'Joining mums' group was the best decision I ever made'
Andrea Smith meets 26 new mums who have forged an extraordinary bond online
There is nothing as bonding as a shared life experience, so when 26 new mums who have been communicating online for the past year met for the first time in person recently, it was a lovely and very special occasion.
As the group members arrived from as far away as Donegal and Cork to show off their precious five-month-old babies, the adorable tots gurgled, cooed and, okay, cried a bit, while their mums hugged and chatted. The room at the Maldron Hotel in Portlaoise was soon filled with laughter and squeals of recognition, and was delightfully chaotic, with buggies, changing bags, feeding stations and assorted baby paraphernalia taking up half of the space. Not to mention the colourful presence of the many siblings of the 26 stars of the show.
The internet gets bad press sometimes, with reports of trolling and bullying hitting the headlines on a regular basis. However, there is an amazing side to it and this mum-and-baby group is a perfect example of how strangers you meet online can become a hugely integral part of your life.
These women, who were all due in August 2013, first met through a pregnancy forum on the parenting website www.rollercoaster.ie and found the communication very useful. The only drawback was that the contributions were anonymous, so Cork mum-of-three Kelda Ward decided to set up a private Facebook page for the group and 49 of the mums-to-be, from all over the country, moved over to that.
"I was only 19 when my son Nathan, now 14, was born and although I had great support at home, being a mother at such a young age was pretty daunting," she says. "Having something like this back then would have been a great support for me. I joined a group when I was pregnant on Jessica, now 20 months, and found it great so I decided to set up the Facebook page for this group when I was pregnant on Elin. I've made some great new friends and they're a fantastic bunch of girls."
The women supported each other virtually through the emotional and physical maelstrom of pregnancy, labour and childbirth and are now there for each other as they raise their beautiful babies. While some of the members from Dublin, Cork and Limerick have met up already in their respective areas, this gathering in Portlaoise was the first time they have attempted a national meeting, and it was a huge success.
"Joining the group was the best decision I ever made as my mum Bernie passed away from cancer at 49 and I don't have any sisters," says Emma Leahy from Wicklow, mum to baby AJ. "The funny thing is that she told me to join a mother-and-baby group if I ever had children and I thought she was nuts as I had my own friends. I've realised since that your friends are often at different stages in life so it's great to be able to talk to people who are going through the exact same thing as you.
"Reading posts from others can shed light on situations in your own life and someone always has great advice on a situation, whether it's a serious or light-hearted one. Our group is really special, because you truly feel you can say anything and not be judged."
Emma's point on not being judged resonates with lots of the women, as everyone muddles their way through the huge emotional and physical changes that come with pregnancy and childbirth.
Baby Priya's mum, Jane Edgeworth, feels that pregnancy is both the most vulnerable and empowering time of a woman's life and, as many mums will testify, it can also be a confidence-sapping process.
"When I felt like I was doing everything wrong, the girls kept me from losing my mind and gave me confidence in myself," admits Dubliner Ali Gray, mum to baby Amelia. "This group means the world to me."
There was always someone available to chat to, even during the night, when fears, worries, restless legs and difficulty in getting comfortable meant that sleep was sometimes elusive. A situation that only got worse when the babies arrived!
"In the wee hours of the morning, when feeds were frequent and wind wasn't coming up, I could tap on the phone and know I wasn't alone," says Fiona Murphy from Cork, mum to baby Ronan. "I find now that I make decisions based on recommendations from the group, through open, honest conversation, and it's not based solely on one method of parenting."
Incidentally, Ronan gave Fiona (and the others) a fright by being born in June, 11 weeks early, but thankfully he is utterly perfect.
Things can go wrong, and at least half of the group reported experiencing scares during their pregnancies. This was the time that posting their fears online brought reassurance and understanding, and the privacy status on the page also meant that sensitive information stayed within the group.
"I had a bleed at 20 weeks and naturally I was very worried, but the girls were all very supportive and encouraged me to go to the doctor," says Kelda. "Thankfully, everything turned out fine, but when you are trying to be strong for your partner and your parents, it's great to have somewhere to go where you can let it all out. There was always a shoulder there to cry on if you needed it."
They were due in August, but in reality, the babies arrived between June and September. The mums helped each other through the last-minute anxieties, and in some cases, through the actual labour itself. Kelda recalls how, having had her waters broken at 11 pm, the hospital sent her husband Robbie home for the night. "I was posting through the night about my contractions and the girls were all encouraging me on," she says. "I was lying in bedcrying at 4am and didn't want to phone Robbie and wake him up as we were going to have long day ahead of us. The girls online were saying, 'You're doing great' which made me feel very supported."
As the weeks rolled on and the babies started arriving, you would imagine that some of the mums would drop away as they suddenly had their hands full, but this didn't happen and they still supported the others who were waiting to have their babies. Then again, they had time to go online during the initial sleepless nights and night feeds.
"My most vulnerable time was during the last few days of pregnancy, and even though most of the girls were up to their swollen boobs in nappies by then, I never once felt alone or left behind," says Dublin mum Orla Keogh, mum to Josh.
"No matter how dumb my questions were, there were always answers and it felt like every one of our deliveries had over 40 hands pulling us through."
The group went on to have 24 boys and 25 girls - Ronan, Adam, Liam, Carly, Max, Emily, Michael, Harry, Sadie, Anna, Elin, Zoey, Millie, Ciaran, Ollie, Liam, Aoife, Sam, Callan, Harry, Diego, Liam, Patrick, Callie, Emily, Sinead, Priya, Faye, Ollie, Hector, Erin, Eva, James, Jake, Amelia, Leah, Thomas, AJ, Sadhbh, Daisy, Charlie, Ella, Alex, Saoirse, Matilda, Rosie, Eabha and Josh.
Amid all of the joy, there was heartbreak as one little angel sadly passed away at birth. She and her mum are very much carried in the hearts of the other mothers.
So, given how close they have clearly become, and how much they lean on the other group members for support, how did their partners feel? After all, the pregnancies started with just the two of them, and all of a sudden there was a whole new cast of influential women in the middle of their relationships.
Luckily, they were delighted that they had the group and some joked that it "let them off the hook".
"My husband felt that I got great support from the group during a very stressful and emotional time," says Kelda.
"Even though he was as excited as me about the new baby, there were times when he was delighted that I had the girls to turn to. If we had a query, he would often say, 'What did your girls say?'"
The most striking thing the women found was how much fun and laughter they had along the way, but what about dealing with the difficult aspects of normal daily life in a heightened hormonal state?
Alas, while we're sure it's deliciously juicy, we'll never know if the group members let off steam about unhelpful partners, interfering mothers, annoying in-laws, unsympathetic bosses or any of the rest of it, as the page remains private and all lips are firmly sealed!
"As a first-time mother, I didn't really have a clue about to what to expect and it was such a comfort to have so many people there who were going through the same thing," says Dubliner Eimear Cole, who is mum to Callie, summing up the whole experience. "Meeting for the first time was like going on a really weird blind date, and it was a bit nerve-wracking going in, but it was absolutely fantastic. We have all become so close, and it's amazing how a group of women who met online now have such a bond."
Health and Living will follow the progress of four of the mums and babies, Kelda and Elin Ward, Emma and AJ Leahy, Niamh and Hector Hughes, and Jane and Priya Edgeworth, each month until the babies turn one. First installment Feb 17
Watch video of the group's first meeting at www.independent.ie/rollercoaster