Until relatively recently, motherhood as an American function uniformly involved a certain amount of compulsory cheer. The modern expression of this phenomenon, which sometimes gets referred to as a form of “toxic positivity,” has been widely dissected and analyzed in a variety of places (including parenting sites and pregnancy message boards) as just another burden with which expectant parents must contend. The pain of pregnancy and parenting was to be subordinated to counting one’s blessings, and focusing on the joys of creating life to the exclusion of all else.
Feminist efforts and the explosion of parenting message boards provided an important and necessary correction to that pressure. The boards on sites from What to Expect to Babycenter to the Bump to Reddit serve as concrete evidence for this evolution; there, conversational space is dedicated not just to pregnancy at large but to specific challenges like gestational diabetes, placenta previa, and C-sections. There are forums organized by due-date cohort (so members can trade symptoms with others on a similar timeline) or by narrative categories, like “Birth Stories,” where nervous users can benefit from the experiences of hundreds. There are online communities for new parents, for parents with premature infants in neonatal intensive care units, for those struggling with breastfeeding. More resources, in short, than there have ever been in the history of humanity. And with the help of the internet, the pendulum swung way to the other side: The cutesy sprightliness that used to haunt discussions of pregnancy was overwhelmed by a hyperspecific, anxiety-inducing array of horror stories. My former colleague Ruth Graham wrote back in 2014 about how negative discourse around parenting and childbirth had become the mainstream everywhere—prompted in part by a revolutionary era in mommy blogs. Usually packaged as “Stuff Nobody Tells You About Parenting,” the contents were in fact perspectives that had become, ironically, almost impossible to escape.
That’s not to say there weren’t benefits to this new norm of negativity. Pregnancy, like parenting, can be miserable. It makes sense for people suffering to want to share freely now that they can. And social mores have shifted in response to this in some productive ways. The conventional wisdom that you aren’t supposed to announce your pregnancy before 12 weeks, for instance—because you might have a miscarriage, and that’s a form of grief you need to deal with privately rather than reach out for support—has eroded.
What’s interesting now, many years into the Venting Phase, is that the mood online is shifting again, in response to what Graham saw as a monolithically unhelpful negativity. A backlash of sorts is brewing, and the very same message boards that initially helped produce a more honest and complete account of parenting are now wrestling with how misery is in danger of becoming its default setting.
It’s worth saying that forums aren’t wholly negative (despite messages like “Anyone regretted having a baby?” and “Did we ruin our marriage?”). There are plenty of opportunities to share ultrasound photos or compare “bumps” or possible names or celebrate good news. But the forums have on the whole become places for coping, largely distinguished by posts comparing management strategies for unpleasant symptoms, relationship difficulties, and anxieties, along with physical as well as psychological laments. You can sense what the dominant tenor is when pleas for positive stories frame themselves as abashed exceptions: “Newly pregnant and terrified. Does anyone have stories about enjoying their pregnancy?” someone posted meekly in r/BabyBumps.
A fascinating meta-discussion has emerged in many of these forums in which people talk about how we talk about pregnancy: It has been proposed, in forum after forum, that so much brutal honesty about pregnancy and parenthood has started to make it feel less like solidarity than discouragement.
Some of these complaints are addressed to fellow travelers about problems they observe in society at large. There are also complaints about how other platforms, like Instagram, bring them down. “Anyone else notice that all social media/internet posts focus on the negative aspects of childbirth and postpartum?” begins a post in the What to Expect February 2022 group. But here’s what’s interesting: The user goes on to argue that the penchant for endlessly validating negative feelings about parenthood isn’t actually serving parents well. “These ‘supportive’ instagram accounts that say … It’s ok to feel like a piece of *** human who doesn’t connect with your baby … geeze i feel like I’m being over prepared for the negative and expecting nothing exciting.” Many users agreed.
One sign that a true backlash is underway is that you can now find forums complaining about their own discourse, not just the world outside. A post on BabyCenter reads: “i don’t like to come on this part of the app anymore because all i see is negativity!” In a post titled “HOLY HELL” on the What to Expect message boards, one user complained that the tone of her “bumper” group (that is, her delivery cohort) was so negative that she was going to leave: “FOR F**KS SAKE the women in the October 2022 group are all very doom and gloom. don’t get me wrong I know everyone has their own back stories and worries but I’m about to leave the group.” The responses echo her sentiment: “I’m in the September 2022 group and…just wow,” wrote one person. Another described a user getting “slaughtered” for saying that the prevalent miscarriage talk was making her anxious. “I think asking that people don’t post about their miscarriages is a bit much, but basically she was saying this group is causing more anxiety than it’s helping.”
