BY ESTER HOLMES
Online Mothers Groups:
To quote Obi Wan Kenobi, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”.
Personally, I feel this is an apt description of the internet as a whole, but particularly online mother’s groups.
Up until very recently, I was an admin in a Facebook mother’s group.
During my very brief time assisting as a group admin, I encountered a variety of toxic mothers.
Many of these groups are created with the intention to offer support to overwhelmed, exhausted or confused mothers. At a time when we are often at our most frazzled, stressed and sleep-deprived times of our lives, mother’s groups can be like a lifeline.
When you’re a new mother, or facing a situation with your child you haven’t dealt with before, the advice and experience of other mother’s can be invaluable. A kind word, some helpful tips or some simple encouragement can make a huge difference in an individual’s experience with mother’s groups.
Unfortunately, this supportive and inclusive environment that so many of us seek out, isn’t always what we find. Bullying, ridicule and competition, many mother’s groups become an online playground, not for teenagers, but for toxic mothers.
Whether it is a seasoned mum asking for advice, or a new mum - the abuse and ridicule can come fast and thick if your parenting style does not align with the person replying to you.
At times, it could feel like highschool, there were the cliques within the group, and if you offered a different opinion to the “cool mums” you would be virtually ostracised.
One woman, a 34 year old mother from Launceston, Tasmania said “The negative comments really affected how I felt and even made decisions in regards to my parenting… It made me feel worthless, like I was a terrible mother.” This mother isn’t the only one who has been made to feel like a terrible mother due to the comments and opinions of other mothers.
And in groups, where the admins and moderators are supposed to prevent conflict, it can often be the admins who cause members to feel insecure.
A young mother from Byron Bay in NSW said “I feel as though things can’t be said or opinions shared, because of judgement from admin… For me, it’s hard to share anything because this particular person can be quite (sic) judgy about things. Then I've found when a post doesn’t go her way it almost turns into a power trip.”
This was the very reason why I stopped adminning for the mother’s group I was a part of.
The woman who created the group began to cherry pick posts that could be approved to be posted.
If a mother was asking for opinions on a style of parenting she didn’t follow, she would tell all of the other admin to delete the question, or remove any comments that she felt “didn’t fit the vibe” of the group.
When I pointed out that the best mothers groups were supportive and encouraging, regardless of how a parent chooses to raise their child, she told me I was being judgemental towards her and that “if you don’t like it, leave.”
There was a particular incident where a woman was discussing the rather traumatic birth of her premature baby. When I reached out to her for a comment, she said “Initially, the other mother’s provided sanity to my days. But then (the admin) began making snide comments, and making me feel inadequate. She had this idea of what parenting should look like, and I didn't fit that look.”
I found this particularly upsetting, and frustrating. It appeared to me, that for this woman, judgement and control were more a more important priority than helping these mothers in need. It began to feel like something out of mean girls, or as if I were a lonely teenager. The less time I spent in this group, before eventually leaving (I think I was actually removed), the nastier these mothers seemed to be. At first, I was sad and felt rejected… But then I realised how relieved I was to be free of the harsh judgement and snide remarks. I felt as if I could breathe again.
Another issue with these online mothers groups is the amount of misinformation, and either false, or dangerous advice that is often given. Many mother’s turn to these groups for advice, whether it be how the child is reaching developmental milestones, or when they need to seek medical attention. Some of these replies verge on dangerous, particularly if an untrained or inexperienced person is offering medical advice, or telling a parent that early intervention is not needed. Kate, a paediatric speech pathologist said of her experience in mother’s groups “I’m part of a number of online mothers groups and I regularly see posts in regards to a child’s development. Whenever I look at the responses to these, there is always incorrect information provided by group members - this is often something along the lines of “every child will get there in their own time” or “they will grow out of it”. This is very concerning because it is discouraging parents from accessing early intervention, or in some cases, mental health supports. I’ve also seen advice given encouraging parents to consider things that are not evidence based, and in fact, could create further challenges for them and their child. It is not uncommon to see medical advice given in these groups.”
Kate then continued to say “I do believe that mothers groups can be supportive and useful for some aspects of parenting, which is why I continue to be part of a select couple; however, I have learnt to really take any advice I read about any topic with a grain of salt, as responses to questions are only from other parents. I think it is important to highlight if a parent has a concern about their child, they should trust their gut and seek a professional opinion.”
While researching for this article, I joined a number of mothers groups and asked a number of mothers what issues they have encountered personally, or witnessed. A particular car seat and restraint group came up regularly, on Facebook, this group is notorious for causing mothers to feel inadequate or cause distress. It has been described as leaving parents to feel “crucified” or as if they were “murdering my own child by forward facing before they turned 4”.
Online mothers groups definitely have their place, and can be useful and helpful for a number of reasons. But for many mother’s the impact on their mental health, and the feelings of worthlessness, failure and distress have been multiplied by women these spaces.