How This Mom Took To Instagram To Create Community When Her Kids Left Home

All it took was an Instagram account and a few edible flowers to change this empty nester’s life.

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Melissa Baila is a 59-year-old aspiring Instagram food and wellness influencer (@eat_play_share) splitting her time between Marietta, GA, and St. Simons Island, GA. After retiring from her full-time job of 33 years as a manager at Allstate, she finally felt the effects of empty-nesting, with her two daughters out of the house in school and at work. She needed to find another way to build a community and a place to connect with others — she just didn’t realize it would be on Instagram, with a bunch of strangers. The following was told to Morgan Baila (her daughter and an editor at Refinery29) and edited for length and clarity. 
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For the past three decades, I’ve been balancing a full-time career as a sales division manager at Allstate with being a full-time wife and mother of two daughters (currently 27 and 22). At work, I’d plan themed events for my team, from a Route 66–inspired conference to an Alice in Wonderland one, where I acted as the Queen of Hearts. At home, I kept the elaborate tradition alive, creating personalized weekly menus for my family, but I found my greatest creative outlet was planning holiday parties. There were Halloween mystery dinners, Easter brunches, and Christmas parties with customized cocktails. What can I say? I love to be busy.
But then, in December of 2018, I retired. By January, after being home for the holidays, my daughters had gone back to school and work. All at once, I had lost my community of employees (I had managed my team remotely across four states), and my nest was empty. What I loved about managing people was that we would have team building on Facebook pages — we’d Skype, text, and email, so I was used to building relationships online. (It amazes me how you can get to know someone without seeing them, and I would never have believed it until I did it. Some people I never saw at all — not even in photos.) When I lost all that overnight, I felt a huge loss of connection.
Years ago, I created a Facebook group called “Eat Play Share,” with the intention of sharing healthy tips and recipes with my family and close friends. The average age of the group's members was 56. But it was not until I retired that my daughters suggested I join Instagram. My oldest set it up for me, with the same “Eat Play Share” name, when I visited her in New York. I needed a creative outlet and a new community to interact with. 
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I took a class at Apple to learn how to better take photos with my phone. I also took an online creative class on food styling. But I still didn’t really understand Instagram at all. (To this day, I have no idea how to do IGTV.) On my page, which I made into a business account late last year, my real desire is to share healthy tips and simple recipes. No one has time for complicated recipes, but now that I’m retired, I have the time to try out new recipes and products for my followers. I have already discovered a few things from my fellow foodies, like Butterfly pea powder, charcuterie boards, making fake bacon with rice paper, and growing my own edible flowers. 
I am learning so much from other people as I grow my page and brand. I wake up in the morning excited about what I can make that day that is interesting, healthy, and colorful, and will look good when I post it. I’ve also made some great friends through Instagram. While I was on St. Simons Island, I started following a page called “Rambles and Nibbles,” which kept posting pictures of restaurants and sights right where I was staying. I started commenting on the photos, and ended up meeting the woman who runs the account for lunch. She is also a recent empty nester running a travel and food blog. Another time, I met up with a follower-turned-friend in Australia. Dianne, who has a foodie page called “Winky Farm,” actually traveled into Melbourne to meet me for dinner and chat about our IG pages and food. Dianne has several young children, and we joked about how she should not tell them she met a stranger on the internet from another country at a bar! I call each of them by their Instagram names when I talk about them — Rambles and Winky — because that’s just what you do!
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I have a tote that says “Eat Play Share,” and when people approach me about it, I show them my Instagram on my phone. I’ve gotten a lot of followers that way, and some of them have turned into Instagram friends. Through the Instagram community, I’ve created real relationships with other like-minded foodies. A lot of women my age ask me if I have a blog, because a lot of older women don't know what Instagram is. But I have persuaded several friends to join, and they love it. They realize that if they have a certain interest, they can search for it and follow hashtags that relate to what they like. They find that Instagram lacks the drama you’ll find on Facebook. I hand my business cards out to waiters, and I tell them right when I sit down that I am an IG food blogger. I ask, “What is colorful and healthy and would look good in a photo?” If it’s a cocktail bar or coffee place, they will spend so much time working on it and carry it to the table so carefully. One barista poured out a latte three times, and I asked, What are you doing? He said, “It has to be perfect!” 
Age really doesn't seem to matter in the Insta community. If you are sharing something interesting, that is all that really counts. For me, it is all about a love of food. Food brings people together. When I saw the average age of my followers was 26 (according to Instagram analytics), I was nervous at first to put my photo out there because of my age. I thought, If I look like someone’s mom, they're gonna unfollow me — but my numbers went up, not down. 
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I am also in “pods.” You receive an invite and then are part of a group DM of anywhere between 10 and 100 fellow foodie accounts that support each other with ideas and feedback on posts. Pods create a coaching and mentoring community for aspiring food influencers. Some people are in them to reach 10,000 followers, but I’m not doing that — if I wanted to build a lot of followers, I could join a “loop,” which is like multilevel marketing. 
I just want to talk to my followers. I have a high engagement rate. I get a lot of DMs, and I don’t know if I could engage with them in the way I do now if I had 10,000 more. I am more interested in motivating, teaching, inspiring, and learning from them. If a brand comes along that is really interesting to me, I might consider, but I don't want it to be about the monetary gain. I’m retired. This isn't costing me any money. I’d be making these foods and drinks even if I wasn’t posting them.
My husband is very supportive of my new life as an Instagram devotee. (I do have a timer on the app. It goes off when I have been on it for two hours, but that doesn't account for the time spent cooking, taking photos, and editing.) He helps me stage my photos, and he will always test out food and drinks. He’s very patient when we go to restaurants. It might be embarrassing to sit with someone who stands up to take photos or moves the plate near a window for better light, but he wants to help me get the best shot. I don't like when he takes pictures of me taking photos and sends them to my daughters to laugh at, though. But he claims he is capturing my “creative energy.” 
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My goal is to continue to learn from the Instagram community, and to contribute to my followers' knowledge of healthy, easy recipes and lifestyle hacks. My priority is the working women, like myself, who follow me. I want to do anything I can to help them lead a happier, healthier life.
And if all else fails, I still have more followers than either of my daughters.
As told to Morgan Baila.

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