CML: Hey, Shannon! Did you hear the one about the online parenting group? I can't remember the set up, but I know the punchline (and headline), at least according to Jezebel, is that they are "stressful, pointless, and incredibly addictive." Seeing as how we met, friended, and started a business together thanks to our Smarty Mommies online parenting group, I figured that you and I would be the perfect pair to refute this nonsense. Tag Team, back again! Shall we check the article's record, and let's begin?
SB: Hellooooooo, Christina -- friend I met on the internet in a parenting group! I love this article. Huge inflammatory title; milquetoast article that basically ends up conceding that parenting groups are just fine. Cracks me up. But let's delve deeper, shall we? I'll show you my English teacher hat if you'll show me yours. Let's do some close reading, yo.
Let's attack that first paragraph, shall we? Moore writes:
"If you want to test your limits as a parent—or a person—visit any Internet parenting group. Nowhere is there a more reassuring hive mind of intel; however, there is also no better place to see all your worst fears and missteps laid bare, and to feel the heat of mommy vigilante justice."
Now... I don't know if I've missed something, but I have seen nary a stitch of mommy vigilante justice in our group, so I certainly haven't felt the heat. I mean... we do talk about Wonder Woman a lot, so maybe she's confused?
CML: Are we going to tag team close read together as online internet friend English teachers (followed, naturally, by a naked tickle fight)? I'm so excited! On to the next paragraph and fresh blood!
Moore is, essentially, addressing one limited facet of Meaghan O'Connell's nuanced personal essay of O'Connell's experience with online parenting groups and saying "Yeah, me, too!" Not that I necessarily agree with O'Connell's conclusion that online parenting forums are automatically emotionally fraught and psychologically dangerous, but I do feel the need to defend the original piece as clearly acknowledging that it's one person's experience. Thus, it's easier to disagree with O'Connell's assertion, which Moore quotes, that online "groups and forums - really, anywhere that two or more parents are gathered in the name of not ruining their children - are a perfect storm of conflict and high drama." It's a great line, rich in hyperbolic imagery, that is patently untrue. I want to suggest to both authors that, perhaps, they have only found groups riddled with trolls and drama queens and permeated in a culture of confrontation and judgment, and I want to reassure them that other groups populated with reasonable, helpful people exist. It's like when a friend goes through a breakup and declares that men or women are all shit, when, obviously an entire gender can't be shit. Likewise, an entire genre of online community isn't terrible simply because some are. This is a fantastic example of a hasty generalization - one that I might teach to high school English students. How disappointing to see it both published and then quoted by grownups.
The rest of the quote goes on to explain that in online parenting communities "Every question, every scenario, everything shared, seems to have the same undercurrent, the same big question mark, the same high-stakes desperation. Tell me I am doing the right thing... Tell me I'm not wrong to be upset... Tell me that this is good and that more good will come," and both authors imply that this is a bad thing. I suppose that if this kind of unsurety becomes crippling and that turning to online parenting forums is a crutch rather than a tool, then asking for reassurance can be bad. But it isn't inherently negative, and, given how isolated parents can feel and how difficult raising young children is, OF COURSE, these worries underlie the kinds of questions people bring to online forums. Parenting is hard, and confusing, and emotionally wrenching. It is absurd to think that requests for validation and reassurance in a parents' group is negative or unexpected. After all, if one had all the answers, one wouldn't need such a group in the first place.
SB: Oh, it’s so good. The irony implicit in criticizing one group for seeking validation while, you know, writing a public article on a site like Jezebel that has a giant audience and, therefore, also provides the author with a metric ton of validation is, well, amusing.
I feel as though both Moore and O’Connell have, in essence, taken Emerson’s idea of self-reliance and perverted it well past its original, beautiful intention. We don’t live in a vacuum. As parents, it’s absolutely important to listen to ourselves and to trust our intuitions, but we seek information and — yes, even validation (!!!) — because we are raising actual human people. This is HARD and IMPORTANT work, and we want to make sure we’re doing our best work. So, yes. We check in with each other. We want to know if we’re doing the right thing. We ask for alternatives and ideas and support. And we look for validation. Because, if you can find me a parent who hasn’t fucked up royally at some point, I will show you my flying pig over here.
The next paragraph delves into Moore’s “love-hate relationship” with parenting groups. She says she loves them for advice on when to go to the ER, and I cannot think of a more questionable use of a parenting group. If you’re questioning whether or not to go to the ER, call the nurse line. Call your child’s doctor. OR GO. But don’t hang out on the internet and wait for people to respond. For a rash? Sure. For a “should I make a doctor’s appointment?” Sure. For the ER? No.
