I wrote that when my son was five-weeks-old. It was 3 a.m. He was sleeping soundly on my chest, and I remember wondering why I couldn’t just enjoy this moment with him. It was so quiet, even the crickets had stopped their incessant chirping. My son’s breaths whispered across my skin with each exhale: it was a completely pristine moment.
Yet there I sat, anxious and alone. There were so many unknowns, and in the middle of the night, as a new single mom, I had no one to talk to. Within moments, women from around the world were commenting that they were thinking of me, sending positive thoughts, hoping everything was okay, there to talk if I needed. They were awake too, facing their own struggles.
In those early weeks and months, I remember feeling more than once that social media was my lifeline. The harsh glare off my phone was a beacon of hope, there in the dark with my son cradled against me.
Anxiety is just one of several perinatal mood disorders (PMD) commonly experienced by women during and after pregnancy. Postpartum depression is the most renowned, but PMDs also include psychosis, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, to name a few. An estimated 1 in 7 women experience postpartum depression alone.
Despite their prevalence, women who experience these disorders can feel incredibly isolated. Depression, insomnia, and panic attacks do not fit the socially constructed mold of blissed-out new motherhood. This sets the stage for mothers to be riddled with guilt and shame for not being able to connect, or sleep, or leave the house. There were so many moments when I sat with friends, smiling and nodding, all the while wanting desperately to say: “I am so overwhelmed. I need help.” It's hard to show the rawness of motherhood, because it still feels so taboo.
Perinatal mood disorders have been the dirty little secret of motherhood for far too long. It's becoming easier to talk about, as celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, and Kristen Bell come forward and share their experiences. Actress Hayden Panettiere’s personal struggle was even mirrored in her character’s storyline on the TV show "Nashville" last year.
And that does help. Yet hearing that these seemingly perfect women have also struggled doesn’t necessarily make a mama feel less alienated as she watches the hours tick by in the night, alone and anxious. This is true largely because our society is highly autonomous. We prize individual triumph and the ability to succeed on your own above a group mentality. This mindset has its benefits, but also tends to alienate new mothers. In fact, this has become such a big issue that psychologists have wondered if postpartum depression is a misnomer, and should instead be called postpartum neglect.
The old adage that it takes a village to raise a child is used frequently because it’s true and relevant. Parents are trying to navigate raising children in a society that has lost its village mentality. The idea that the collective is watching out for the best interest of the child, fostering his growth, and supporting his parents, is truly lost to us. If I didn’t make a concerted effort to get out of the house, I could easily spend day after day isolated at home with my son. This leaves parents, and new mothers especially, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone, which is why the Internet can be such a useful resource – there at your fingertips you have access to a modern virtual village.
Memories of the earliest days of my son’s life are foggy, at best. Though I clearly remember the way his soft little body curved against mine, twitching in his sleep, the nights are a blur of monotony and sleeplessness. Midnight cries and grunts were the new soundtrack of my life. Three o’clock in the morning was my son’s party time, and when I had finally convinced him to fall back to sleep, I was usually too wired to sleep myself.
These moments were both miraculous and torturous – watching him sleep I wondered (as many parents do) how I had managed to make a complete human, but also how such perfection can cause such exhaustion. Shrouded in the darkness, my mind racing, I found myself turning more often than not in those early days to my phone for company. I took my motherhood wireless, and connecting online saved me.
I was lucky enough to stumble across an online mom group aimed at women with a similar due date. In its infancy, the group had hundreds of members, and was a place to turn to during those early, unknown days of pregnancy with questions about spotting and first ultrasounds. After almost two years together, we have whittled the group down to less than 100 members.
Together, we have suffered miscarriages, lost loved ones, divorced, and gotten married or engaged. We have supported each other through surgeries, pediatric scares, and domestic violence. We have cheered on, disagreed with, and learned from each other. We have encouraged mamas to seek medical help for warning signs of postpartum depression. We have laughed and rejoiced, shared stories, and marveled at each other’s little ones as they have grown and learned new skills. Most importantly, we have supported each other, despite our parenting differences. This group, to me, is the epitome of what the virtual village can offer.
I’m also part of some online mom groups that I rarely participate in: ones that are area specific, ones that are for working moms, for single moms, for breastfeeding moms, for writing moms. When it comes to types of mom groups, possibilities are endless. This can be a critical lifeline for mamas who do not have like-minded moms near them: LGBTQ moms, moms who adopted, single moms, moms who formula feed, moms who breastfeed, moms who struggled with fertility, moms who work-out, moms who co-sleep, moms who sleep train – the list goes on.
