When Alex Michener, a children’s book editor in Jamaica Plain, woke up violently ill just two weeks after giving birth to her third child in June, one of the first things she did was post to her Facebook group.
“I wrote that it looked like I had appendicitis and was going to have to spend a few days in the hospital away from my newborn,” Michener recalls. “She was exclusively breastfed and I hadn’t begun pumping, so I had no breast milk stored. I was in a panic at being separated from her, and scared about going to the emergency room in the middle of a global health crisis. I think I mostly just wanted someone to tell me it was going to be OK.”
Within minutes, the messages poured in: parents offering to share their freezer stashes of breast milk and drop off food for her family. One mother with whom she’d shared a due date delivered bottles and breast milk within an hour of Michener’s admission to the hospital. Groceries for her husband and 1- and 4-year-old followed.
The strangers who showed up for Michener’s family were members of a neighborhood Facebook parenting group, most of whom she had never met. Michener had been on a social media cleanse prior to the pandemic. The isolation of lockdown lured her back online. “Without those groups, I felt especially lonely,” she recalls. Looking back, she says she can’t imagine how she would have made it through her surgery and recovery without the virtual community she found on Facebook.
When playgrounds emptied last March, I found myself returning, as Michener had, to the social media platform. I’d drifted away from it, no longer wanting to implicitly support a company whose practices made me increasingly uncomfortable. I had my principles, but I also had an inconsolable newborn. The siren song of thousands of parents willing to offer solidarity and advice with a single click was too alluring to resist. Through hyper-local groups on Facebook, I found a mother who left carefully folded hand-me-downs for me to pick up from her stoop. Through international ones, I found a mother on the other side of the globe who shared nursing wisdom.
According to a 2018 survey (by, you guessed it, Facebook), three out of four expecting and new parents in the United States belong to a parenting group. Not all of them are on Facebook, of course. There are excellent neighborhood-based parenting forums and citywide listservs that connect parents. But I would argue that Facebook extends reach, provides immediacy, and simulates the feel of community better than they do.
The enormous virtual ranks in such Facebook parenting groups as Family Lockdown Tips & Ideas (1.1 million members) and Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic (69,300 members) speak to its primacy as the easiest, fastest way to build community. This is an uncomfortable truth: What’s great for a fretful new parent is more sinister when the easily assembled group in question is planning an uprising at the nation’s Capitol. Between Facebook’s engagement algorithms that fuel extremist messaging and misinformation and the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into its use of user data and predatory business practices, it’s a queasy thing to rely so much on the social network.
Yet when my 3-week-old is diagnosed with a milk protein allergy, it is the mothers of the Dairy-Free Diet Breastfeeding Support group (66,600 members) who are there when I need to know which dairy-free boxed macaroni and cheese is superior. (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is none of them.)
When, at two months, my daughter refuses to take a bottle, my Jamaica Plain Facebook parenting group (260 members) offers not just advice but free bottles, cleaned and sanitized, in different shapes and sizes to try.
When my daughter is ready for solid foods, it’s Baby-Led Weaning for Beginners and Beyond (349,900 members) that helps me decide on her first meal, advises me on high chairs, and tells me how to properly serve apple (roasted to a silky mush for babies under 9 months, raw and grated once they develop their pincer grip).
And while strangers on the Internet are no substitute for credentialed medical advice, they are the ones who are there in the bleary, milk-soaked midnight hours when I need to know if the totally normal thing my baby is doing is, in fact, totally normal.
In a time of profound isolation, with schools closed, child care in short supply, and so many struggling with the financial setbacks of job losses or the high-wire act of trying to stay employed while taking care of children, it’s little wonder that virtual communities have taken on the weight and substance of the real ones we all miss.
The gossamer threads that connect us to strangers become lifelines. I had hoped to get to know other new parents in the park, at mom-and-baby yoga classes — the typical parental meet-cutes. But in my Facebook group, someone runs out of diapers and is too ill to go to the store, and another mom offers to drop some off. When a mother of a 6- and a 3-year-old leaves a domestic violence shelter with only a suitcase, the group rallies: Soon there are mattresses, a crib, diapers, food, toys.
And so I grapple with certain truths: Parenting is hard, and COVID-19 has made it harder. Someday, we’ll go outside again, and my daughter and I will make new friends in person, just like humans do. Until then, I’ll continue reluctantly logging on to Facebook, checking who could use the fourth-hand exersaucer my daughter has outgrown, sharing the hard-won wisdom about which sippy cup is actually spill-proof, and feeling, for a moment, the singular relief of seeing my own struggle mirrored back at me.
Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor in Jamaica Plain. Follow her on Twitter @MegJNesmith.