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Are online 'friendships' with strangers taking over for stressed-out parents?


Jen Hogan pictured with her children

Jen Hogan pictured with her children

Jen Hogan pictured with her children

Since becoming a mother, I’ve often found myself reminiscing about how different things were when I was growing up. And though the perspective of a child is very different to that of an adult, memories of one parent taking turns to walk all the children who lived on the road to school, and waking up to find a neighbour’s child in my bed because her mother had gone into labour overnight, are to the fore of my mind.

There was a collaborative and community approach to parenthood in my mother’s time. Neighbourhood children ran errands for the mums on the road. Mothers chatted over a cuppa at the front wall on sunny days as they watched the smallest members of the family play. Children played outside without a need for scheduled playdates or a string of expensive afterschool activities. That’s not to suggest it was all perfect – there were different challenges, but there was the comfort that most people were in the same boat, and the support of having their tribe nearby.

Times have changed however and it seems the village it takes to rear a child is changing too. When I was pregnant with my children I signed up to parenting forums and spoke anonymously with other mums-to-be. We shared our worries, our excitement and some of the indignities of pregnancy without revealing who we really were. We built up relationships based on common ground and I missed it after our babies were born when inevitably the online conversations died down. 

Seven children later and my life is consumed by parenthood. I live it, I mostly love it - and I literally wrote the book! That’s not to say it’s not isolating sometimes though. We lead such busy lives these days that it’s no surprise to hear so many people describe parenthood as a lonely time. We often don’t know our neighbours. Our friends may be working or at a different stage of life to us, so parents have to find their tribe and support network another way. It seems many are turning to the online option.

A few days ago I set up a closed Facebook group for parents, to run alongside my parenting blog Mama-tude. I’ve always had lots of online interaction with the people who follow the blog but the closed group is different. It involves parents joining and engaging with other parents who are strangers – virtual, online, strangers. The purpose of the group is to support, seek and offer advice, share stories, and, rather tongue in cheek, “survive parenthood together”. In just 24 hours over 300 parents joined. There are no anonymous user names to hide behind, and yet there is an honesty and sharing that suggests the members have been friends for years. 

We warn our teenagers and children about engaging with strangers online and here as adults we’re having the chats and sharing personal concerns – to positive and helpful responses. Parents still need support and sounding boards. Without that tribe or village nearby, the virtual one contained within the realms of social media and online parenting forums seem to offer an alternative. Thanks to smartphones, the potential for virtual support and friendship, is truly in our pockets.

Dr. Malie Coyne, Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer at NUIG explains that in our modern day lives “we are all more dependent on spending our time online, whether it be working, shopping, dating or socialising with friends. Hence it makes total sense that parents would go online to share their joys and woes with other like-minded people”

“Parenting is a rollercoaster in every way” she adds “and being social beings as humans are, it is natural for parents to seek support from other parents who truly understand the challenges and may be able to share some precious nuggets of advice”.

Dr. Coyne feels for some parents, virtual and online support are replacing real life friendships “particularly if the parent feels a lack of social connection with the real people in their lives” but adds “whilst the sharing of common challenges can be hugely validating for a parent, there is no replacing the healing properties of a good aul chat and cuppa with a real life person who wants the best for you and thinks you’re the bees knees.”

Unsurprised by the influx of members to the closed parenting group, Dr Coyne says “parents feel an instant affinity for one another, as we are all in the same boat experiencing such a myriad of emotions each day.”

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“There is a safety in sharing with absolute strangers who don’t have a vested interest in what decision you make”

“Reading others trials and tribulations makes you feel less alone as a parent and helps you to realise that tough patches are just patches and will pass.”

“Personally I think it’s a good thing as long as the person doesn’t become too dependent on it, that it doesn’t replace real-life supports and that time spent online does not take away from their time being with their children”.

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