It was the the summer of 2010 when we first moved to Florida with our baby twin girls. I became a stay-at-home mom after having worked full-time my entire adult life. I lost my friends, my family, and my support system.
I lost my identity and the ability to work outside of the home. I lost the life path I had been on. I had nothing left but my immediate family and my online world, which was sparse at best.
I freaked out.
It was LiveJournal that saved me – an old, out-of-date social media site. I wrote there quite often about my new life and role. I made more and more mother friends from across the globe. Attachment parenting moms, helicopter moms, free-range moms, woo moms, religious moms, working moms: you name it, we had it.
Under the guise of our chosen screen names, we told each other about our mistakes and foibles, our successes and failures. We told each other about our anger and sadness, our joy and our boredom. Nothing was too great or small to post about, and as such, we got to know each other extremely well. We were all friends, all in it together, supporting each other and helping each other through each day. Until we went anonymous.
"Mommy wars" is a term that seems almost facetious, but when you're in the thick of it, it's truly serious. Whether to breastfeed or bottle feed can bring women to online blows. My girls were premature, and I struggled for months to exclusively breastfeed. Of course, I wanted the best health for my babies, but I’d be lying if I told you the internet mothers didn’t help feed my fervor.
I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t be "one of those formula moms." Nearly three months in, with little ones inching ever closer to the dreaded "failure to thrive" moniker, my own mother shook me out of it. I was so tired I could barely walk from the living room to the kitchen, pumping exclusively all day, every day. I’d try to feed them by breast even though they had come so early they couldn’t latch. My husband would joke, “which one is going to be starving today?” meaning, which one was I going to torture with my full-of-milk breast for 20 minutes while the other got a bottle of pumped milk.
I made my family miserable because I was sure if I only tried hard enough, I could make breastfeeding work for us. The pro-breastfeeding communities are very supportive. They give you recipes for cookies you are too exhausted to make. They encourage the use of flax seed, which you can never find in the grocery store. They have miracle anecdotes, and you become convinced you can do it too. Until you just can’t.
Thankfully, I learned (after collapsing and beginning to supplement with formula) that there's an equally strong contingent of formula feeding mothers, who fight back as hard as they are fought against. I became a formula feeding warrior, always with a helpful defense of a mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed.
One day a friend of mine whom I had met on LiveJournal asked me if I would help her moderate an anonymous community there for mothers; for, essentially, our group of friends. It was to be a place where women could leave their names behind and talk about things they felt they’d be judged for under their moniker, or things they needed to unburden without fear of retribution of any kind.
If a mom got frustrated and spanked her child although she was typically a loud proponent of hands-free discipline, this would be the place for her to talk about it and how she was coping with her own break of character. If someone found her sister high and didn’t know if she should call Child Protective Services to help the children involved, she could go there to ask without having anyone know who it was. That’s what the place was supposed to be.
Instead, the judgment was tenfold. People gathered within the community not to unburden themselves but to skewer their fellow moms — their friends – in the light of day. Almost immediately, the place became a resting spot for malicious gossip about other members, hearsay and rumors, and outright lies.
"Anons" came out of the woodwork to call so-and-so’s child ugly, to ask if this person’s baby had mental disabilities or if her parents simply neglected her. They called people’s houses filthy and were merciless to those who looked or acted any different from their particular brand of normal. They threatened to call bosses, to call CPS, to call the police on any and all users they disagreed with, sleuthing as hard as they could to find “proof” for their claims. Or they’d simply go around calling their friends bad mothers, laughing at tragedies in their lives. Anything that could possibly hurt another person was fair game.
And unlike the more public trolling we have all witnessed on social media channels, in this community, we all knew secrets about each other. The anons had more to go on than just a sentence or one opinion. They had troves of personal information from hundreds of women they called their friends. They put pieces together like so many internet detectives, figuring out which vegan ate a hamburger. Or worse, going off a false heroin rumor, trying to place the issue on someone they knew.
Other people’s drama, real or pretend, helped them escape their own lives.
My volunteer moderator duties included wading through the muddy waters of vicious, cutting deceit and ad hominem attacks and screening them, all day long. All of this showmanship, I soon learned, was not directed at the victim, but at the community. Its purpose was not to stop individual behavior through ridicule, but to use that behavior as a jumping board for gravitas.
In real life and on the internet, stay-at-home moms are pitied and judged. Working moms are pitied and judged. Moms who spank are judged. Moms who use positive discipline are judged. Cry it out? Judged. Co-sleepers? Judged. Women, in general, are pitied and judged.
This narrative is so ingrained within us, that when our autonomy is further infringed upon by a tiny being, we take that narrative and try to wield it ourselves. It seems as if convincing the nameless masses that we are better than her, or her, or her over there, will somehow mean we’re good enough.
What we’re searching for is someone who can simply tell us it will be okay; that we are okay. But no one does. So we settle for someone else being worse off. This goes on day in and day out in countless internet threads. It’s bad enough with full Facebook names. Try adding anonymity.
In between loads of laundry, a woman with three small kids at her feet would attack her fellow online members in an elaborate game full of speculation, gossip, and strategic moves and comments to shred another’s credibility. Punch after blow after kick. They were careless words typed frantically in between feeding babies or cleaning bathrooms.
We kept that community running for more than two years, each day combing through the confessionals and complaints to scrub the forum free of malicious gossip and hearsay. Once, when we didn’t act fast enough, a member did find the personal information of another member who’d been talked about and called that person’s workplace to complain, resulting in her firing.
I was indirectly responsible for someone losing her job, her ability to feed and house her kids. I had made a huge mistake in my life. I achieved the opposite of my aim in agreeing to be part of that community.
Eventually, our strict rules against talking about others and our continual deletion of comments not conforming to that rule wore on the anons. They left our forum and made their own community, one where they could get as nasty and specific as they wanted without fear of being “censored.”
We thought it would fail. We believed the best in our members; that they weren’t really looking to wreak havoc on their friends and other mothers, but that just a few bad apples were ruining it for everyone. We were wrong.
We soon realized we didn’t even like running an anonymous community. It was hard, soul-sucking work for no payoff. We stopped posting. The anonymous community I once ran with hundreds of daily comments sits in a dark corner of the Internet, dusty and forgotten. No one has been there since 2012. But that woman still lost her job. Countless tears were still cried. Dozens of mothers questioned their abilities and strength. And for what? For the jolly of trolling?
Research suggests otherwise. Women may be more sensitive to social exclusion, and they experience it more than men throughout their lives. This phenomenon happens within the framework of competition, something sitting at the core of the Mommy Wars. In order for some not to feel excluded, they move aggressively to exclude others by pointing out weaknesses or differences, essentially ostracizing individuals or entire groups.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of mean comments, or even actions, do not engage. A troll's words aren't intended for the person to whom they are directed. Instead, they are intended for the others in the community. Trolls are showing off for each other. It's a game where getting a response from whomever the troll targets in only half of the reward. Ultimately, this mean-spirited exchange is just a twisted and sad way for an unhappy person to be recognized for her mental acuity and ability to twist words to fit her own end.
We waste so much time shouting into the abyss that it almost doesn’t matter what we are saying. All we are really saying is “HEAR ME. I EXIST. I REALLY EXIST.” The irony, of course, is that we forget others exist, too – and that our words can wound them.