It's an easy, quick way to make friends but beware the pitfalls of social media to avoid making a prat of yourself online, writes Rachel Goodchild.
There is nothing new about parents (mainly mothers) finding others to talk with about their pregnancy and children. Antenatal groups, Plunket groups, music and movement sessions have all been places where parents could gather and network, supporting each other and sharing the common complaints of little sleep, teething and tantrums.
But while we used to have to bundle up the babies and take them out, rain or shine, to benefit from the connection with a group of other people going through the same things as us, the internet has given us a constant community ready whenever we need it, no matter what time of the day or night.
The rise in popularity of social media sites, including forums such as www.ohbaby.co.nz, Trade Me message boards, Facebook, Twitter and mummy blogs, has meant our children often start their life in a very public way, with photos and anecdotes about their lives beginning from the very first ultra-sound.
Parents who use social media sites remark at how helpful they found them.
"I found it really helped keep the blues away," says Ali. "I felt less alone, even if I didn't see another adult all day."
Lou Draper, who gave birth to Niamh last year, found Twitter helped her connect with like-minded parents and find a balance between motherhood and her "old life".
"It was important to build a network of like-minded people. Lots of people are keen to give advice and can get cross if you don't want to take it. Part of using Twitter and Facebook is about learning who to listen to."
Breaking the news
Lou's partner live-tweeted the birth and their daughter Niamh was talked about so often in the first few days after her birth her Irish heritage name became a trending topic on Twitter (which indicates a large amount of people were talking about her). This caused some media attention, which in turn caused a slight backlash from her own family.
"It was crazy. I was still high on drugs (from labour) and had journos ringing. My sister got mad that photos of her niece were in the media before she'd seen them."
Not just for stay-home mums
For working parents, using social networking sites can help them connect with other parents without having to take time off work to attend parenting groups.
"It definitely helped me with the mother guilts a lot," explains Rebecca, who went back to work when her second child was three months old. "I missed the connection with other parents. It definitely stopped me feeling the need to talk breastfeeding, sleep and nappies with people at work. It helped me separate my work and home life."
The photos and updates made during maternity leave can also be something you can use once you return to work. "It's nice to look back through the photos I've chosen, because they are usually my favourite ones, and I can see how fast he's grown," says Julia de Bres, mother of Casper.
For mothers opting to stay home, Facebook and other social media platforms can help remind them they are more than parents.
"I try to talk about things besides Niamh. I try to share non-child things too, especially if they benefit others. And watching other women talk about work reminds me of what I used to do," explains Lou.
Support at any time
The ability to share information can be a lot faster using forums and social media sites.
"If my baby is awake at 3am, and I'm up, connecting with others who are in the same boat helps me remember it is just a normal part of parenting. Though sometimes I think I end up staying up longer once I start chatting," admits Ali.
Ali uses a cartoon for her image on Twitter, and does not share where she lives or any photos of her family.
"I'm incredibly cautious about what I share. I like feeling I am not alone, but I also enjoy the anonymity of an online world. I want to be honest about my parenting experience, without feeling people I have never met before may recognise me in public."
Some parents have different rules for social sharing depending on the platform. Using privacy settings on Facebook, they share photos and family information only with family and close friends, saving the general complaints and comments for Twitter and forums.
"If I do post a photo of my child, it's from the back, or a half profile shot. I'm very cautious about what images are shared with people who we have never met before," says Ali.
Your kids online
When Chelsea Tilby was four she told her mother Cassie, in no uncertain terms: "If this photo is for Facebook I'm not going to smile."
Cassie uses Facebook and her blog to share photos with family in the United States, but has since become more conscious of what she posts, now Chelsea has become more self-conscious.
For me, my youngest daughter became furious when she discovered I'd tweeted out a particularly funny exchange between the two of us about whether unicorns should be at the zoo. She discovered I had done so when one of the tweets (about her wanting to write a letter of protest to the council over the lack of unicorns) was then printed in the Sunday papers, using her name. What we thought was hilarious, made her feel mortified. Since then I have become far more conscious of how I talk about my children online. I tend to check with them if I can tweet or use Facebook. They often check how a photo will be used before I take it, especially if they are going to look silly in it. They have become aware of image far earlier than I ever remember being as a child.
Deb Robertson, a long-term blogger from Christchurch, has found her children (aged four to 18 years) don't seem to mind her using their photos and talking about them. "I've discovered teenagers in general post the most incredible stuff about themselves online and don't care, so the odd picture and comment by me is not an issue."
