Group Warfare

I’ve started and erased this post 4 times so far, and I have no more witty hooks to reel you in. I wanted to be funny, say something sarcastic with a virtual toss of my hair and intimate to you all that nothing bothers me and I laugh it all off because by this time I’ve seen it all.

And make no mistake about it, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been in hundreds of mom groups on the internet. When people find out I’m the sanctimommy they add me to everything. “Can you believe these weirdos?!” Raw foods, vegan cooking, doll making, dress sewing, stay at home mom crafts, babywearing, formula feeding, antivax, provax, natural cures, Ferber mamas, AP, silky… if there’s a group for it, I’ve been there. In fact, in one of my groups someone recently posted the question “how many groups are you in?” and then the additional challenge of screenshotting your groups list, and after the 5th or 6th screenshot it occurred to me that people might be weirded out that I’m in so many groups. So I never answered the question.

I remember the very first group I joined, it was a babycenter group called Actively Trying to Get Pregnant and so of course the very first thing I did was make a post describing my vague pms symptoms and asking them if it meant I was pregnant. They handed me my ass, and for good reason. It taught me to read the group info before posting in any group,  and hey, that’s valuable information I use again and again that might not have stuck with me if those bitches hadn’t been so ruthless.

Today I got banned from a group. I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t fight anyone or put anyone on blast on the Sanctimommy facebook page; I got banned because I wanted to stay friends with everyone and be in all the groups, which is the highest form of treason in the mommy world. The admins made a post demanding that everyone in all the spinoff groups leave them, and choose a side, or be banned. I wasn’t online and didn’t see the notice, so that was that, the choice was made for me.

I wanted to write a blog post about the formulaic downfall of mom groups, because they all seem to follow a similar trajectory. Quiet and easy at first, then more busy and chatty, then everyone gets comfortable and you do a gift exchange or raise money for a sick member, and then when everyone is nice and comfortable,  things start unraveling. People start speaking freely, because we all know each other and can be “real” without censoring ourselves. And then tiny little schisms start happening. No one calls each other out, but you can bet they’re PMing about that picture of your kid in his carseat. We’re all just speaking freely, but by doing so we’re also choosing sides. Something happens when we lose that initial politeness. We stop giving people the benefit of the doubt.

It never ends the way you think it will. There’s never a big huge issue or blowup that coalesces into a mess. Someone posts something innocuous like “I don’t like these before and after weight loss posts. We’re all moms and we should be positive about our bodies.” And that’s it. That’s the opinion that is so controversial it splits the group. People take sides, create spinoff groups, there are so many PMs flying around that people forget what they talked about before this issue. Lots of people in the group have no idea what’s going on because they’re only in there every few days and aren’t avid facebookers. Those people are shuffled around from group to new group like currency desperately trying to figure out what happened and where their friends went…

You know, I remember when I was a new mom, and my son would be up for hours in the night, and I’d nurse him in the crook of my left arm and talk to other moms on message boards on my phone in my right hand. I remember just marveling at the wonder of technology. What did moms do in the middle of the night before the internet? They must have been so lonely. But I was wrong,  the internet didn’t cure our loneliness.

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I asked my friends in the Sanctimommy group, where we work on blog posts and page posts together,  what was the worst thing someone has done to you in a mom group? The answers were horrifying. Forget name calling and bad gossip, people are routinely reported to Child Protection Services as revenge for some internet transgression. Memes are made and spread calling people fat and ugly and mocking their children. The desire is not to distance ones self from the people we don’t like, but to “punish” them. For what? Disagreeing with you on the internet?

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I always think that next time, I’m going to be immune to the mom group fallout, but you know what? It hurts every time. I think about my friend from 4 or 5 groups ago whose adopted childrens’ birth mother was trying to regain custody of them. What ended up happened with that? I have a friend from babycenter that I met in a loss group who made the decision after 3 miscarriages to not attempt pregnancy any longer. What did she do after our chat group fell apart? One of my friends from a group a few years ago sent me an enormous box of maternity clothes and a bag of red jolly ranchers for my morning sickness. Did she know I was grateful even after the group fell apart and we blocked each other? I ordered bonnets for my daughter from the etsy shop she recommended two years after we stopped speaking.

