I’ll never forget my first winter as a Vancouver mom. My daughter was born just as summer turned the corner into fall. For the first few weeks of her life, she and I lived out a West Coast fantasy: lazy days in the sunshine, drifting along under gently falling leaves, listening to the lap of the ocean waves on the beach. Life was wonderful, motherhood seemed like a glorious dream.
Then it started raining. I was new to the city. I didn’t know another mom. Each rainy day was followed by yet another rainy day. So instead of strolling along the beach, I found myself pacing my tiny living room, joggling a fussy baby in a state of increasing desperation. Finally, I remembered some pamphlets the public health nurse had dropped off on her postpartum visit. I dug them out and found meeting times for parent-infant drop-ins at my local community health centre.
The following week I ventured out in what turned out to be a heavy rainstorm. There I was trying to shield baby and I; plus our oversized diaper bag dry under one undersized umbrella. We arrived drenched and late, but I was euphoric. I was going to make friends! Get advice! And my baby would meet other babies. Reality check: my baby was six weeks old and not remotely interested in socializing.
As I turns out, I made friends and collected good advice. In fact, those drop-ins became my lifeline. I listened avidly as other women shared their anxieties and frustrations. I revealed some of my own private parenting demons, and pitched in enthusiastically with ideas and opinions on everything from how to introduce solids to the perfect spacing between baby one and baby two. Life started to fill up, and those lonely, rainy afternoons I had spent pacing with a cranky baby all faded into memory.
That all happened back in the dark ages (the late nineties!) when there were very few online resources for new parents. Today’s new moms are blessed with an incredible variety of online communities: social networks, forums, Facebook groups, blogs, message boards, all offering the possibility of connecting with other parents anywhere, anytime on countless topics.
So how do those online connections stack up against old-fashioned face time? Have virtual relationships trumped the tangible when it comes to new-parent support?
“I find sharing my frustrations online really freeing,” says Megan, a mom of two, who is a regular poster on a parenting message board. “Sometimes, I just need to vent. I’d rather do that online — you don’t have to worry about being judged.”
Like many who look to social networks for parenting advice and support, Megan is frequently overwhelmed by the caring responses she receives from women she’ll likely never meet in person: “It feels like I have a million big sisters, giving advice and looking out for me” she says.
That infinitely expanding network is one of the biggest advantages that online support has over local community groups. If no one in your neighborhood has had trouble breastfeeding, you can go online and instantly connect with thousands of women who are dealing with precisely the same challenges. But what about some of the less obvious benefits of the face-to-face experience?
Ruby Banga is a Vancouver parenting expert who has spent over fifteen years bringing parents together to support one another through the challenges and joys of raising kids. She doesn’t hesitate when asked for her opinion in the online vs. live debate: “I’m a huge advocate of live groups” she says. “I don’t believe you get the same experience online.”
Ruby points out that listening to other parents talk about their issues — even though we may not share their particular problem– can deepen our own understanding of how we parent. “When you sit and listen to others’ experiences and take it all in with the body language, facial expressions, etc, you have a chance to process and reflect what you have learned and then apply the learning to your parenting situation.”
“I think forums are great for validating your feelings,” says Julie, who credits her online support network with helping her weather through a postpartum depression. “There’s always someone who’s been through what you’re going through. I have gained so much by just watching how other parents actually handle their kids. You can’t get that from the web.”
So what’s the best option for new parents? It’s no secret: connect, connect, and connect. Stay connected online, offline, in organized groups, or in somebody’s living room.
Take advantage of every resource out there to create the networks of support that will sustain you as a parent. Find a balance of online and offline relationships that’s right for you. Keep in mind both have their strong points and limitations. Yet collectively, they offer a much better alternative than pacing the living room with baby on those lonely, rainy afternoons.
Marilee is a Vancouver writer, editor and mother of two tweens who tries hard not to be jealous of the support, resources and fancy strollers available to today’s crop of new parents. She blogs about communications at www.mapcommunication.ca.