Deb is careful about what she says about her children: "Three of my children have medical labels. Parenting special needs kids can be a real drag, but I'm aware they may read what I say one day, so I'm careful not to moan and to celebrate the good stuff."
Who's reading this?
When you're used to sharing everything from the first flutter to your children's favourite solids, it feels normal to discuss other parts of your life, including your key relationships with others. Real friendships can be formed online and the online space can be a hugely positive support network for parents at home. However, much of what we write on the internet can be read by people outside our intended audience.
When Anna had marriage problems she turned to the online community she'd shared all her baby news with, for support and advice. Little did she know that her husband was reading all her posts (after creating his own account) and used some of this information in the messiness of a disintegrating marriage.
"While it was a huge place of support for me, I forgot it was also a public place and anything I wrote was there for anyone to read. Online can feel very intimate and safe, but it isn't the same as sitting down and having a cup of coffee with a few friends - it was all there in black and white."
A few vents of frustration are normal, but Anna advises you to keep as much of your private life as possible off the internet.
"Especially if you end up going through a separation. The last thing I wanted was to find that writing about having a bit too much to drink with the girls one night could become a reason why I might be an unfit mother to my son. Even though it didn't change things in the end, it did greatly add to the stress."
Consider the non-parent
Parenting forums and message boards target people at the same stage of life as you. General sites such as Facebook and Twitter tend to have a broad range of people to interact with. Can you remember how it felt looking at parenting from outside the experience? Did you get frustrated at how obsessive some parents became, especially ones who seemed "perfectly normal" before they had children?
Many non-parents find constant online messages about children exhausting. They may not find your cute stories interesting and they might think your "letting off steam" is a sign of not coping and cause for alarm. Many non-parents approached during research for this article objected to the way children were referred to. A growing practice in blogs and on social networks is to refer to them via their ages (Miss Five, Mr Nine). Many parents see this as protective and appropriate, but a large number of non-parents view it as condescending and disrespectful to the child.
Non-parents often feel they should be allowed to offer advice and feedback, but sometimes feel that advice isn't welcome.
Lou has noticed people will sometimes unfollow or unfriend her after she's had a few days of talking mainly about Niamh: "I get it, and don't take it personally."
Reach across the world
Facebook was already important to Julia de Bres before having her son Casper. Based in Luxembourg, with parents and extended family in New Zealand and a sister in the US, she had already used Facebook to connect with family. "My well-established social connection is far away from my life. And I hate the telephone so this is an easy way to take people along with me, without emailing everyone individually."
Facebook has now helped her feel closer to her sources of support, some of which have developed since the birth of Casper.
"I have Facebook friends who I now feel a lot closer to because of the interest they have shown in my baby. That can mean a lot to someone who is far from home."
Julia has found Facebook isn't just about emotional support but is also helpful on a practical level. "I have got great stuff through Facebook such as a babysitter, a travel cot and pram. But it's the messages of support and empathy that wins it out for me. "
Checklist for using social media
- Accept that people read what they want to read. If you talk only about your children, you'll end up relating only to people who are interested in this. Sometimes it's good to talk about other things too - we are more than a mother or father.
- Be careful about how much you share. A good rule of thumb is, if it's something you wouldn't want to tell more than three or four people at a time in person, it shouldn't be a status update or comment.
- Consider how we are role-modelling "safe" behaviour in terms of privacy to our children.
- Avoid shots of children in the bath or nude.
- Upload photos of your own children, but not of others (unless you have their parents' permission). And don't tag other people's kids.
- Use strict privacy settings on Facebook but remember any photo posted online can be downloaded onto someone else's computer.
- Listen to and respect your children's wishes regarding making public their photos and comments.
- Remember people who comment or respond are nearly always well-meaning, even if you don't agree with their parenting philosophies.
Rachel Goodchild is a mother of three and an emerging step-mother of three more. When she is not parenting or updating her status on Facebook, or tweeting up a storm, she works with teachers and parents of children aged zero to five years on managing challenging behaviour.
Here at OHbaby! we're social media junkies, and we invite you to join the club. If you're expecting a baby soon, you can join an online coffee group with others due at the same time as you by signing up to a due-in thread on our forums. You can also follow us on Twitter @OHbabyNZ or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ohbabynz. And we confess, sometimes we're just a little too distracted by the gorgeousness that is the virtual inspiration board Pinterest.
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