Last week, one member of the Facebook group "Upper East Side Mommas" sent a cease-and-desist letter (via a lawyer) to another member demanding that she stop libelling the letter-sender by calling her racist in the group's discussions.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG
Which raises some interesting questions: What is and isn't appropriate conversation in online parents' groups? Can you talk about politics, social justice issues, racism — or should posts be restricted to what stroller to buy? I hope not — I enjoy the wide-ranging topics in my owner parents-and-caregivers group, and have gotten great advice on questions both trivial and profound.
In fact, online parents' groups (both for mums and dads and caregivers in general) are huge sources of support for parents and especially new parents. If you think "it's only the internet" or "it's only a group of mums", well, you haven't been awake in the middle of the night, alone, with an urgent question — "Is an umbilical-cord stump supposed to look like this?" "Does anyone else sleep on top of piles of clean laundry?" Or felt a pressing need to unburden yourself — "I am really, really losing it with fatigue and I don't know how I'm going to get through another day" — or, most poignant/helpful/solidarity-building, in my opinion, start those anonymous conversations of desperation, rage and regret that you can't necessarily have with IRL friends.
But the Facebook parents' group, like any community, isn't a free-for-all — good manners are critical to the functioning of the group. I'm part of a couple of groups for parents of all genders, some of which are more helpful than others, and I requested some tips from friends and members on how to keep the space polite, helpful and functional.
If someone asks a specific question — "I want to sleep-train; what technique worked for you?" — answer the damn question. As my friend Emily says, "This is not the right place for someone to say why they think sleep training is harmful. And if someone says, 'I've chosen not to sleep train, what advice do you have for me to get more sleep?' that is not the place to share sleep-training tips. But if someone says, 'What do you think about sleep training?' then that's the moment for people to share the whole range of advice!" This I'm-not-answering-your-question can also be called mummyjacking.
As my friend Rose says, "It's a crappy feeling when you get a notification and it's not an answer to your question, it's just someone blabbing about how they like to do things in an entirely different way. This, of course, also applies to regular Facebook."
Speaking of Which, Turn On Notifications
You don't need to type "f" or "following" to follow a post. You can turn on notifications by clicking on the little arrow in the upper right-hand corner.
You probably think you know how to keep your internet habits secret. 'Clearing browser history is too obvious,' you say. 'I just do all my sketchy stuff in an incognito window!' OK, hot stuff, then let me ask you this. You ever search anything weird on Instagram? Got any visits to an ex's Twitter profile that you might not want to share with the next friend or loved one who grabs your phone? 'I've gotta show you this adorable Japanese puppy's account... Why do your recent searches look like Armie Hammer's?'
You post, "I need to get to England." Someone replies, "How about a plane?" You say, "No, that won't work." They say, "How about a boat?" And you say, "No, that won't work, either." And so on through swimming, rafts and teleportation. Nothing will work for you. As my friend Margery says, "If someone answers your question, don't correct them to explain why their answer isn't going to work because your situation is different and so specific they couldn't understand. You asked. Say 'thanks' for the answer even if you don't like it."
Try to Be Mindful of People in Different Circumstances
One friend told me that the posts saying things such as "let your kid be a kid this summer!" drive her crazy because of the clueless privilege behind the statement: Not everyone has a parent at home to allow kids to roam the neighbourhood or splash in the wading pool. Summer is financially rough for a lot of people; all year long is financially rough for a lot of people. If you have household help, exotic holidays, or 17 grandmothers who love to babysit, that's great, but don't assume that everyone does.
The pet adoption process for my family was ... unexpected. One Saturday, when my six-year-old son was having a play date in our backyard with his cousin and his best preschool friend, a black cat came to visit. To them, the cat visit was more exciting than the waterslide and the popsicles I had brought out. They squealed, pet him, and followed him around. He started coming by more often, walking with my son and his grandmother to school and hanging around near our patio door. My husband started putting out food and water. My son named him Sammy. Everyone started calling Sammy our cat. I, on the other hand, was extremely hesitant to keep him — we had never had a pet, and I just knew all the dirty work would be left with me.
Step Away From the Keyboard
I'm in a couple of Facebook parents' groups with mostly like-minded people, and even so, there are many, many posts I have to step away from (homeopathy, I'm looking at you). If you can't comment constructively, close your computer and go sort through outgrown clothes or something. I know we all have strong feelings about breastfeeding and crying it out, but other people have different opinions, and they don't need you haranguing them. We're all in a vulnerable state.
If you must comment on something that you think is totally loony, keep it gentle and fact-based: "I would be cautious about chiropractic care for newborns, based on this XYZ information," or, "It sounds like you're really concerned about EMFs from your baby monitor — here's a site about that, but can I gently suggest you might be suffering from anxiety?" And then let that be your last word on the subject. For God's sake, don't go down the road of calling someone an idiot or a paranoid lunatic. Step away from the keyboard.
Keep Other Members' Info Private
If it's a local group, keep in mind that you need to keep secrets just like you do in real life. If your friend was just diagnosed with some icky, embarrassing ailment, don't post it in the group. And if you have private information about someone's kid in the group — they're struggling in school, what have you — don't share it with your kids. Kids can't keep secrets.
Don't Ask Anything About Vaccines; No, Nothing; I Repeat, Do Not Talk About Vaccines
If you're unclear on the benefits of vaccines, talk to your doctor. Do not bring it up in your FB group, unless the name of the group is "Mums4Measles". You will be (justifiably) savaged.
Follow the Rules of Group, if There Are Any
For some groups, this might mean not trashing local businesses, or not talking politics, or removing yourself once you've moved out of the area (if you're a local group).
No Soliciting or Fundraising
If you want to advertise your local business, ask the admins how often you can post. (I'm thinking a good rule is not more than once a month.) And FB parents' groups are not appropriate places for fundraising, with the exception of local groups in which a family has suffered a tragedy and neighbours are putting together meal trains and babysitting sign-ups. Otherwise it's a no-no. It turns friends into marks, like when you go to someone's house for a drink and that drink turns out to be Herbalife.
Tread Carefully With Politics
Some groups have explicit rules about politics, so obviously, follow those guidelines. If not, stay tuned to the tone of the group, and remember that literally no space in the world is politics-free: If you're talking about the "good" school in your area, you're talking about politics. If you're talking about unruly teenagers dominating the playground, or discussing a fair wage for domestic help, or expressing horror at the cost of university, or commiserating about health insurance and parental leave and sick leave, or even talking about free-range parenting — that's all politics, and it's possible that someone will have a different opinion on the topic than you do.
I don't think we should shy away from confronting people on problematic views, and if you are the one being confronted, try to be graceful about it and learn something. Someone once called me out for something thoughtless and clueless I said, which stung, but I did see her point, and I apologised. If you're the one doing the confronting — well, this gets into exactly how one changes hearts and minds, but telling someone they're a clueless privileged arsehole is probably not going to do that. The tension between between good manners and not being silent while someone says stupid crap is one that everyone has to resolve for herself.
Some parents' groups function beautifully and provide a useful and comforting virtual community for parents. Others are at best fodder for entertaining skirmishes in which 99 per cent of the group pops popcorn and watches the drama unfold. But at bottom, online parenting communities are a place to get advice, pick up a used jumperoo, and if you're lucky, find some like-minded friends. Just try to resist the urge to send them a cease-and-desist letter.