Published on December 8th, 2015 | by Cheryl Klein2
Boxes of Love: CHERYL KLEIN is KEEPING IT REAL in Online Mama Groups
It took me and my partner four and a half years to become moms. They were long years: I went through fertility treatment, miscarried and lost my mind for a while. We went to couples therapy. I got early-stage breast cancer. We were enthusiastic about adoption, but we waited two years (not counting the year off for cancer treatment) before a birthmom selected us.
During our long wait, my Facebook feed seemed like a continuous queue of ultrasound photos, “bump” photos, baby photos and first-birthday photos. Most of my friends didn’t have big baby showers or obsess over their fetus’s gender or fail to ask me how I was doing. My friends weren’t assholes. And yet even posts about poopy diapers or the creepiness of 3D ultrasounds read like humblebrags to me.
A bigger person might have steered clear of social media and gone for long nature walks instead. But this is a story about how the internet can save you as much as it can injure you. At this point, plenty of articles and probably a dissertation or two have been written about how social media ostensibly connects people but mostly leaves them feeling isolated and less-than. But then someone inevitably counters: What about queer teenagers with homophobic parents living in small towns in the Midwest? The internet can save them!
Both statements are true, because the internet is us, at our best and worst.
In the early days of our adoption wait, we followed our agency’s suggestion to “network.” I visited adoption-related websites, blogs and Facebook pages and left bland, affirmative comments that linked to our adoption profile. I hoped that some unintentionally pregnant woman would stumble across my words, click through to our profile and think, Wow, I could really trust these lesbians to raise my baby.
I’m pretty sure the ratio of hopeful adoptive parents to expectant mothers hanging around adoption websites is about the same as men to women on ashleymadison.com. But my networking did get me an invite to a closed Facebook group for people navigating the adoption world. It was, I quickly discovered, a place where people spoke both candidly and encouragingly.
Maybe I should pause here to explain that open adoption is almost exactly like online dating. But imagine that the dating pool was, by definition, in crisis—a group of people who at best had been unlucky with birth control and at worst were in the middle of raging shit storms. You get to “date” homeless women, bipolar women, women trying to leave abusive relationships, women who already have a couple of kids, women who are drowning in grief. And imagine that you’re not allowed to ask anyone out—they can only respond to your profile. And when they treat you like crap, you are not allowed (by decree of the adoption agency and society) to call them names or throw things at their car. You have dry your tears and try to understand that It’s Not You, It’s Them, except maybe is it you? Maybe your short hair in your new post-cancer profile picture is a turn-off. Maybe they wish you were a stay-at-home mom. Maybe you texted them too much. Maybe you didn’t text enough.
When I told my real-life friends about Harmony*, the expectant mother of twin girls who went MIA for long periods of time and never quite got the proper paperwork to our agency, they responded the way any good friends would if you were dating a kook. Wow, she’s crazy—I’m so sorry…. But why don’t you stay away from her?
My support group friends knew why not. In the adoption world, perfection existed only in retrospect. When you get your child, they promised me, you’ll be glad it didn’t happen any other way.
Ange had two biological sons and had fostered more than thirty children. She and her husband adopted Brooke, a little girl with severe disabilities, and learned how to manage feeding tubes and breathing tubes and other medical accessories that should have no place on a fifteen-month-old’s body. Brooke died shortly after her second birthday. Ange decorated her grave with pink and purple bricks.
Later, she fostered a little boy she called Buddy. She fell hard and hoped to adopt him, but the courts decided Buddy should live with his bio aunt.
That Christmas, Ange told our adoption group that she was despondent. I don’t know the details, but I can imagine. I did imagine, too many times, what it would be like to lose a child. Ange’s husband said enough, we can’t do this any more, it’s too hard on you and our sons and our relationship.
But despite her disappointment, Ange stayed in touch with Buddy’s bio family, and when Buddy’s mom, Savannah, got pregnant again, she told Ange she wanted her to adopt the baby. Her husband said okay, but only if we do this quick and clean. They lived in Alabama, which meant that Savannah could terminate her parental rights before the baby was born (most states require birthparents to wait at least a couple of days after the birth). Because several children had already been removed from Savannah’s care, the judge was likely to look upon the decision favorably.
And so Ange and Savannah set about planning for Ange to adopt Buddy’s younger sibling. Ange decorated the baby’s room with little foxes. The rest of us knew Ange might be getting ahead of herself, and we also knew, from experience, that there is really no such thing as not getting your hopes up. There is only getting your hopes up, watching them crash and shatter, stepping on the splinters, picking the splinters out of your bloody skin, healing and starting again.
The priest who started the nonprofit organization I work for says that we find heaven in kinship with each other, and kinship is what happens when the brokenness in you recognizes the brokenness in me. It’s Namaste for the traumatized.
