In­ter­net par­ent­ing groups: the new fight club

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FILM - BEE QUAMMIE

Face­book pages for moms and dads can be scary cor­ners of the Web and they’re not al­ways the right fit

Face­book is full of drama, but par­ent­ing groups are par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. Things usu­ally start off sim­ply enough: A con­cerned mother posts a photo of, say, red patches on her baby’s bot­tom, ask­ing for di­ag­no­sis and ad­vice.

Some­one steps in to re­as­sure her – their child had some­thing sim­i­lar and “it was noth­ing.” Al­most im­me­di­ately, an­other par­ent re­torts that the first com­menter is ir­re­spon­si­ble: Her own child had an iden­ti­cal rash and al­most died. Cue the fiercest Face­book fight you’ve ever seen – un­til the next one.

Be­fore I be­came a mother, I never could have imag­ined that on­line spa­ces ded­i­cated to the love-drenched act of par­ent­ing could be so dy­namic, di­choto­mous and di­vi­sive. Now, as the par­ent of a three-year-old and a two-month-old, I can say defini­tively: Face­book par­ent­ing groups are some of the most hor­rid cor­ners of the In­ter­net.

And there are a lot of them: Per a 2015 Pew Re­search Cen­ter study on par­ents and so­cial me­dia, 75 per cent of par­ents use so­cial me­dia and Face­book is the most pop­u­lar plat­form. While moms and dads use the net­work to share and stay in touch like any­one else, they’re also there for par­ent­ing-re­lated in­for­ma­tion and so­cial sup­port.

When I was preg­nant with my first child, I didn’t have many friends with chil­dren. One added me to a few of her favourite Face­book groups and I was ex­cited to learn help­ful in­for­ma­tion and in­ter­act with other par­ents.

My ex­cite­ment quickly dis­si­pated into al­ter­nat­ing emo­tions of con­fu­sion and an­noy­ance. The first was mainly ow­ing to the end­less acronyms flung around with­out a glos­sary: “DH,” “VBAC,” “EBF,” “WOH/WAH” – WTF? Even af­ter I learned to de­ci­pher “Dear Hus­band” and “Vagi­nal Birth Af­ter Ce­sarean,” I rarely con­trib­uted. My sec­ond prob­lem was how quickly even the most in­nocu­ous post would de­volve into a cesspool of irate com­ments.

Still, for ev­ery five posts that made me hover over the “Leave Group” but­ton, I’d en­counter one that ac­tu­ally of­fered help­ful in- for­ma­tion on feed­ing picky eaters or healthy con­ver­sa­tion about ad­dress­ing dif­fi­cult is­sues with chil­dren. I stayed in too many groups for too long, hop­ing the dis­par­ity would even out and make my Face­book scrolling time worth­while.

Even­tu­ally, I re­al­ized most of th­ese spa­ces weren’t for me. It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the ar­gu­ments over the best way to mash car­rots and peas, or even the sim­ple fact that cer­tain per­son­al­i­ties just didn’t mesh well. The real prob­lem was merely be­ing a par­ent isn’t a long enough com­mon thread to tie to­gether so many dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple.

That’s where many Face­book groups fail – the as­sump­tion that be­cause we are all par­ents (or women, or fans of This Is Us), we’ll all be fast-friends is flawed. Groups that as­pire to be wel­com­ing to all rarely ever do the work to en­sure that all feel in­cluded and val­ued.

That’s why Toronto par­ent Tanya Hayles founded the Face­book group Black Moms Con­nec­tion in 2015. Orig­i­nally open only to Cana­di­ans, the group even­tu­ally opened up to black moms around the world. It now has close to 9,000 mem­bers.

“I was a mem­ber of a few par­ent­ing groups when my son was born un­til about age 2,” Hayles says. “I felt like while there were a lot of things that were uni­ver­sal to moth­er­hood, there were some def­i­nite cul­tural dif­fer­ences.”

Hayles’s ex­pe­ri­ence of try­ing to have sen­si­tive par­ent­ing dis­cus­sions as a black mom on­line mir­ror my own. I re­call one in­ci­dent in which an­other black mom shared that her child was called a racial slur at school, only to have a bar­rage of non-black moms try to min­i­mize the event.

One non-black mom ac­tu­ally com­mented, “Can ad­mins re­move this post? I don’t think this con­ver­sa­tion is help­ful to the over­all group.” I felt obliged to chime in – not be­cause I had any help­ful strate­gies, but sim­ply to of­fer sup­port. The dis­cus­sion left me feel­ing irate and in­vis­i­ble, even though I wasn’t the OP (an­other acro­nym: orig­i­nal poster).

Hayles’s group has an ac­tive ad­min team with a clear mis­sion to pro­vide a safe space for black moms to speak freely. The ad­mins don’t shy away from dis­agree­ment, but in­stead, ac­tively man­age it.

For ex­am­ple, have you ever seen a Face­book post that links to a con­tro­ver­sial story or meme with the short, un­help­ful cap­tion, “Thoughts?” Af­ter not­ing how such pas­sive-ag­gres­sive posts of­ten spi­ralled into fiery com­ments, ad­mins pushed back, en­cour­ag­ing posters to share their own opin­ions or in­quiries to di­rect a use­ful dis­cus­sion.

Black Moms Con­nec­tion mem­bers are so grate­ful for the space that some trav­elled to Toronto from New York and Wash­ing­ton for an in­au­gu­ral con­fer­ence in Au­gust. Mem­bers have re­quested fu­ture events around the globe. It’s a model of how a par­ent­ing group can thrive. Par­ent­ing is po­lit­i­cal and our over­whelm­ing love for our chil­dren, our ded­i­ca­tion to our roles and our in­se­cu­ri­ties af­fect how we in­ter­act. The abil­ity to sup­port each other is price­less, but the ease with which we harshly judge and harm each other is poi­sonous.

That’s es­pe­cially true when you con­sider how dif­fer­ences in class, race, sex­u­al­ity, re­li­gion, abil­ity, re­la­tion­ship sta­tus and more add to the tex­ture of par­ent­ing groups. Hon­esty is re­quired to meet the al­tru­is­tic aim of cre­at­ing a safe space for con­nec­tion, whether that’s a space for par­ents of all kinds, or for a spe­cific sub­set of par­ent.

I’m re­lieved to have found Black Moms Con­nec­tion and, for now, I’m not in­ter­ested in ven­tur­ing into many other Face­book mom spa­ces. Un­til on­line par­ent­ing groups be­come more re­spon­si­ble and more hon­est, I have one acro­nym of my own to share: EATYR – en­ter at your own risk.

DAVID PAUL MOR­RIS/BLOOMBERG

Many Face­book and other so­cial-me­dia plat­forms fail at en­sur­ing mem­bers of a group page feel in­cluded and val­ued. The as­sump­tion that peo­ple with sim­i­lar in­ter­ests, such as those seek­ing par­ent­ing ad­vice, will eas­ily con­nect and be friends on­line is flawed.

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