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'Band of mothers: how Insta-mums saved my soul'

A new swell of online voices describing the chaotic, joyful, and often difficult experience of motherhood has never been more important as the pandemic adds extra stress, writes Sophie White

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Writer and mother-of-three Sophie White has found support from other mums on social media to be a lifeline. Photo: Frank McGrath

Writer and mother-of-three Sophie White has found support from other mums on social media to be a lifeline. Photo: Frank McGrath

Writer and mother-of-three Sophie White has found support from other mums on social media to be a lifeline. Photo: Frank McGrath

It's often said that it takes a village to raise a baby but I'd wager this phrase is just as pertinent when applied to mothers: it takes a village to raise a mother. In previous years, when child-rearing was a more communal activity and many generations of a family lived close by, there was an organic structure in place to mind babies and, arguably more importantly, the mothers.

We lost this for a time in the latter half of the 20th century but thankfully we are now remaking it online. I now depend not on the kindness of strangers, but on mums on Instagram. I find there's a real sense of community among mothers online, which happily goes against the rampant "mommy wars" narrative we so often hear about.

On a bad day with my toddler, I can vent on my Stories and usually get a tsunami of responses from encouragement to advice to simply solidarity. With Instagram, I have a constantly growing tribe of women ready to reach across the virtual void to say "me too!" to everything from "I feel like the worst mum in the world today!" to "Anyone else just answer the door to the postman with one boob flopped out?".

And the best thing about this gang is that nothing shocks them. Once you've been in the trenches of motherhood for a while, you have seen some sh*t. Forget Band of Brothers, the band of mothers are tougher, funnier and have stronger stomachs.

This band of mothers have been my ride or dies, particularly in these pandemic times. Never before have I relied so much on the mothers of social media for reassurance, solidarity and levity.

Before I had children, I had certain ideas about children - all of which became instantly irrelevant the very second one of these things was handed to me in a hectic delivery room. BC (before children), I would see parents out with their kids pushing the babies in buggies facing forwards and away from them.

'Not me,' I'd think smugly. 'I will always have mine facing me, as I keep up an unending stream of engaging and edifying conversation with them' - despite that being exhausting and them being, ya know, just weeks old and barely sentient. Similarly, I'd see parents in restaurants with their adorable spawn plugged into iPhones. 'Terrible,' I'd grimace. 'I'll never do that.'

Soothers. Sweets. Coke. YouTube. Co-sleeping. All arbitrary notions I held about what was 'bad parenting' in the face of absolutely no idea what was coming down the line for me. Now I indulge in, nay cling to there for dear life. These are the crutches that see us through the relentless and occasionally rewarding maelstrom of parenthood. A big crutch for me and, I imagine, most other millennial parents is my phone. It's a parenting comfort blanket, especially during our current situation. BC, I'd look at parents glued to their phones while their kids played on the monkey bars and shake my head. "It's a disgrace," an older lady once commented from beside me on the park bench and I agreed sanctimoniously.

Now Present Me would like to give Past Me a little slap and a stern talking to. Judgment of parents and most particularly mothers is not, of course, unique to 27-year-old me. The internet is awash with it from think pieces about "over-sharenting" to open letters of the "To The Mum On Her Phone" variety. Every new generation of mothering looks so wildly different to the previous, that it's natural for each to think that their approach is superior. On closer analysis however, every generation of mothers have had their own crutches. In the 50s, housewives had amphetamine prescriptions; give us our damn smartphones, I say.

For my first baby, I was still operating on analogue mode. No smartphone, no social media, no apps telling me what fresh hell I could expect from the newborn arsenal of developmental leaps (hello Wonder Weeks!). I was 28 and had no friends with children. No one in my family had kids, parenting was something I could only observe at a distance in the parks and on TV.

The isolation of my first year as a mother was quite devastating. I operated just about. I engaged in a committed pretence at being OK when, in fact, I was trapped in an apparently unending season of fear, guilt, loneliness and self-doubt. I was convinced I was an aberration because I was struggling to adjust to my new life. Films, TV and magazines at this point just seemed to confirm this, with celeb new mums bouncing from baby to gym and back. Where were the women crying in the shower while the baby cried in its bouncer on the bathroom floor? Where were the women with nipples like skinned knees, crying through the terminal newborn nights? I could see none of my reality reflected there.

This analogue parenting is something that Kara and Lucy, friends and co-founders of Mum Talks - monthly events and workshops for women - experienced when they had children.

"When we both had our girls, social media was not really a thing! Facebook was there but not used like we consume it now."

Lucy, who recently had baby Charlie, has noticed the contrast. "There is a lot more mindless scrolling when she is exhausted!" laughs Kara. "But on the upside… there is an amazing supportive community online and you can usually get advice on anything at any time! Also when she is up in the middle of the night, it has made her feel less alone."

