The first time Caitlin Fladager was recognized in public was four years ago at Costco. She was shopping with her mother-in-law when a trio of younger girls came up and asked to have their photo taken with her.
Fladager, just 21 herself and a mother to a toddler, was confused. Why in the world did these people want her photograph?
The answer was in the phone held up to take the picture, and in the social media accounts and profiles around which 21st century life – and celebrity – had begun to revolve.
If you don’t have an Instagram account, Fladager’s face does not regularly pop up on your phone’s screen. Neither do those of her children. You haven’t marveled at the decorated lunches she packs for her kids, or applauded the seemingly perfect high-school romance of her marriage. And you won’t have noticed when Fladager realized a photo can lie.
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Caitlin Fladager is a child of the 21st century, so she grew up with a smart phone and all the social media apps you hear about. Six years ago, she met a guy named Noah at Yale Secondary. They started dating. Shortly after graduation, when Fladager was 18, she accidentally got pregnant.
Fladager says she is naturally introverted. The internet, though, gives shy people a way to share their lives, and when Fladager began posting about being happily pregnant, and then about parenting alongside a supportive and engaged father, more and more people started following her.
A media company would call it “Growing An Audience.” That, unbeknownst to her, was the route she was on.
Fladager would post pictures of herself, and about how two young people who met in high school and had a kid early were making life work. The number of people who knew her face, name and family only grew.
Four years ago, she was recognized in Costco. Three years ago, she had another kid. Two years ago, a big American toy company emailed her and asked if she would like to be paid to advertise their products. Also, she could keep the toys.
“It was really weird,” she said. “I’m just a girl from Abbotsford.”
People loved seeing Fladager’s smiling, attractive face, and her growing young family. And soon Fladager, who loved kids and dreamed of being a kindergarten teacher, had children of her own and, somehow, a job unlike any other in Abbotsford.
Fladager had 100,000 followers on Instagram. Then she had more. Tens of thousands more followed her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Several posts “went viral,” as the news likes to say. American TV stations – big ones with three letters – called to talk to her about her posts. Those people especially liked Fladager’s posts about the terrific parenting skills of Noah, who had since become her husband.
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But people – and life – are more complicated than can be captured in an Instagram post or 280-character tweet.
Behind the photos, Fladager’s marriage wasn’t perfect and her life wasn’t perfect. None are. And slowly she began letting people into a side of her life that she hadn’t revealed.
Last June, Fladager stunned her followers by posting that she and Noah had broken up, although they were both committed to parenting together.
The written posts that accompanied her photos became longer. She began writing about how the social media image she and others carefully cultivate isn’t necessarily a reflection of reality.
Last August, she posted a picture of her in a less-than-glamorous condition.
“Don’t let my pictures fool you,” she wrote. “I mainly only take pictures when I’m dressed to go somewhere. Most of the time I’m in an old sweatshirt, no makeup, and with my hair not done.”
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How I look 99% of the time. Don’t let my pictures fool you. I mainly only take pictures when I’m dressed to go somewhere. Most of the time I’m in an old sweatshirt, no makeup, and with my hair not done 🤷🏼♀️ this is me with no makeup on (except for eyelash extensions, which I HIGHLY recommend) and what I usually look like. 1 in 3 women won’t leave the house without some sort of makeup on, which I find very sad. Learn to love yourself, with and without makeup. ❤️ what do you prefer? Makeup or no makeup 💄
Not long after, she posted a pair of before-school photos. She and her kids were all smiling in the first. In the second, her toddler was stubbornly resisting.
“It can be SO easy, especially for mom, to compare yourself on social media, to other moms,” she wrote. “The second picture is my reality most of the time. It’s messy, chaotic, beautiful, honest, and the reality for many moms. Don’t compare your reality to someone else’s controlled online content.”
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Fladager wasn’t just dealing with family difficulties, though.
Unbeknownst even to many family members, Fladager had found herself struggling with mental illness, including depression. Over the winter, she finally began to write about it.
“For far too long I have put off therapy because I thought of it as weak, where I couldn’t fix myself and needed help,” she wrote on Twitter. “But the truth is, everyone needs help sometimes.”
2019 is the year that I make myself better. Not physically, mentally. For far too long I have put off therapy because I thought of it as weak, where I couldn’t fix myself and needed help. But the truth is, everyone needs help sometimes. And that’s nothing to be ashamed about. pic.twitter.com/DOVLwwIvPy
— caitlinfladager (@caitlinflads_) January 2, 2019
Depression is a complex disease, with a myriad of causes and contributing factors. It would be wrong to say that becoming an Instagram professional had caused Fladager’s mental illness.
But she says now that maintaining a pretense of perfection wasn’t helping.
“I just felt so alone, and going on Instagram and seeing everybody else looking so happy and so perfect, I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my life? ’” she said last week. “Then I realized it’s the way people portray their lives.”
Fladager’s own posts had maintained that unrealistic veneer.
“I looked perfect. Everybody constantly told me, ‘I am so jealous of your life.’ Meanwhile, I was going through a divorce, I was depressed and not leaving my bed and I had messages saying, ‘I wish my life was like yours.’
“I was just tired of that. I’m like, you know what, my life isn’t so perfect all the time and it’s not fair to other people to think it is.’”
In March, she published a first-person account on the website Love What Matters in which she writes candidly about how the life she lived was very different from the one she put forward to the world.
“One day, it just all got too much for me,” Fladager wrote on the site. “The pressures, people looking up to me, for qualities that I had basically faked. I wanted to look perfect for so long. And the truth is, that’s not reality. That doesn’t help anyone.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Fladager said many people privately thanked her for being honest.
“I felt relieved. I felt I was being honest for once, and not just posting pictures that were staged or set up. I felt I was being me.”
Writing about her issues, and finding support from her peers, was helpful, she said.
“It didn’t make me feel good to know other people go through it, but it felt good to engage with people in a meaningful way.”
The posts also let her family in on her struggles, which she said has brought her more support.
That, along with therapy and medication, have all helped, she said.
“I know families aren’t as perfect as they look when I see one now,” she said. “I know everybody has their problems and that’s OK. It is OK, honestly; I feel everybody tries to hide it now.”
To find mental health support, information or resources, call 310-6789.