With access to these groups, you have the ability to contact women with vast experiences and knowledge from your very own living room, and can get support and advice without having to travel 5,000 miles to get it. For many, these online forums can be the first place they realize that they might have a PMD, and that they are not alone.
There is, of course, the darker side of virtual villages: mommy shaming and the mommy wars. After experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsion after the birth of her daughter, Jessica Hanlin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owner of Mama Bird Wellness in Colorado, dedicated her work to helping mothers and families through their own experiences with these struggles.
Her postpartum support group has its own private Facebook page for mamas to connect after-hours. She sees the benefits of the virtual village firsthand, but also warns about the division that can be reached with such easy connection: “More input means more opinions, and often a more direct, less compassionate communication of these opinions.” This is also why it’s important to remember that the mamas we turn to online only hear a snippet of your stories; they do not know your or your baby’s social, personal, or medical histories. They have a window into your life, but their responses are deeply reflective of their own stories.
It's easy to anonymously deride a mother who is parenting differently than how you would. This is always a risk with online interactions, and mom-bullying should not be taken lightly. Parenting decisions are so personal, and we tend to think that someone is doing it wrong when they are doing it differently than us. A question about supplementing with formula for a baby who isn’t gaining weight can quickly be met with derisive comments about how your body should provide enough, formula feeding ruins your child, why haven’t you done your research, I can’t believe you are going to do that to your child. In other words, you're a bad mom. And those are some of the nicer comments I’ve seen. These comments can further isolate and alienate a mother who is already deeply struggling. This is why face-to-face interaction and support, from loved ones and professionals, is such an integral part of a successful postpartum existence.
I was part of real life groups, too, but rarely spoke up when I went. This was partially because I felt that the other moms just weren’t having the same issues as me. I was the only single mom in most of the groups that I tried out, and the only one dealing with the legal and emotional repercussions of an absent co-parent. I felt that sharing my story would garner more pity or curiosity than useful advice. In this regard, the relative anonymity of my Facebook group made me feel safe – safe to say, “Hey, I’m really struggling,” without feeling that I was a freak show for other moms to gawk at. My virtual village allowed me to show up and be vulnerable when I was struggling the most, when I didn’t want to face anyone or when my real life mama tribe was inaccessible.
For me, in-person mom groups filled a different need: one of camaraderie, and adult conversation. It was rewarding to get out of the house every week and sit in a circle of women who would show up at your door in a heartbeat if you asked for help. Kerry Stokes, doula, childbirth educator and founder of the Full Circle Doula Cooperative, leads a new mom group in her town. Several of the mamas in that group, myself included, have benefited greatly from having a tribe of mothers in their community.
From help packing and moving, to babysitting, play dates, and meal trains, real life moms can offer help where your virtual mamas cannot. Stokes agrees: “I don’t think online support groups are enough for any one mom, but it sure is a start. Motherhood and postpartum is a very raw time, and it needs to be represented and validated as such.” She began her new mom group after struggling herself and not finding the local, in-person tribe that she needed.
Of the professionals I spoke with who specialize with the postpartum population, all agreed on the need to balance online and real-life support. Shelly King, a psychotherapist who works with women and couples during pregnancy, postpartum and parenting, believes that virtual villages can and do provide instant access to input, advice, knowledge, and support that mirrors what was once provided by family and extended support networks.
She notes, however, that technology, despite providing instant access to people and resources from around the world, can leave one feeling very disconnected. “Technology is amazing,” King says. “Online networks are so supportive, and yet nothing compares to being seen, heard, and felt in the presence of another kind, caring, nonjudgmental human being.” Going online can certainly help you overcome the stigma and guilt associated with PMDs, but sometimes being truly seen in the moment, in person, outweighs the vast advice you can find online.
It’s no secret that motherhood is a huge and vital job, and one that cannot be accomplished single-handedly. It really does take a village, and after centuries of raising children with that mentality, we are still instinctually driven to find our own personal village.
Yet, at the end of the day, can virtual villages replace real-life help? The short answer is no.
There are benefits of face-to-face interactions that you cannot get online. They are, however, an important fabric of the postpartum support system that can truly help a struggling mother. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of mothers, the more positive support the better. As King points out, using social media as part of the support network is not an either-or situation, but a both-and. Turn to them when you need a little extra support at four o’clock in the morning, or have an issue you want input on from been-there-done-that moms. Then, when the sun finally rises, and the rest of nearby humanity wakes up, find your real-life tribe.
What do you think: Can the virtual village replace a physical community and help with perinatal mood disorders? Share your thoughts in the comments below.