included Dumaplin’s address (Dixler Canavan was not one of them), but the information was already public.
The end result was that Dixler Canavan, who as a member of the media wields a certain amount of influence in the public realm, but nowhere near as much as an influencer with more than a million followers and a lucrative business, was portrayed as an emblem of the “woke left establishment,” and was treated as such. For days, she was bombarded with tweets, emails, and Facebook messages, as well as some directed toward her bosses in an attempt to get her fired.
“Most of the comments I’ve gotten have been from men who I assume have never heard of this woman prior to the right-wing media ecosystem picking up this story,” she says. “I think it’s fairly obvious that this is people processing their feelings about Trump losing and loving the excuse to have a left-leaning woman to beat up on on Twitter.” Meanwhile, the “cancellation” claims appear to be unfounded: Dumaplin’s follower count has not changed.
Yet however disappointed progressive parents are feeling, Taking Cara Babies is not the root cause of America’s political problems, and a woman donating to the Trump campaign does not negate her ability to give useful advice on baby sleep training. “One of the things that I’m also sitting with is that I’m quick to not recommend her anymore, and yet I still buy shit off Amazon,” Dixler Canavan says. “It’s obviously true that Amazon has done far more harm than Cara’s $1,000 to Trump. I do not have the capacity to run every single person’s name through the FEC website to be a helpful resource for my kid.”
Being a terrified new parent is hard enough, after all. Whether or not Taking Cara Babies will continue to have a sizable fanbase after this — and she likely will — isn’t really the issue. It’s what kind of people we turn to for advice and guidance on some of the most personal aspects of our lives, and who profits from it. Under a Biden presidency, will influencers and celebrities be able to skate by without speaking out about political issues just because Trump is no longer in the White House, or will they be held accountable by the followers who make their livelihoods possible? If the Taking Cara Babies scandal is any indication, perhaps the answer is both.