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How online parenting communities can hurt — or help — postpartum mood disorders

Social media can be a wonderful tool for connection and support, but it can also be a place for judgment and unfair comparison. Adjusting to life with a newborn is stressful enough, but if a mom is also dealing with a postpartum mood disorder, she may need to proceed with caution when it comes to social media.

This was certainly true for me. Before I recognized that my trouble sleeping and overwhelming anxiety were symptoms of postpartum depression, I looked for answers and support on social media.

Feeling most alone in the middle of the night, I turned to Facebook mom groups for comfort. It didn’t take long, however, for me to experience the downside. My inquiries were met with kindness and support, but the incredible amount of information on even the simplest of topics was overwhelming. From long threads about tummy time and disposable vs. cloth diapering to more controversial topics like sleep-training and vaccinations, the overload of information and opinions caused me to doubt myself. I felt an incredible amount of shame for my sadness, anger and fear while other new moms posted gushing updates of their newborns.

“Social media creates a situation where someone is comparing themselves and their child’s development to everyone else,” said Nikki Martinez, a psychologist and counselor in Chicago. “People only portray the best and brightest moments, or even exaggerate. They project an unrealistic image that a person with PPD, or anyone, could not possibly live up to.”

For Devyn Hummer, scrolling through Facebook after her children were born always seemed to upset her. All three of her children were born by Caesarean, which was a stark contrast from the natural births she had envisioned. Hummer works with doulas and midwives as a trainer for birth workers, so her social network consisted of women with birth and postpartum stories very different from hers.

“Many of my friends were having their babies at the same time — all natural births, all with gorgeous birth photography,” Hummer said. “I felt like I was missing out on the most beautiful experience a mother can have.”

Traumatic births, breastfeeding struggles, babies with high medical needs or long bouts of crying as well as a disconnect between expectations and reality can all be risk factors for developing postpartum depression, said Andrea Paterson, a mom in Vancouver and blog editor for the Pacific Postpartum Support Society.

After not being able to breastfeed her son, Paterson struggled with PPD for more than a year.

“I was following so many natural parenting sites on social media and being fed a ton of information about how important and magical breastfeeding was and how awful formula is,” she said. “So I was exposing myself to this idea that I was damaging my son beyond repair if I gave him formula, so of course I was horrified when that was what I had to do. That played a big part in my depression. I felt like I was failing right out of the gate.”

Both Hummer and Paterson adapted by slowly unfollowing pages and people that made them feel shame and guilt for the way they were parenting. When it comes to online mom groups, pages and blogs, seeking out similar experiences can go a long way in helping to create a positive experience with social media.

“If you have friends or pages you follow who are posting things that are a trigger for you, unfollow them, at least until you are feeling better,” Hummer said. “Search PPD in the Facebook bar and join all the groups that interest you, especially if you had a high-risk pregnancy or birth. It really helps to hear from those who get it.”

Finding the right support system online can be just as important as finding it offline.

“Treat social media like you would any other community in your life and make it a safe space for you by curating pages and groups that make you feel positively about yourself,” Paterson said. “It’s so important to find that village of women and to support each other.”

It’s important to note that social media doesn’t always have a negative impact on moms struggling with postpartum mood disorders. For Anne Hithersay, a mother of three, the right support system and information made her experience with social media a positive one.

“It was through social media that I learned about Postpartum Progress and the existence of PPA [postpartum anxiety],” she said. “I’ve found immense support from Facebook groups. For me, social media had a positive effect on my postpartum depression and anxiety.”

Martinez agrees that social media has the capacity to shed light on the parts of motherhood that aren’t so glamorous. The openness and honesty of moms online helps to reduce the stigma around postpartum mood disorders and create community from shared experiences.

“If more people were more honest, it could help humanize a difficult time and let others know that everyone struggles during this time, and everyone has tough moments,” Martinez said. “PPD is one of those things not enough people talk about, but so many would benefit from if people did. The simple knowledge that you are not alone and that your situation is not uncommon can be tremendously healing in and of itself.” 

I still find myself scrolling through my Facebook feed several times a day, although not so much in the middle of the night anymore. I’m still an active member of the Facebook mom groups I joined during my pregnancy, but I’ve learned to take the wide variety of opinions with a grain of salt. Social media is a powerful tool I am grateful for, but after my experience with PPD, I am now better able to identify when it is hurting more than helping.

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