Leandra Cohen, founder of Manrepeller, is known for her honesty. She's not afraid to share some of her most private moments, and has been open about her tough journey to motherhood. So when she posted a selfie after the birth of her twin daughter, you would expect everyone to congratulate her, and say nice things. But no. Instead, many of the comments on her Instagram were negative. And when Cohen posted a selfie of herself in non-maternity jeans, captioned #highwaistnonstretchdenim, people jumped into the comments to criticise her for that.
"The narcissism is real. Why are you showing off that you can fit into your high waist non stretch jeans so soon after giving birth. It's really not helpful for other women who are struggling with their self image 🙄 grow up"
"Darling, check the hashtag, clearly showing off 🙄"
"In the same way that she found it difficult to look at insta posts where others were pregnant etc . . . she should perhaps understand that for some new mums seeing a post like this would make them feel pretty rubbish. Look at all of these comments from poor mums who aren't quite there. It's just a bit meh."
And those are the ones that weren't so abusive they were deleted.
Cohen edited her caption a while later to explain further "👈🏻 I totally see what you're saying w this hashtag looking like a humble brag but it was more a reference to how many times I shouted that I missed high waist non stretch pantz during pregnancy. Anyway, I am so very deeply sorry if I made you feel like less with this post. That sucks and is the opposite of my intention, always. Public learning experience no. 107579 logged 🤯"
Despite her gorgeous twins not yet being a month old, Cohen has already experienced her fair share of mum-shaming. The downside of being someone who shares their parenting journey with an online community is that there's almost always some downside.
But it's not all bad.
The Good: Community
Karen Pickering is a feminist thought leader and organiser, who founded the popular (and now sadly finished) Cherchez le Femme and SlutWalk Melbourne. When she became a parent, she created an online space, and speaks highly of the role of online spaces for new parents.
"I have found them a lifeline," she said. "I didn't love the ones that were already available so I built my own and it's become a community that offers support, information and challenging discussion in a way that I can't imagine elsewhere."
For Karen, an online group allowed her to develop a community that shared her values specifically as they apply to parenting. "Women have always come together to parent communally, so I think online spaces allow us to do that across distance, time and space."
Parenting can be lonely and isolating, and even more so when your only fellow parent friends don't share your values or your interests. Online spaces can be a great place to find your tribe, whether it's other working Mums or others following the attachment parenting method or just those with whom you have something in common.
The Bad: The Accidental Hurt
One of the risks of online parenting communities is unintentionally hurting other people within the community. This was perhaps why Cohen's post struck a nerve: in showing her own moment of joy, she unintentionally prodded a sore spot for some of her followers. Because everyone's struggles are different, the thing you are celebrating could be the thing that causes someone else to cry.
This is magnified by the way we can self-edit on social media, painting an image of our lives that can be vastly different from the day-to-day.
Karen made the excellent point that these kinds of drawbacks aren't unique to online communities, though. The accidental hurt can slip out just as easily in an in-person mother's group, the self-editing when you tell the story of the night your baby slept through the night, omitting the six nights when they didn't. "I also think many of the negatives about online spaces are the same challenges that all communities have, IRL or not," she said.
It's true, though perhaps the scale is different. In groups with hundreds of thousands of members, or on Instagram accounts with similar followings, small disagreements and accidental hurts can take on a dimension beyond that of most face-to-face interactions.
The Ugly: Mum Shaming
Which brings us back to Leandra Cohen and another Instagram post. This one of her gorgeous twins playing in a cot.
You might think it was innocuous, but no, the mummy-shamers were out in force.
"oh no! Baby bumpers ☹️"
"bumpers are cute but sleep safety read-ups pleeezzzz suffocation/getting trapped is no joke no matter what the label reads"
"Adorable! Friendly reminder though that having anything in the crib other than the cribsheet is a suffocation hazard (even breathable bumpers)"
These comments were despite the fact the babies weren't actually shown sleeping in the cot. They were playing. Many people have spaces like this that the babies spend time in when they're not sleeping. Safe sleep is absolutely important, but assuming someone isn't following safe sleeping practises from a photo is just plain judgemental. This is the nastiest part of the online parenting world: the smug, "I know better than you, you are doing it wrong" attitudes.
I had my own run-in with mummy-shamers. After I wrote about my decision to use responsive settling to sleep train our daughter, literally hundreds of people took to the comments section, mostly to tell me my decision was wrong. Some went as far as to accuse me of abusing my child. All because I used a fairly gentle sleep training method.
My favourite among those comments, though, was the person who told me I was doing my daughter's car seat up incorrectly and endangering her. The photo was of her in her pram, but this person was so eager to tell me what I was doing it wrong, she didn't even make sure she had the right information before telling me.
Like any community, the world of online parenting has its positives and negatives. If you can find your people, it can be an incredible source of support. But in every bed of roses there's a thorn, and even the best communities can have their drawbacks. Perhaps the best way to handle it is to go gently, with yourself and others.