The Internet of Parents Is Miserable and I Love It

Photo: Charriau Pierre/Getty Images

I no longer have a mom group on Facebook. Cue gasps, I know. I have quit two of them now (one geographic, one sprawling and general) and I’m sure soon I’ll join another and quit in a rage a few months later. The Parenting Internet — forums, handwringing blog posts, Facebook groups — has a reputation that precedes it, so even before I was a parent, I knew to proceed with caution. But, once the subject matter became relevant to me, I found that I couldn’t look away. 

Communities of (mostly) women who are varying degrees of lost, who are spurring each other on and trying to help each other out, 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 are my favorite places on the internet. I fall in so deeply, mostly lurking, that I have learned to really monitor my reactions, to treat it like any other vice. Am I making myself miserable? Am I neglecting other vital tasks? Do I spend more time contemplating the sleep habits of an 8-month-old in Sheboygan than I do my own son?

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.

After all, what are these places for, aside from sheer entertainment and a way of reminding myself I’m not ready to have another kid anytime soon? I learn, these days, almost nothing. I gather anecdotes and form no opinions — anything I thought I knew gets undercut eventually. If I learn anything, it’s that thinking you know anything is pure hubris and delusion; every opinion is temporary; new tricks only work for so long.

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!

These personal choices and mostly unanswerable questions make up a year in a family’s life. In the vacuum of  any universal truths, there are only people desperate to know what’s right, and they are very tired and they just want to be told what to do. And of course there are always people there to tell you what to do, full of anecdotes that are taken as gospel, because gospel is what we’re yearning for. In other words, the Parenting Internet is hell but makes for great reading.

I try to avoid espousing any particular parenting approaches in my own writing because I am only so much of a masochist, but it can be hard to avoid. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when Paul Ford wrote an essay titled “Saving for a Daughter But Not a Son: This Father Is Starting a Fund to Combat the Wage Gap,” and tweeted, “when this one hits the web I am in for a world of hot shit.” I saw this and all but clapped my hands with glee.  

Reading this article — granted, late at night, in bed, when I was about to get my period — I wept and felt known. I think it’s safe to say I’ve never cried about the wage gap before. Ford’s scheme, to save money for only his daughter to make up for the unfair shake women get in life, did not strike me as controversial. Who cares what he does with his money?

Many, many people, it turns out.

“At some level I wish I’d never had this thought,” Ford told me over email. “If I never had this thought I’d have more money. And I wouldn’t have people yelling at me on the internet.”

If you search for this article now, published on Elle, the first results are reaction posts with headlines that make me genuinely LOL:

Nominee for Most Unethical Father of the Year (Non-Criminal Division)

Head Desk: Dad Mansplains the Wage Gap

Ignorant Dad Confuses Kids with Statistics

All personal writing runs the risk of being taken as prescriptive — there is an eroding but persistent degree of (arguably misplaced!) authority bestowed on the writer just by the nature of being published. But I don’t think Ford meant to implicate all parents.

Lucky for me I have a son, not a daughter, so I could weep freely, and privately wish Paul Ford would adopt me. I didn’t have to worry that his choices invalidated my own.

I asked Ford about the response he’d received. “This is a very aspirational middle-class thing to do,” he freely admitted. “This is someone saying, ‘Well, looks like I’m part of the problem, but I’m going to be the best part of the problem I can be, because I have no idea how to be part of the solution.’”

I recognized the logic, the throwing up of hands and vowing to just do the best you can with what’s in front of you, because what is in front of you are your human children and ultimately your responsibility. Not ruining your children’s lives, not screwing them up irrevocably — that’s what’s at stake, rationally or no, and it is the undercurrent of all this discourse.

“Being a parent is an ideological nightmare,” Paul continued, and, I think, empathizing with his dissidents. “Just cloth vs. disposable diapers is reason enough to start a war in many neighborhoods of Brooklyn … The conversations about equality are so localized, and you want to be a good person but have an iPhone, too, and you just end up in this situation where you wake up a hypocrite and you go to bed a hypocrite and you overtip your cabbie just to feel human for a moment. This is being a parent, to me.”

In 2013, Lisa Miller wondered, “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” We all want to be thoughtful members of our community who do the right thing, she pointed out, but we also want our children to get into the best college. When the two come into conflict, do we act in the best interest of everyone or in the interest of our own child?

I’m only 16 months into parenting and I like to think I’ll gradually reacquire my values, but it’s probably better to embrace hypocrisy. Hold on to your idealism but do what you can! When you’re in survival mode, why make anything harder for yourself? Once he gets older we’ll start going to the farmers’ market again. We’ll drive the car less, send more thank-you cards, not shop on Amazon.

This mentality is taken for granted on the Parenting Internet. In survival mode it’s hard to take the long view, to worry about the good of the community over your own tiny, needy family. Your ethics become the ethics of your own individual choice. In lieu of free time, these often arbitrary but still long-contemplated choices become identity; they become your means of self-expression. In the face of all that pressure, being polite to people on the internet who threaten your shaky equilibrium, your house made of sticks — well, it doesn’t rank high on the list of things to worry about.

I have nothing but empathy and affection for my fellow handwringers, wading through trial and error toward something resembling confidence. But I can no longer be notified of these discussions on Facebook. They’re too good, too fraught, too limitless. I love them too much and take it all far too personally.

The Internet of Parents Is Miserable & I Love It