An on-site village will always be ideal for new parents wondering who and where they are on the other side of delivery. But the Internet doesn’t have to be a poor substitution.
On my first day alone with our newborn daughter, I considered begging my husband to quit his job. We had only lived in Wisconsin for six months when Benna was born, and our respective families were 1,000 miles away in two directions. My mother, who had come for the birth, had returned to New York. It didn’t matter that my husband would only be a 10-minute walk away—I was a frightened new mother with no help.
That’s not entirely true. We had wonderful colleagues who delivered food and genial company. We had a fiercely supportive department chair. We had a good friend who lived just down the street, and came over several evenings a week to sit with me while I worked on breastfeeding. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of these people who shepherded us through those early, vulnerable days of parenting; they gave so much, even though they’d known us only a short time, and that speaks to the character and big hearts people can have. I love them all now. But back then, they were new arrivals in our lives, just like our daughter.
My father had also died the previous year, shorting Benna one grandparent. Still grieving, we’d moved west when I was 16 weeks pregnant. After Benna was born, I looked around my life and recognized almost nothing. I had no idea who or where I was.
Like grief, new motherhood can be an isolating experience. The physical distance between recently minted parents and their extended families has widened at the same time our expectations for parenthood have become untenably high. Writing for The Guardian, Maggie Gordon-Walker outlines some of the myriad problems: “Of course, women have always had babies and nobody expects it to be a breeze. But in our increasingly fast-paced society you can leave [the] hospital a few hours after giving birth and be expected to get on with it. Families these days tend to be small, women rarely live in their home town and often delay having children while they pursue careers, so to be suddenly thrust into the role of housebound new mother, without a support network, can be terrifying.”
Many of us go online to ease that isolation, but the Internet can be a dangerous place for new parents. Anonymous judgment abounds on sites like BabyCenter, and the overwhelming and often contradictory advice found online can crush confidence and silence women at a time when they need safety and honesty more than ever. But while the divisiveness of technology is part of our digitized world, so is connection.
As luck would have it, a graduate school friend had had her second child just a week before I had Benna. My friend was more experienced than me, and our bi-weekly, boobs-out Skype calls were sanity saving during the newborn period. Once our girls became too wriggly for Skyping, my friend invited me to join a Facebook group called The Longest Shortest Time Mamas, created by Hillary Frank, founder and host of the podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The rules of the group were simple: “1. No personal attacks. 2. That’s it, and we’re serious.”
Frank’s podcast is billed as “a 3:00 a.m. bedside companion for parents,” and its searing honesty and humor make it a must-listen for parents, pediatricians, childcare providers, and anyone looking for top-notch, public radio-style entertainment. But it was Frank’s affiliated Facebook group that changed the landscape of my parenting and my life.
The group now has over 9,000 members, but at the time of my joining, there were only a few hundred, mostly mothers with children under 3. The topics of our posts ranged from the practical (sleep, feeding, travel tips, best overnight diapers, best car seats, best carriers and strollers), to the emotional (sleep again, postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, equitable partnership, marital strain, in-law relations, pumping woes, the difficulties of staying home with small people, the difficulties of going back to work), to the funny (postpartum sex mishaps, leaky boobs, epic blowouts, adventures in public nursing, adventures in Target), to the everyday strange of life with kids.
The more we posted, the more we learned about one another. Those of us who had lost parents connected. Those who had gone through miscarriages connected. Those who had IVF, or c-sections, or feeding troubles all connected. The intimacy of the group deepened each day. A collective, but diverse identity emerged.
Sometimes, the ferocity of our connection is hard to explain to skeptics of social media. But Kyle Chayka urges us to collapse our definitions of “digital” and “real” life in a world that rather seamlessly blends the two in a single reality. “The stigma associated with online friendship, that persistent doubt that ‘real’ intimacy can only be created via physical encounter, has not faded,” Chayka writes in The New Republic. “The time has come to obliterate the false distinctions between digital ties and the ones that bind us in the physical world.”
As Frank’s podcast grew in popularity, so too did the revolutionary Facebook group she started. Many of us are still members, and some were inspired to create spinoff groups where we maintain smaller, closed circuit communities. Capped at around 200 members, we all use these groups differently, but devotedly. In my own spinoff group, we have inside jokes (Ritz cracker medal, anyone?), a favorite lipstick (Jeffree Star’s Redrum), and a favorite sex act (it involves grapefruit). What’s more, we’ve learned just how much we can accomplish as a team.
It began with one of our members creating official merchandise, the profits from which she used to start a sunshine fund for any other member going through a tough time. Other members have organized our first group retreat.
But then one of our mothers experienced the worst imaginable: her 10-month-old daughter, born with CHARGE syndrome, died suddenly from respiratory complications. Her news reverberated through the group (it continues to do so). As we mourned with our friend her gutting loss, we also turned to one another, driven to help. In addition to flowers, care packages, and other small expressions of support, we organized a worldwide candlelight vigil, a fundraising campaign for the CHARGE Syndrome Foundation, and a relief fund for our friend. These efforts, however loving, cannot mitigate her pain, of course. But we try to hold up the memory of her daughter as 200 mothers ourselves.
Motherhood is the lens through which we empathize with one another, and with all mothers everywhere.
I am fortunate enough to live in Boston now, where a small cohort of my online group also lives. We’ve started to get together in person, too. “Intimacy now develops in both digital and physical realms, often crossing freely between the two,” Chayka says. Just a couple of weeks ago, nine of us sat at a bar together, many of us meeting in person for the first time. But we knew each other. We knew whose kids weren’t sleeping (mine). We knew who was in the middle of moving. We knew who was pregnant and waiting on her MaterniT21 test results. We were not Internet friends. We were just friends.
An on-site village will always be ideal for new parents wondering who and where they are on the other side of delivery. But the Internet doesn’t have to be a poor substitution. It can be a place where our best selves find each other.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.