An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
Can I admit something? my friend Liz recently texted me. We’re both new-ish mothers, and we belong to the same ten-member Slack chat, a pretty homogeneous group of moms with babies or toddlers. Liz was texting me to confess that she’d been cheating on our Slack, as it were, by participating in a pro-breastfeeding Facebook page. And now, she told me, I’m balls-deep in arguing with bitches.
Liz couldn’t quite believe what she’d stumbled into. This is my new life, she wrote, before sharing screenshots of the Facebook fight. As someone who also occasionally finds herself balls-deep in online parenting arguments, I knew how she felt.
Back when I was just a baby-curious individual, I imagined that I’d be a little above all those massive Facebook groups for parents based on location or niche interests, to say nothing of the BabyCenter or What to Expect forums. No one openly admits to wanting to be the kind of mom you find in those places: Moms who go head-to-head over whether sleep training (leaving a baby to “cry it out”) is cruel, moms who use the initialism “d.h.” (either dear or darling husband) without irony, moms who have very strong feelings about how babies should be fed, moms with elaborate digital signatures defining themselves by marriage and children. While pregnant I skimmed over controversies about sleeping on your side (just call a doctor for a ruling), glazed over at the expressions of raw emotional support (cheesy), and cringed when people lost their tempers (so embarrassing). Like everyone else who’d absorbed the online-mom stereotype, I wondered why these women didn’t have anything better to do.
Now I’m one of them. I’ve left passive-aggressive Facebook comments for people I never would have previously engaged with. I’ve polled thousands of people I never would have consulted on anything prior to becoming a mom. Admitting to this social behavior feels like something I should maybe be more embarrassed about than I am — to use a familiar mom-image, it feels like exposing my soft mom-pouch, in all its pocked, dimpled reality. But I have a 1-year-old who sometimes hates to eat and I’ll try anything, even asking a 14,000-member Facebook group for recipes. Predictably, though, it’s not these innocuous, sheepish topics (Looking for quick-and-easy weekday meals!) that wind up provoking the stereotypical mom-drama behaviors. It’s everything more serious than that.
It’s not so surprising that parents argue online: Children are high-stakes, and any parenting “success” feels hard-won and worth defending. What is surprising — to me but maybe no one else? — is the part where I’m one of the arguers. Here I am, squinting at my phone at 5:35 in the morning, ten minutes late already, and tapping out a response to someone clearly uninterested in discussing reproductive rights in relation to the genetic disease our children share. It was a waste of time; nobody’s opinion was altered. “A vasectomy worked for my family,” the stranger responded after hearing my passionate defense of abortion access for the genetically ill-matched.
Still, responding felt great — even if only for a moment. It wasn’t quite catharsis, but maybe something adjacent. The weirdest part was not caring that I argued with another parent online, that I’d made it very clear I had nothing better to do. Before I became a mom, I assumed I would always have something better to do. But little did I realize how powerful the urge to defend my choices would be, and how totally parenthood would rid me of shame over things like “what my online life looks like.”
My kind, even-keeled friend Marie never publicly comments on other people’s parenting, though she says she sees that kind of behavior all the time. To her, arguing is just the nature of any large group. She follows but avoids engaging with anyone in bigger online parenting groups, which she thinks “naturally breed drama.”
Marie’s son has the same disease mine does; we met because she emailed me after reading a piece I wrote about him. I need a friend like her, someone who understands what it’s like to have a child with a serious, lifelong condition. But as much as my friendship with Marie is about our sons’ disease, a not-insignificant part is about related online communities. Judging other people’s parenting — whether that judgment is silent or voiced — would be even lonelier without a witness.
Liz, my Australian friend, ended up getting kicked out of that breastfeeding community she’d hesitated to admit she’d joined: The moderators deemed some of her comments inflammatory. “I wrote that reading their comments was more exhausting than hearing my 6-week-old son cry for eight hours on end,” she explained. Afterward, she said, she felt both foolish and exhilarated. I haven’t been kicked out of any groups (yet?), but every time I type a comment I know I shouldn’t that’s exactly how it feels: stupid but exciting, dumb but a little thrilling. My trigger topics are definitely what matters most to me: keeping my unhealthy son as healthy as possible. Seeing other people demonstrate willful ignorance about our children’s disease — or the way it’s diagnosed — fills me with fury.
At the other end of the spectrum, now that I’m a mom I have plenty of earnest venues for my real self: an uncool woman wanting to get dinner on the table quickly, who hates cooking and loves cute pics of babies and puppies. Looking back, I never expected to be anything else — I’m just surprised to find myself as participant instead of spectator. Sometimes I’m a cheesy mom, sometimes I’m a mean mom. I’d want to check myself if I went too far in either direction, but as long as that doesn’t happen I’m going to try harder to stick to the social strategy I’ve been using my whole life: Find a few good friends, and talk shit about everyone else with them.
This kind of selective intimacy is what my mom Slack feels like, what my very specific friendship with Marie feels like. The other day I sent her an email titled “Insane.” In the body I dashed off a description of a recent post from a large Facebook group, cast a swift judgment peppered with exclamation points, and hit send. It did not take long for the isolation of my outrage to lift: I saw that too! her response began.