Our normally quiet basement is a hub of activity since my husband decided to makeover the spare room for when our oldest daughter returns from college for visits. I’m going along with it, even though I’m more focused on getting her out the door.
This is the dance we’ve been practicing for years, understanding we don’t work through stress or parent the same way. But, very soon we will move our daughter on to a campus and then drive away with an empty car. Being first-timers is daunting enough, but the unknowns of the pandemic have added fears we never imagined.
I find comfort and companionship with my internet friends
So, while he’s busy scrolling through his phone, looking for stand-up closets to hold the clothes, I’m scrolling through mine commiserating with friends facing the same milestone. I’ve learned the value of other mothers when it comes to the harder parts of parenthood, and this is not the first time I’ve counted on the marvels of technology to keep me going.
Last month, I sat alone in my home office and watched my friend’s son walk across a sweeping high school football field in a cap and gown to receive his high school diploma. He kept a careful distance from the student in front of him and wore a face mask in coordinating colors.
When the camera wobbled briefly, I leaned closer and pressed my finger into the screen so I could follow him while he continued to march. He strode with the same gangly, hesitant gait I see in my own teenage son, and the moment he lifted a hand to wave at his family in the bleachers my tears made the screen wobble again.
Though I’ve never met my friend or her son in person, I know what a triumph the moment was for their family. I typed, loved the wave below the video. Our oldest children were born in the same month and are part of a larger group of 2002 babies whose mothers found each other before they were conceived. I’m the lone Canadian in a group spread out over many countries.
We had connected online years earlier over fertility struggles
We connected online years before social media made snapshots of our lives widely shareable. I tentatively introduced myself on the no-frills message board (the first I’d ever been on) after searching for other women who were trying to conceive. There, I found a space where sharing details like signs of ovulation and the dates we had done the deed felt oddly normal and very comforting.
It was easy to talk about these intimate details with strangers, and I was fiercely protective of the time I spent tapping out my worries on a keyboard. In the beginning, I felt guilty for excluding my husband, and I’d hurry to close the browser window whenever I heard him approaching. On those message boards, with those strangers, I was seen and heard in ways I wasn’t with him.
A year earlier we had lost our first pregnancy, and subsequently navigated an emergency surgery. He was a full-time hospital resident then and on-call most weekends which meant he had little of his own time to offer me, while I recovered. The pager he wore on his hip would belt out its jarring song at all hours, forcing him to rush towards someone else’s emergency, leaving me alone to deal with ours.
For many months after, I went through the motions of pretending I was fine, while also feeling terribly alone. Desperate to find someone who understood, I turned to the anonymity of the internet. I asked questions and read through posts from other women who had gone through similar losses.
Even as we endured months of negative tests and fertility treatments, I felt less isolated than I had before finding that message board. They answered every question I posted under my username, many having older children already, and carried me through the anxieties of losing another pregnancy. Being able to release my fears into a space that felt both near and far was the closest I came to getting therapy.
When I finally became pregnant again, I moved into sub-group of others expecting at the same time. We swapped stories about symptoms and what to expect when the babies arrived, and when they did our daily chatter shifted to the frustrations and joys of having infants.
I would escape to it when I finally got my baby to nap, or when she could sit long enough in her bouncy chair to allow for our slow-speed dial up to beep and sputter its way to a connection. The other mothers were my lifeline to the outside world during those early, lonely months of motherhood.
I could find them at all hours and share vulnerabilities that were harder in real life moms’ groups. No matter how hard things got the space we shared online remained centered around our kids and gave us exactly what we all needed from it.
Eventually the message board disbanded
Eventually, as more children were added to our families, and social media became widely prevalent, our message board disbanded. We lost touch with some of the members, but many of us found each other in new spaces and held on. It doesn’t feel as intimate now and our differing politics and beliefs have reminded me how diverse we are. But still, we’ve seen each other through big milestones and marked the ordinary ones with thumbs up and hearts.
Covid-19 came just as our children were about to experience their graduations, proms and eighteenth birthdays, and the celebrations and photos we imagined sharing with each other changed. Instead, we are sharing news articles, statistics, and contingency plans for starting college. We’ve been comparing the varying approaches of our countries and communities and talking through what it means for our families.
Because of the difference in school calendars, my friends in the U.S. are sending their kids to college ahead of mine. I’m watching closely as they pack up and move their 2002 babies onto campuses with antibacterial wipes, first aid kits, and face masks tucked into the boxes and bags.
Just like all those years ago the advice of my virtual friends is lifting me up
And just like they did all those years ago, their advice is helping to carry me through my anxieties. We talk about our worries for our children, as we swap dormitory packing lists and joke about how they will manage without us. Our back-and-forth comments bolster our bravery as we brace ourselves to let them go.
My husband and I have become great partners in parenting and my in-person support network has grown beautifully as I added three more children. But there’s something uncomplicated about my long relationship with my message board friends; it’s one that has been there to mark the everyday moments motherhood.
And now, as we face such a complex time, that feels so far from the moment we imagined it would be, that simplicity is a great comfort for me. This group of strangers, who have become faraway friends, have been with me from the time our children were only a dream. Eighteen years ago, we typed words of support and sent them down a tangle wires across the miles.
Now we tap out “Can we do this?” as the photos of packed cars and kids in college sweatshirts begin to dot our timelines. And the answer I’m counting on is together we can.
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Louise Gleeson is a Toronto-based freelance writer, specializing in family life and parenting. Her work can also be found in Washington Post, HuffPost, and Globe and Mail. She lives with her husband and four children and can’t help but mother everyone she meets. You can find her on Instagram or Twitter.