By Jody Allard
I came of age alongside the Internet. I used my first computer in eighth grade, a clunky Mac tower that mostly just gathered dust in the back of the classroom. My college years were punctuated by computer crashes and floppy disk failures that consumed entire papers and projects in an instant, and printing was always a perilous proposition. Rarely, if ever, did the cursed thing just print as it should. Even when it did, the dotted edges of the paper had to be torn off, and they almost never left smooth, presentable margins in their wake.
I had my first child before I reached adulthood. The Internet, too, was still in its adolescence. I read “What to Expect While You’re Expecting” as I watched my belly swell and press against my ugly hand-me-down maternity blouses. I stared at nipple positioning charts and tried to figure out how to breastfeed, or whether I even wanted to breastfeed, with only the guidance of those dog-eared pages and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. I stumbled along, always trying my mother’s approaches first, but eventually I found my own way. Despite all of my missteps and mistakes—and that one time I forgot to buckle my baby into his highchair and was convinced his tumble had killed him—my son and I survived his first two years of life largely unscathed.
By the time my next two children were born, red-faced alien twins who surprised everyone by arriving as a pair, the Internet had also fully arrived. This time around, as I juggled a toddler and newborn twins who weren’t fond of eating, much less sleeping, I turned to the Internet for advice. I searched for a bulletin board for mothers and, just like that, I embraced my very first “moms group.” Pretty soon, we all began to gather during our babies’ naptimes to talk twins, marriage, food, and everything in between. When something good happened, I couldn’t wait to share it with my mom friends. When my son finger-painted the walls with his poop during a nap, two days in a row, I knew exactly where to turn for commiseration.
I don’t know when I began to doubt myself and my parenting but it happened somewhere along the Information Highway. Every day there was a new article to read about the best way to raise children and the risks to my kids if I messed it all up. All of the moms in my moms group had different opinions and approaches, and what had begun as a lifeline of support eventually led me to constantly question my own methods. “Know better, do better” became my mantra and I forgave myself my early awkward attempts at mothering while earnestly committing to be better.
I had wonderful intentions. Who doesn’t want to learn from their mistakes? Still, I was determined to give my children the very best version of myself, even if that perfect me was just a fantasy—and even if being that perfect me made me miserable. In a world of eternal options, it never dawned on me that my children just needed me: scars, flaws, mistakes, and all.
The Internet makes crowdsourcing seem sensible. I wouldn’t buy a printer without reading the reviews on Amazon so why shouldn’t I crowdsource my parenting? In an age of endless access to information, it feels almost foolhardy not to use it. The problem is that none of this information or advice made me a better mother. All it did was remind me of what I didn’t know while making me forget how I really learned to mother. No matter how many articles I’ve read and online posts I’ve made, I became a mother in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, sobbing as my baby screamed into my engorged breast. I learned to mother each of my seven children uniquely and individually, as they, and I, grew up.
I stopped spanking my children when I spanked my oldest son in anger and realized how easy it would be to cross that line. I pumped breastmilk for my children when I couldn’t get them to latch because my heart broke at my inability to nourish them. I’ve made thousands of parenting choices, and probably a hundred mistakes, but the best decisions I’ve made have always come from deep inside me. The mistakes I’ve made, like pumping for months past when it made sense to stop, came from my insecurities and fears; often, they stemmed from the advice of strangers I learned to trust more than myself.
The Internet tells me what science says about mothering, but it rarely changes how it feels to mother. When I spend long afternoons sitting on my friend’s couch as our kids wreak havoc, we rarely talk about the hot topics online. We don’t argue over breastfeeding or formula feeding, cloth diapers or disposable, and neither of us care that she unschools and I gladly send my kids to school. Our friendship is about each other, as mothers but also as women, and it’s watching her mother that makes me a better mother, not arguments about our differences.
Five years ago, when my youngest children were still infants, I went to therapy for the first time. It took me 13 years of motherhood to recognize my own needs and to consider myself as valuable and important, too. Therapy has given me the gift of myself but it’s also made me recognize how deep my need for external validation runs. Last week, as I told my therapist yet again about my fears for my kids, she said: “Jody, you always look outside yourself to find proof that you’re right and okay. You need to learn to reassure yourself that you’re right and okay.”
The Internet is by no means entirely to blame for my need for validation. My habits are rooted in my childhood to at least some extent. Yet, as I left my therapist’s office and texted my best friend to get her opinion of my therapist’s advice, I realized just how much of a role the Internet has played in my distrust of myself. I have amassed a decade of experience asking everyone but myself how I should mother.
I’m not the only mother struggling to find balance in the Internet age. Megan O’Hara, a licensed clinical social worker, explored the downsides of social media use for new mothers in an article for Christiana Care Hospital last year. In it, O’Hara cites a study that found 86 percent of mothers use social media and 70 percent of them believe technology makes them better mothers. Her own observations tell a different story. “Becoming a mother is a journey that comes with much uncertainty. It is quite natural to look to our peers for guidance and a frame of reference that tells us whether we are doing a good job,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in this age of social media, what we see is not reality. What we are seeing is just a snapshot of a very complex reality full of failures and successes.”
After a few years of searching to find my parenting foundation, I left my mom groups. I stopped asking for advice on social media, and I created new accounts with only trusted friends and family members. Yet, even now, when I compose just the right snapshot on Instagram or tweet about my kids, I always keep one eye open for likes, comments, and reactions. I may have learned to stop asking for parenting advice, but I still haven’t learned how to reassure myself that I’m doing a good enough job. I don’t know how I’ll finally learn to stop crowdsourcing my sense of parenting self-esteem but I know I won’t find those answers online.
Jody Allard is a freelance writer and mother living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, life with a chronic illness, and current events viewed through a feminist lens. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Vice, and The Establishment, among others. She can be reached through her Facebook page.