I imagine that most harried parents of young children fantasize about the days when entire extended families lived together on the same block, or even in the same house, like multi-generational Matryoshka dolls. Consider the beauty of it: a never-ending stream of grandparents, aunts, and cousins ready to lend a helping hand with childcare, household chores, and the minutiae of daily living. Because my dad’s family is Greek, my vision of this scenario always takes place on a cliffside in the Mediterranean, in a whitewashed villa, a great-grandmother in the kitchen, cooking up spanakopita and fresh seafood... an image almost as beguiling as the fantasy of free childcare.
In reality, like many American millennial parents, I live with my partner and our children, and both of our extended families live far away. So when it’s 4 a.m., and I’m desperately seeking advice on nighttime cluster feeding, I can’t go knocking on the door of my beloved yiayia. But as new parents, we don’t always know exactly what’s going on with our precious newborn… and we seriously need that font of experience and wisdom.
One night not long ago, we literally couldn’t tell if our baby was starving to death or just going through a very normal, very frustrating developmental phase. What can I say? When you combine extreme sleep deprivation and a fundamental lack of knowledge about infants, you get two well-educated parents who are contemplating taking a seemingly healthy newborn to the emergency room simply because he won’t stop crying.
Sure, we could have called one of our mothers in another time zone, but something about that seemed like admitting defeat. Because we live far away, we’re so unused to asking for their help that relying on them for answers almost feels like confessing that we’re unsuitable parents.
However, I do know someone who’s always ready for a 4 a.m. inquiry, and always has a ready answer: my pal, the internet. In your Facebook mom group, you can ask the crowd, "My newborn won’t stop screaming… what the hell do I do?" and in addition to some sympathy, you’ll receive articles on everything from colic to Harvey Karp to developmental growth spurts.
While easy access to information—all the information—may be the most useful aspect of being a new mom in the internet age, the communities we have developed are just as important. There’s a strange sense of solidarity in knowing that I’m not the only otherwise competent adult who has to ask strangers how to keep my baby still long enough to trim his nails. And the sense of failure I felt in the early days of parenting has slowly been replaced by a feeling of unity as I stare at these early-morning queries from exhausted parents around the world.
Online spaces have become the modern parenting community for many people because of the sense of connection they offer during a stage of life when getting out and finding a live community just isn’t feasible. Although a lot of people have claimed that this new reliance on the internet is as an indication of how we’re failing as a culture, most moms I know embrace the advantages of online groups while acknowledging their limitations. I wouldn’t want to rely on online spaces as my sole social contact for the rest of my life, but for the time being, they’re keeping me connected to the outside world and to other people experiencing many of the same challenges I face.
As a plus, they introduce you to new ideas that nurture your family in ways you never would have considered. Am I the kind of mom who spends her time Pinning recipes for DIY "ice chalk" made with eco-friendly, toddler-safe ingredients? I surely am not, but I will absolutely take advantage of the industrious parent who came before me and created a craft that could potentially occupy my child for more than five minutes when I’ve run out of episodes of Thomas & Friends.
Perhaps most importantly, there are times when Facebook groups, blogs, and other online parenting forums have let me feel like a person again, instead of just a mother.
Last year, we had a particularly long winter, and I was experiencing a brand of cabin fever that is perhaps unique to parents of children under 2. Sweet, sweet relief was promised by the weather forecaster, who predicted a relatively balmy January day. But almost as soon as I got both kids out of bed and into our playroom, I realized an outing was not in the cards. My heart sank as the forecast became more and more dire, and no amount of coffee was able to prepare me for the day ahead, as a light shower of rain was quickly replaced by the ominous noises of freezing rain and wind.
As I pulled out my phone to check Facebook, parents up and down the coast joined me. My feed was full of people lamenting school closures and cancelled plans as they too realized a long day indoors was inevitable. Memes lamenting the realities of a snow day with little children were everywhere:
As frustrated as I was that today was shaping up to be an inside day, it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t the only one.
But mom groups are more than just places to vent about being cooped-up with toddlers; they also offer genuine connection. As ridiculous as my partner thinks my cloth diaper groups are, they have not only kept my children from smelling like a barnyard, but are also real resources for parents. After one mother posted that she’d lost all her cloth diapers in the August 2016 flooding in Louisiana, the responses were amazing. She had only been asking for advice about where to buy on a limited budget, but her post was quickly full of comments from people around the country who wanted to mail her diapers for free so she could get back on her feet.
Maybe it sounds silly that this woman was getting this support from an online community instead of a local organization, but she was able to connect with other people who were not only empathetic to her story (and understanding of her desire for cloth diapers), but able to quickly follow through with a solution.
Sometimes I think wistfully of that Mediterranean compound full of pasta and grandmothers willing to take over the odd diaper change. But I have also come to realize that said grandmother is probably overly intrusive about your family planning and will take advantage of Sunday dinner to publicly lament the fact that two years have gone by since you had your first baby and to ask if you have plans for another, as all the cousins look on attentively and wonder what’s wrong with your marriage. Perhaps the anonymity and convenience of online forums are to be desired during a time of life when sleep deprivation makes emotional personal interactions too complicated. And after all, I can always order Greek takeout.
Olivia Williams is a full-time attorney turned stay-at-home feminist and mother of two. She enjoys craft beers, yoga, and the rare opportunity to read a Victorian novel in the bathtub. Follow her on Twitter @oawillia.