And when she talks about parents looking at a rash picture and telling horror stories about death by bacterial infection? Well… once again, that’s just irresponsible internet behavior. Much like one is ill-advised to go asking Dr. Google if stomach pain is anything serious (step away from Dr. Google for the love of all things holy), one should never, ever tell a horror story to a group of people seeking information. ESPECIALLY a group of parents who are likely sleep deprived and looking for actual information, not scare tactics. And again, I’d like to argue that this is not the majority of parents. Most parents know this. The parent who says, "That tiny bump? Definitely MERSA," is few and far between. And if there are a lot of parents telling horror stories in the group you’re in, STOP GOING THERE. If you’re leaving a group feeling anxious or sad or scared or judged? LEAVE IT. Don’t be a glutton for punishment. And O’Connell and Moore, well, they seem to be just that. It seems they stuck around in groups that were doing them no good whatsoever. And those groups are out there. Oh yes. But they are not all the groups. And you don’t have to stay there. (And you should not. Run away, my friends.)
Moore then says that the hate side of the relationship with online parenting groups comes from “dose of humble pie they bring.” Again, she leans on O’Connell’s essay, saying “As O’Connell notes, ‘anything I thought I knew gets undercut eventually.’ And it’s true — there is no parenting solution you’ve devised that can’t be at least mildly deflated by the news that someone, somewhere else, has it figured out just a little bit better.” But I have to call bullshit again, because this statement assumes that parents are believing themselves to be experts. That they think that when they’ve found a solution that works for them, they think it is THE solution. And frankly, I know few thoughtful parents that approach parenting that way. It’s kind of an asshole move to think you have it all figured out. I sure as shit don’t. And so learning about different ways to approach things is actually helpful to me rather than deflating.
CML: And here's the thing that I find insultingly lazy about this piece: I don't think most parents who contribute to these groups think they have it all figured out. Of course some do. There are know-it-all blowhards and judgmental jerks among every demographic, but that doesn't mean we judge the whole demographic by them. It's that kind of generalization that leads to racism, sexism, and all sorts of other isms that, as Ferris warned us, are not good. The reasoning (if we can call it that) employed in these pieces to criticize all online parenting groups is basically that of "Parents Be Like...," which, I think we can agree, immediately renders it an exercise in foolishness. Both pieces acknowledge that most participants in these groups are women, and both pieces grossly generalize the mothers they've encountered in these groups, which smacks of some hegemonic adoption of sexist attitudes that reduce mothers seeking advice and solidarity online to a caricature of "Mothers Be Like..." And who needs or believes that reductive nonsense? And how on earth did that get past the editorial staff at Jezebel?
I really want to apologize to O'Connell and Moore on behalf of whichever online mother monsters hurt their feelings. And then I want to throw a bracing cup of cold water in their faces and tell them to buck up and find a better online group if they desire that kind of support. There are other fish in the sea, ladies! Just because the first one (or few) you caught weren't right for you doesn't mean ALL fish are bad.
SB: The final thing I’d like to point out about this piece is this: It’s defensive. Moore and O’Connell expect to be judged, and then they are. And they’re not wrong — there is an insane amount of judgement out there about parenting. In great part because we — the parents, those on the ground and doing it every day — need to believe that we’re doing our best. That we’re doing the right thing. So really, the majority of the judgement out there isn’t of you or of me or of Moore or O’Connell. It’s of ourselves. We doubt ourselves each and every day because we are trying our damnedest not to do a terrible job and screw up our children. So yes. We seek validation. We seek support. We seek advice. We seek comfort. And that can be found — in a very positive way — in an online parenting group.
But not if you choose to stick around in a crappy one. You have to find your match. You have to find the group that will provide what you need. And you need to know, as Moore says herself, that parenting is a "deeply individual and specific experience.” Which means that you need to know yourself. You need to know what works for you. And I don't get the feeling that Moore knows herself well at all.
Moore spends the essay judging parents for judging, then admits that when she meets a “rookie” parent, she wants to throw judgmental information in the direction of said “rookie.” But she doesn’t. Because she knows better. Mmm-hm.
I have a secret for you. Not everyone wants to judge your child’s ill-fitting diaper or decry the risks of the snacks you’re serving. Some of us, and I know this is shocking, want to be helpful. Some of us want to be in this together. Some of want to find community and support and even validation… but without putting you or your parenting choices down.
Moore ends by implying that she’s beyond all that. That she’s figured it out and doesn’t really need anecdotes or, presumably, the online parenting groups. And maybe that’s true. Maybe she doesn’t really need either of those things anymore. And that’s fine. I give a great big high five to anyone who is that confident in their parenting.
But I would like to call a hearty final yet loving bullshit on that one. Because I have yet to meet a parent out there who feels like they have it all figured out. BECAUSE NONE OF US DO. These little tiny people we raise change so much on so many different levels each and every day. There’s no way to keep up with it. We all need help. Some of only need the help of a partner. Some of us only need a family member or a friend or two. But most of us need a damn village. And when we’re unable to find our village in real life (an ever-increasing challenge these days), we find our villages in the extended world of the interwebs.
CML: Finally, I would encourage Moore and O'Connell, if they can stomach the sight, sound, or smell of us after this criticism, to check out Smarty Mommies. Because, friends, writers, mothers, everyone, we are among the other fish in the sea, and I assure you that we, WE, are good fish.
So to speak. Don't be gross.
SB: Now, should you need us, Smarties... we'll be here to lean on. We need people to do this, and we are your people. We'll do this together.
Because sometimes in our parenting lives, we all have pain. We all have sorrow. But, if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow.