If you want to test your limits as a parent—or a person—visit any Internet parenting group. Nowhere is there a more reassuring hive mind of intel; however, there is also no better place to see all your worst fears and missteps laid bare, and to feel the heat of mommy vigilante justice.
Such is the conclusion of an essay by Meaghan O’Connell at New York magazine outlining the beautiful, terrible appeal of these gatherings—the Facebook groups and forums which, O’Connell writes, consist of mostly women in search of parenting assistance, “who are so vulnerable and in over their heads that they alternate between being complete judgmental monsters and bastions of compassion within the same comment thread.”
These groups and forums — really, anywhere that two or more parents are gathered in the name of not ruining their children — are a perfect storm of conflict and high drama. Every question, every scenario, everything shared, seems to have the same undercurrent, the same big question mark, the same high-stakes desperation. Tell me I am doing the right thing. Or: Tell me I’m not wrong to be upset. Or: Tell me that this is good and that more good will come. I LOVE IT, but as soon as it starts to genuinely bring bad feelings into my life I have to quit.
I too have a love-hate relationship with these sites and groups, sometimes because I too need to know when exactly to go to the ER, but also for the dose of humble pie they bring. As O’Connell notes, “anything I thought I knew gets undercut eventually.” And it’s true—there is no parenting solution you’ve devised that can’t be at least mildly deflated by the news that someone, somewhere else, has it figured out just a little bit better.
But it can also be a godsend for the rookie parent, eager to suss out the best approach to every little thing that arises with parenting—and it’s a lot of little things every day, from how to treat a splotch of eczema, to how to sleep train, to how to perfect the breastfeeding latch, to how to evaluate potential caregivers. Doctors diagnose, but fellow moms speculate, agonize, analyze, theorize, emote, relate, and most importantly, post pictures.
For example, I can’t tell you how many different types of infant rash photos I’ve evaluated online in my five short years as a parent. The posts are wildly fascinating to me without ever actually being helpful. For every mom who chimes in that it looks just like a rash her little one had that ended up being nothing, another mom adds that her kid’s rash looked just like that, and guess what? It was a life-threatening bacterial infection and the kid almost died.
The result? I have been both frightened and comforted, and above all, confused, leading me to the same place I was headed anyway: a reputable medical website which will provide an overview for evaluating rashes, their attributes, categories of seriousness, and also my pediatrician, who will advise me more specifically about what to do.So why stop here, in this ultimately pointless weigh station?
There’s just something reassuring about it—comfort in numbers. To the worrying mind of the new parent, it’s a validation of the newly inherited ticker tape of worry you carry with you at all times, what I think of as the hardest part of parenting, at least from infancy up until about preschool, AKA the Choking Hazard Years.
I also like to think of it as great source material for what They Say. You know—them. The invisible chorus of judgment you summon with every parenting choice. Thanks to these forums and groups, I learned all the best approaches to weaning a nursing child, while also discovering that I should be totally ashamed of nursing that child for 2.5 years, which was, apparently, way too long. Other things I understand I did wrong with my child, thanks to the Parent Internet, include using disposable diapers at all when I had cloth and should’ve made it work for all situations, not offering a diverse enough menu soon enough when introducing solids, and co-sleeping.
And yet, in spite of the judgment you read on posts all day long, even as they enrage, these groups can foster a kind of no-judgment in their readers. O’Connell notes:
I have learned to have no stances on the kind of overly fraught minutia that is easy to dismiss as such from the outside but from the inside overwhelms you. Birth plans, baby showers, registries, circumcision, cloth diapers, co-sleeping, introducing solids, forms of child care — I could go on but this list is genuinely depressing me. I quit my latest group because another mom tried to tell me she “knew a lot” about the “cry it out” method of sleep training. More than me, she implied, as if she had access to some deeper version of Google. I got so angry because she was speaking to the core of my fears: that I knew nothing, that I did the wrong thing, that I am an incompetent mother. If only I had read more blog posts from people purporting to know about something that no one has really studied in any real way!
The world of online parenting, landmine of ideological clashes though it is, is full of people who mostly really want to do a good job, but people who’ve also lost sight of how deeply individual and specific the experience, its questions, conflicts, and yes, most importantly, answers, really are. We seek information, yes, but mostly validation.
As a former veteran of those forums and blogs myself, whenever I meet a rookie, fear and exhaustion in her eyes, I’m tempted to reel off every choking hazard in that toy bag, every known risk of the snack she’s serving, why that ill-fitting diaper is rubbing her child the wrong way—after all, what am I supposed to do with all this useless information? But I don’t. Sure, anecdotes help, but in the end, all that really matters is what works for your kid.
As most of us navigate early parenting, we find we need those anecdotes less the more confident we become in our own abilities. We start choosing our choices, and sticking with them. And there’s no need to reframe it as the best choice, when really it was just your best choice.