The Parent Trap

I’m so helplessly addicted to parenting groups that I feel like I can never leave Facebook.

A woman looking at a parenting group on Facebook.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by fizkes; iStock; Rawpixel/iStock.

If it weren’t for parenting groups, I’d quit Facebook. I believe with all my heart that Facebook—the business—is Very Bad and should not profit from my presence. I don’t like 75 percent of the Facebook experience and haven’t posted anything on my personal page in months. If I had stuck to the child-free life, I’d be gone by now.

But when I became a parent, they got me. I’m in as many parenting groups as I can find: groups for parents who believe in particular philosophies (respectful parenting, Montessori, Waldorf), a group for moms who live in my area, a group for moms who live in my area and have things to sell, a group for people who just want to sell their used Hanna Andersson clothing, and one less categorizable group of loosely connected like-minded moms that I slid into sideways via an old acquaintance and now love the most of all.

When I open Facebook, I scroll down my Notifications tab, looking for updates to the parenting groups, and click on those first. I get most excited when I see that the first line of a post is “Bear with me; this is a novel.” Those are the posts that give you fine-textured insight into the family dynamics that are driving someone else crazy. In their granularity, they reinforce one of the things I love the most about parenting—its insistence that you pay attention to the quotidian patterns of your interactions. When the problem at hand is something I’ve experienced, I feel less alone; when it’s something I haven’t, I feel vaguely forewarned and thus forearmed.

Less high-mindedly, I bookmark the heck out of the recommendation posts: What do you bring on a plane to entertain an 18-month-old? (Pipe cleaners, a magnetic doodle board, a “fake wallet” full of business cards.) How hard is it, really, to build a water table or a Pikler triangle? (Too hard for us.) What are the best bento-style lunchboxes? (I like the Yumbox.)

I know, via anecdotal evidence, that I’m not the only Facebook user who feels like they’d have been gone long ago if it weren’t for the parenting groups. “This is me!” one member wrote when I asked our Slate Parenting Facebook group (I know, irony) to comment on whether they’d leave the platform if they weren’t raising kids. “Solidarity,” another member added. Facebook had a Groups app that it killed about a year ago—probably, Karissa Bell of Mashable speculated at the time, because “it provided too easy of a way for people to use the social network without ever touching the main app.” Several Slate Parenting denizens recalled the glory days of this app with wistfulness.

Why can’t I get this kind of advice and conversation elsewhere on the internet or in person? I’ve heard recommendations that I should just read Reddit boards or the comments sections of individual blogs I like, such as Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care. Back in June, Carvell Wallace answered a question from a fellow “I’d quit if it weren’t for these damn groups” parent for Slate’s Care and Feeding column. Carvell had little sympathy, arguing that a Facebook defector could make new spaces to talk about parenting: administer email listservs or Yahoo or Google groups to bring together faraway peers, or just “call people, text them, hang out with them.”

That last recommendation has me thinking about an alternate universe. What would my parenting life be like if I didn’t have access to the internet at all? I have two siblings and seven first cousins, all born in pre-internet times. I asked my parents, aunts, and uncles how they got advice, and they mentioned long-running play groups, trusted pediatricians, family members who already had kids or who had expertise in teaching or medicine, and books by experts like T. Berry Brazelton and Louise Bates Ames. It sounds like it was all pretty local and basic; honestly, it sounds relaxing. My relatives were boggled by my description of the kinds of things we talk about in my parenting groups. “When I see the various topics you consider in raising J., I think, ‘Wow, I was clueless. Those questions never came to my mind,’ ” my aunt wrote in an email to me. “Neither of us are worriers, and our parenting was likely more clueless than aimless,” my uncle added. My cousins packed brown bags to school instead of leakproof bento boxes, and everybody turned out great.

Sometimes I worry that I’m just staying because I like the drama. As Meaghan O’Connell wrote on the Cut a few years ago, these parenting Facebook groups are so absorbing that it can feel like a vice to read them. O’Connell described the dynamic: “Communities of (mostly) women who are varying degrees of lost, who are spurring each other on and trying to help each other out, who are so vulnerable and in over their heads that they alternate between being complete judgmental monsters and bastions of compassion within the same comment thread.” It truly is a circus in there, and I can’t turn away.

For someone who is interested in the way knowledge gets transmitted from person to person and the way cultures build common beliefs, parenting-related Facebook posts and comments are sociological snack food. Add a personal investment in the content of the conversations, and I’m sunk. I’ll still read each and every comment on any Facebook thread about the two biggest mommy-war issues: 1) breastfeeding vs. formula, and 2) sleep training vs. just live with the sleep deprivation because what are you, an unnatural monster—even though neither of these issues is relevant to me any longer.

But I think it’s shortsighted, and probably sexist, to see Facebook parenting groups as just a place for moms to pass hours in gossip and judgment. Parenting is a heady mix of emotional labor and hardcore logistics, and the things parents do on Facebook reflect that mix. For some mothers whose particular parenting communities have completely moved to Facebook, the idea of quitting the platform sounds like a luxury for somebody who hasn’t been acting as the family’s project manager, research director, and quartermaster, all rolled in one. Slate Parenting member Kelsey Gable responded to my question: “How do you ‘just quit Facebook’ when it’s your source of parenting advice, medical triage, school coordination, family communication, and event planning? The answer is probably that you have a wife who does those things for you with her Facebook account.”

Facebook’s large community also means that those for whom parenting involves unexpected complexities can finally find the needles in a haystack who commiserate. Lillyth Quillan recently wrote for the Atlantic in an essay about parenting a child with conduct disorder that Facebook was the only place where she could find other people in her situation. And sympathy isn’t the only advantage of a Facebook group microtargeted to your life. You can also get valuable information about medicine or the law this way. Megan Sapp Nelson, a foster parent and member of Slate Parenting, said: “I don’t feel it is safe to quit Facebook because I may not get relevant and necessary information (particular to being a foster parent) in a timely manner via another communication venue.” Leighann Garcia added: “My daughter was medically complex (due to extreme prematurity) and I echo this!”

Before the internet, and maybe especially before Facebook, if you had an unusual situation that nobody in your immediate circles had experienced, you were out of luck—isolated. You would also be lost if your particular parenting style wasn’t supported by your community. I have read countless posts on respectful-parenting pages from people whose real-life friends and family don’t understand their decision not to use conventional punishments in child discipline, for example. As Adriana Alejandro Santos Coe wrote in Slate Parenting: “I have a very limited in-person village, and my parenting groups have been invaluable … I love and hate FB for this blessing/curse it has wrought.”