I white-knuckled that season. The postnatal depression, as I finally recognised it to be, receded and I surfaced. I started to make the mum friends I so desperately needed. And I got a smartphone! Or, as I see it now: a lifeline.

The irony is not lost on me that it was in the notoriously deceitful squares of Instagram that I began to find women sharing their experiences of motherhood unfiltered.

One of the first of these I spotted was broadcaster Louise McSharry, who shared a snap of her first son, Sam, with the caption: "I'm a zen Earth Mother now guys. (Not pictured: Vat of hormonal tears)."

It probably sounds incredibly naive but it was these women who helped me to recognise that what I had was postnatal depression and not some total lack of maternal instinct or sinister character defect.

Pre-Covid, mothers were coping with an epidemic of a different kind: failing on every front. The potency of mother-guilt is such that even at the moment, in a pandemic, we're worrying that we are not doing enough for our kids. Not enough fresh air, not enough home-school, not enough vegetables. Not enough.

As I got more into Instagram, I found that honesty like Louise's was thankfully not the rhetoric of a few outliers but actually part of a new swell of women's voices describing the chaotic, difficult and often joyful experience of motherhood.

It's something Erica, who is mum to three-year-old Callum, certainly noticed: "When I used to scroll through pictures of mums with perfect make-up, sitting in spotless houses and cradling their perfect baby, I always felt really down because I was far from perfect. But in recent years, women are sharing a more realistic side of motherhood.

" We're seeing that everyone has different struggles and it's OK to talk about how tired you are, or how difficult it can be to juggle work-life and motherhood. And I think people are really welcoming it."

Women also really welcomed her Instagram account, MumTribe. In just a couple of years, the community that began as an online space with real life meet-ups, now collaborates with business and services, has a podcast and over 20,000 followers and 21 groups around the country.

"I think mums were looking for a space where they could be themselves," Erica explains. "Where they wouldn't be judged and where it was OK to speak openly about their experience. I personally put a lot of work into it, though without the help of our fantastic ambassadors and volunteers, I wouldn't be here to talk about it today!"

There is a huge appetite for these online spaces, as so many mums find socialising post kids can fall by the wayside - though not a problem right now, of course. Sinead Cuddihy felt nervous launching her Instagram bookclub but, again, she found the uptake was incredible.

"I'd wanted to join a book club for some time," says Sinead, mum to Rian (2) and with a second baby on the way this summer. "I figured Instagram would be a good way to do it. I suggested it on my personal Instagram account and just one person said they'd join. So I set it up anyway, and less than a year later we have just over 2,300 members!

"The idea was to get people like myself back reading after having children, by sharing what we were reading and encouraging each other to read for 30 minutes a day with the hashtag #TiredMammy30minutes. We also have meet-ups to discuss that month's book, though this will be done online instead for the foreseeable."

Getting back to ourselves is something many women grapple with after having kids and whether it's having a medicinal moan, taking up Pilates or joining a bookclub, it's so important to still feel connected to our non-mother selves. Kara and Lucy wanted to serve this need with Mum Talks.

"We felt there was a lack of events and things to do as the women that we still were, there were so many amazing baby groups that we attended but nothing for us. We still wanted to feel we could add to conversations and continue to be inspired by other mums who were working or had set up their own business."

Now Mum Talks is exploring the online potential for their talks which sees speakers like Facebook's Head of Ireland for Small and Medium Business, Helen Smyth, sustainability advocate, Pat Kane, and broadcasters like Louise McSharry and Alison Curtis discuss career and life after kids.

The connections I've forged online have made me feel normal in the boundless anxiety, occasional boredom and exquisite joy of motherhood.

Some of these women don't know I exist but in sharing their reality have cheered me up or reassured me.

Some, I've confided in despite never meeting them and many are my friends offline now. I know they all give me a sense of friendship and support that I'll always be grateful for.

As Sinead says of reading, but she could in fact be describing any of the online connections forged by these brilliant communities: "It's a real comfort and a form of escapism and as a mum you need that sometimes."

Hell yes, you do.

Sophie White's latest novel, Unfiltered, is out now


Where to find like-minded mums

⬤ Meet-ups offline, online chats and a regular podcast available on iTunes and Spotify makes the @mumtribeireland a fun and relaxed community for new mums. Visit mumtribeireland.com and follow @mumtribeireland

⬤ Tired Mammy Bookclub Follow this buzzing online community to get back into reading and make friends. Follow @tiredmammybookclub and take part in their daily #tiredmammy30minutes

⬤ Mum Talks Follow @mum_talks to join upcoming panels online and stay abreast of future events. Visit mumtalks.ie

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