You can’t just cut people and never think of them again after years of talking almost daily. But you also can’t send them a baby gift when you find out they’re pregnant again months after you stop speaking, because they’ll probably mock it and even if they don’t,  it’s probably weird to still care after all the screenshots and blocking.

How do we raise money for someone’s sick dog’s surgery one day and then decided that because they’re pro-body positive posts and you’re anti-censorship that now you have to hate each other? Is it because it gives us something to do? Something to talk about? Because it makes us feel powerful when motherhood constantly renders us powerless?

After I got banned,  I got the full story. I asked in one of the spinoff groups “what happened?” and mentioned writing a blog post about it and I immediately had a dozen messages in my inbox. People I had never spoken to before wanted to share their passionate opinions about the split and make me see that they were right. I regretted asking almost instantly. What difference does it make? An admin in one group called CPS for a wellness check on a baby in the uncensored group, and there were lots of hurt feelings about lack of transparency and violations of privacy. Was the call justified? I don’t know. When I asked the admin what happened, she and a dozen of her friends cussed me out and questioned my “loyalty” to the group. “Grow the fuck up” “I wish I could be on the sidelines” “stop asking what happened” “are you fucking stupid? Sit down and shut up”

On the one hand they ask for sensitivity and understanding,  but on the other they refuse to share even the barest details. And that’s the part that alienates the most members. Because everyone wants to be one of the “cool” commenters and know the inside scoop. Information becomes currency and those who have it get a say in what happens next.

I have to say, when I started writing the sanctimommy page, I was worried people would make fun of my kids or steal my pictures,  but now, I find myself totally paranoid every time I post anything that someone is going to try and ruin my real life. In the past, people have talked in groups about contacting my employers and sending screenshots to my real life friends, it never even occurred to me that someone would waste the time of Child Protective Services because of an internet vendetta. So thanks for giving me that new worry.

Is this behavior baffling to anyone else? When I don’t like someone online, I stop speaking to them. Maybe I vent about the perceived wrong to my other friends. But never, have I ever, stolen someone’s pictures or made tribute art or threatened their kids. This new tendency to default into “real life” is frightening to me. Can we stop it now?

I don’t know how to end this one, because I usually try to close on a high note, a little humor, a little solidarity,  but I’m not feeling like I can find anything funny about mom groups anymore. I will say, that there are always caveats to the shitty virtual world. A big one is the admin team. If a group has a good sensible admin team steering the ship they can and do weather dozens of blowups without imploding. One of my favorite groups has seen more upsets than you can imagine, (scammers, deaths, births, lies, coup attempts) and always bounces back from them because the admins limit the drama and keep everyone moving forward. Another big indication that a group will be successful is that it’s local or many of the members have met in real life. We tend to be less likely to pick fights and more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt if there’s a possibility that we’ll run into them at the grocery store. There’s something about knowing someone in the flesh that gives you insight into their personality and that creates common ground, even when you disagree online.

One of my friends created a very small group of 20 or so moms that she met online and made every single one a group admin and limited the group size. Knock on wood, they’ve lasted a year.

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Is the benefit of talking to other moms any time day or night worth the risk of feeling genuinely hurt if it all goes south? What ways do you protect yourself and your kids from people you feel close to, but don’t know, online? Do you feel as free and open talking to your in-person friends as you do when you talk to your virtual friends?

I don’t know any of the answers, but I do want to try something radical in the comments here. I want to open the door for forgiveness and absolution. I want to start a conversation about keeping our humanity first and foremost; we aren’t just names on a screen, we’re parents, we’re people. If you’ve ever wronged anyone else in a group, this is your opportunity to come clean. You can be as vague or as specific as you like. You can ask forgiveness or simply attempt to clear up the misinformation. This is your chance to be a real friend, a real group member, and clean up so you can move on. Good luck!

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