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It Takes a (Digital) Village: Finding Your Online Mommy Tribe

I know, I know. Women have been birthing babies for thousands of years before Al Gore invented the Internet, and the human race is still going strong. Before mommy bloggers, Facebook groups and Pinterest boards, new mommies consulted (gasp!) people they actually knew – their mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and other women who had experienced childbirth and/or child rearing. In so-called developing nations, it’s often still the case that a first-time mom will either return to her mother’s house when she’s about to give birth or a woman in the family will come to live with her and her infant.

Truth be told, that kind of hands-on support and mommy mentoring can be invaluable, assuming that new mommy has womenfolk available to surround her with love, gentle guidance and casseroles. Lots and lots of casseroles. But in our society, in this day and age, that’s a pretty big assumption to make.

One major hurdle is the generation gap. The world has changed in so many ways since our mothers and elder-women gave birth. As a result, our concerns, values, and priorities don’t always align with theirs. They still have much wisdom to share, but especially if grandma (or mother-in-law!) isn’t all that gentle or tactful, their well-meaning advice can come across as judgmental, critical, or even undermining our role as the primary caregiver. (Sometimes that’s exactly what they’re doing.)

Medical science contributes to this disconnect, too. In the last 25 years or so, for example, moms have been urged to stop putting their babies to sleep on their bellies, stop giving infants water (even sips), stop bedsharing, and stop putting shoes on their kids feet before they learn to walk. (Sorry, Stride Rite!) Yet each of these practices was very common and even encouraged by the doctors of yesteryear. So today’s moms may be exchanging strong side-eyes with more experienced moms who defend the “old-fashioned ways” because it worked for them and the kids they successfully raised into adulthood.

Then you have moms who live far from their own moms, whose moms have already transitioned into the afterlife, or who have difficult communication with their moms (if they communicate at all). Women who feel mildly disappointed to extremely traumatized by the mothering they received are definitely not going to look up the family tree for examples and support.

Finally, there are moms who feel drawn to parenting practices that are not common among their families or social groups. When I had my son, I was really interested in hypnobirthing, cloth diapering, exclusive breastfeeding, baby wearing, and attachment parenting. Although most of these are actually very old practices that are gaining popularity again, I grossly underestimated how easy they would be vs. epidurals, disposable diapers, formula, and cry-it-out. When I turned to my more experienced mom friends and relatives, I was met with more shrugs and skepticism than I expected, mainly because they had not practiced these techniques themselves.

Here’s the point: it still takes a village to raise a child and to help a new mom adapt to her new roles and responsibilities. But in a society that lacks the shared values and close proximity of an actual village, it is easy for new moms to fall through the cracks. If your social circle includes people who consider a baby to be the sole responsibility of the two people who laid down to make him or her, the transition into motherhood can be lonely, overwhelming, and even dangerous. Lack of support is one of the major triggers for a serious bout of postpartum depression and even for maternal and infant mortality, which are highest among black mothers and infants than any other group in this country.

Enter, the digital village!

Honestly, I don’t know how my son and I would have made it through pregnancy or year one without those weekly “What to Expect” emails from BabyCenter and The Bump, blogs like Mama Natural, Momtastic’s baby food recipes, or being able to vent, ask questions, and normalize my experiences in social media groups and pages.

Inside the digital village, it took me a little while to identify my tribe. Some groups have really active moderators who tend to shut down conversations or restrict the kind of questions you ask. Others are totally unmoderated, allowing the relative anonymity of social media to bring out the worst in some people.

While I was pregnant, I joined a my-baby-is-due-in-X-month board that was full of middle class, mostly white schoolteachers and stay-at-home moms. Not. My. Tribe. I didn’t want to talk about harvest festival cider recipes and Christmas sweaters or swap stories about high-priced baby gear.

As a mom of “advanced maternal age,” I also felt uncomfortable in groups dominated by very young moms. The main issue was that they’d vent about problems with their moms, many of whom were my peers. Several of my friends have grandkids by now, and even though we didn’t raise kids at the same time, we grew up at the same time, so I could understand where they were coming from.

Then there are the unverified memes passing around inaccurate or even dangerous information. The pro-vaccination/anti-vaccination wars. I left several groups for each of these reasons.

Keep looking. There are moms like you online, and those wicked algorithms will actually help you find them. While I was pregnant, one of my favorite groups was Plus Size Pregnancy and Beyond – a multiracial, multigenerational group where we shared everything from pics of our pregnant bellies to rants about how partners or medical professionals were treating us to tips on finding maternity clothes that fit.

As I transitioned out of the early months of parenting, I’ve found a couple of groups where I can share the good times and challenges, ask questions, offer advice or support to other moms, get a preview of what it’s like to parent older children, discuss the unique responsibility of raising black youth in a world dominated by white supremacy, learn about black-owned companies like Shine cloth diapers and Melanin Babies, and find information I never even thought to look for. I’ve also learned to avoid commenting in groups that share great articles but whose members make me want to fight.

My favorite part of the digital village has got to be the “Black Women Do” Facebook pages. There’s one for breastfeeding and cloth diapering. (Black Women Do Babywear is a group, not a page.)  It’s so nice to see black moms, dads and children visually represented in positive ways, and they also provide useful links and an opportunity for followers to ask questions to the general public.

The digital village has limits, of course: people on the Internet obviously can’t hold the baby when you need a nap or bring you food and water while you are nursing. I was blessed with weekly visits from my Mamatoto Village postpartum support worker for the first couple of months. Mamatoto is one of several birth support organizations around the country that provide in-person prenatal and postpartum support for black mothers. America is out of step with European and even Asian countries that provide similar postpartum support for all mothers. Those societies have lower maternal and infant mortality rates, too.

So that’s my story. Has the digital village impacted your own experiences of pregnancy and motherhood? Let’s talk about it in the comments. I promise to be nice 🙂

P.S. Happy Mother’s Day!

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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