Sure, these are just random messages, and the plural of anecdote isn’t data. But if you read around long enough, distinct trends begin to emerge. And one is that prospective parents are trying to figure out how to survive parenthood in a discourse environment that characterizes it as almost unsurvivable.
These discussions are careful. They’re trying—very hard, in some cases—to draw fine distinctions between the kinds of negative posts that help and the sorts that don’t. “I think that problem is that most people don’t realize there is a difference between sharing about miscarriages to help others who are going through it also and then making posts that just scare the *** out of you,” one user said. “We need more people to speak up about pregnancy loss, we just don’t need people creating fear. There was someone who left the group today, saying she was done reading all the anxiety driven posts because they were breaking her down. I felt so bad.”
In some ways, this is just how the internet works: Once you have thousands of people discussing a topic, you’ll have some who prefer optimism, some who prefer pessimism, some who opt for denial or encouragement, and others who opt for warnings or bluntness. This means that the glossy internet with softly lit mothers-to-be gazing beatifically at their baby bumps still exists. But the most interesting discussions reflect an unsupported demographic in flux. Yes, parents are struggling, but being told don’t worry if you’re struggling is no longer offering the therapeutic relief it once did—back when toxic positivity was the norm. It’s OK to feel bad may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily help you feel better.
And so parents-to-be (in the United States at least) are desperately seeking a middle ground that will let them register and discuss some private joy despite material conditions that promote stress and burnout and injury and exhaustion. It can all start to feel paradoxical. When one member asks “Anyone else feel like there’s a huge amount of toxic positivity to combat in pregnancy?” in r/Pregnancy, citing examples like “It’ll all be worth it! Don’t worry about that! Trust your gut!,” the replies quickly capture the feeling of being caught between extremes. “Where are these circles and how can I be part of them??” one user responds. “In all seriousness though, I think it’s wrong to dismiss hardships and people’s pain. But in my first pregnancy I turned to online social forums and pretty much found it was a circle jerk of misery.”
In a post on r/BabyBumps titled “Toxic positivity in pregnancy seems to run rampant,” the top response disputes the title’s premise: “Interestingly I had more of the opposite of this when pregnant with my first. Everyone and their dog had a horror story about labour, or babies, or breastfeeding.” “Same here!” another user replies. “Where do you find positivity?! Is that on Amazon? I have only received awful horror stories.” Another said: “The first postpartum nurse that helped me go to the bathroom was like ‘I bet no one told you about any of this’ and I was like it’s literally all I’ve heard about for 9 months!”
And so the message board communion over the shared hardships of pregnancy is fragmenting. A little. You can tell that what used to be a strong consensus is dissolving when posts start showing up that explicitly and defensively defend the negative discourse that used to uncomplicatedly dominate: “Having a baby is difficult. People aren’t trying to scare you,” one person posted to r/beyondthebump. “They’re trying to let you know it’s okay to not love every moment.”
That’s not just rebuffing users asking for positive stories and complaining about the barrage of negative ones; it’s a beleaguered restatement of the basic premises of what a parenting board in theory should offer. In its way, it perfectly defines that now mainstream second-wave parenting discourse, where validating difficult or uncomfortable feelings—like I hate my child or I’ve made a huge mistake—is a priority. “I was trying to shed light on why someone may choose to be honest with you about their postpartum experience - not to scare you with a horror story, but to break through all of the toxic positivity that surrounds parenthood,” that poster says to someone who disagrees.
Other users aren’t buying it. “Eh. I still feel iffy about this. Does anyone really sugarcoat being a parent anymore? I feel like you would have to be a complete hermit with no social media to not know that being a parent is hard. Everyone knows.”
And so a third wave in parenting discourse is emerging. Some people begin by conceding the well-established premise—yes, pregnancy is horrible—before pivoting to announce their specific need for positivity. “With all the bad, thats talked about pregnancy and labor, what are the good things that you enjoyed during that time? (Besides the kid),” one poster asks in r/AskWomen. “What are some good stories about pregnancy and childbirth? Tell me your experience,” asks another. She elaborates: “It’s gotten to the point where I start to hyperventilate a little when someone brings up having kids, that’s how many bad stories I have heard. I would really love to hear some happier tales too.”