This is what I love about my adoption support group: We are all broken. We all add up to a whole. We don’t know each other well, but we know enough.
When C.C. and I finally met Erica, our baby’s birthmom, she was kind and sane and unwavering, if also human and broken in her own ways. Her labor was quick and uncomplicated. The dark-eyed, long-fingered baby we named Dash was healthy, not much for crying, a good eater and a B+ sleeper. He was prone to erupting in a dimpled smile that grabbed my heart and shook sense into it: Your mission is to love me. Nothing more, nothing less. The world is that simple after all.
Nevertheless, I would periodically be seized by PTSD—or by the universal parental fear of loss, whichever you want to call it—and become convinced that Dash’s uninvolved birthfather was going to track him down and contest the adoption before it was finalized.
“You have nothing to worry about,” said my single sister. “I’ve been looking for a guy in his late twenties or early thirties who wants to be a dad, and they’re not that easy to find.”
My adoption support group knew all the intricacies of birthfather law. Did he provide any financial or emotional support while she was pregnant? If not, he has no leg to stand on, they said. There’s something priceless about being able to speak in shorthand; it’s the same reason people seek out queer writing conferences to avoid having to include a coming out story in everything they write.
My fellow adoptive parents know about never having a baby shower for a kid who might get revoked upon birth. They know that matches can happen on incredibly short notice. They know which hotels provide discount rates for new parents who have to fly in from out of town and stay until all the papers are signed.
Compared to some whirlwind stories, ours was easy. We had a couple of weeks to get a crib and a car seat before Erica went into labor, the night after our official “match meeting” with the adoption agency. She only lived a couple of hours from us, so we threw the unopened car seat in the back seat and drove north.
Our family and friends came through for us in generous and dramatic ways. But some of the gestures that meant the most to me were the boxes that arrived from Illinois and New Jersey—sweet little boy clothes from Jen, who’d adopted fraternal twin boys two years ago, and Lucy, whose son was now starting to walk. Secondhand baby clothes are cheap and easy to find at thrift stores and on eBay, and everyone we knew with a rapidly growing baby couldn’t wait to rid their garages of bulky Bumbo chairs. So it didn’t make much logical sense for Lucy and Jen to shower us with their kids’ clothes, but these not-easy-to-ship clothes were from moms who knew what it was like to welcome not-easy-to-come-by babies into the world.
In a way, the boxes also meant we were Taking Our Relationship To The Next Level. I’d never met Lucy or Jen or even talked to them on the phone. But here I was, folding the clothes their babies had worn. The little pants with a monster face on the butt, the puppy dog blanket, the multiple pairs of monkey pajamas. After years of feeling utterly alienated from motherhood, now I felt like part of a fantastic sisterhood.
My favorite item, from Lucy, was a simple white onesie with the word loved printed on the chest in silver letters. Yep, that pretty much summed it up.
When Ange was getting ready for her new baby’s birth a couple of months later, she posted Can you believe I don’t have a single boy thing left from when my guys were little?! Her sons were Pop Warner football players now.
I folded up the clothes Dash had already outgrown—some from Lucy and Jen, some from other sources—and put them in a box and thought about this national network of loved babies all wearing the same clothes.
But once I’d boxed them up, it took me a while to get to the post office. If I’d been a little lazy about errands before Dash was born, now getting an oil change felt like building a car from scratch.
And sometime during that wait, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into a South Carolina church and shot nine African Americans who had welcomed him into their bible study. A few days later, Governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital.
I—and most people outside the South, I imagine—was surprised it was still there. I’m as free-speech as the next librarian-raised sometime journalist, but wasn’t not getting your flag flown on government property part of the losing-the-war package?
I assumed that people who took pride in the Confederate flag were either rabid white supremacists or very, very old product-of-their time white supremacists.
But then Ange’s usual profile picture—a selfie snapped in her car, showing off her auburn hair and small nose ring—was suddenly replaced by the stars and bars.
I knew from her previous posts that Ange and I didn’t exactly vote the same, but I’m not one of those liberals who think that Republicans have cooties. It’s a complex world, and I think most of us have more in common than not. But the Confederate fucking flag? This was a whole new level. This was essentially announcing to the world that you were in favor of slavery. At the very least, you were putting your own regional pride over other people’s right not be enslaved.
Should I still send her the box of clothes?
It was such a small stage on which we were playing out such monumental issues. But isn’t that where most monumental issues get played out? In Facebook feeds, in parking lots, in workplace break rooms? My partner is Mexican American. So is my son. Would I be betraying them by donating baby clothes to a racist who wasn’t even trying not to be racist? Would I be betraying myself?
I remembered the pictures I’d seen of Ange’s late daughter Brooke. She was a toddler who didn’t toddle, with dark-lashed blue eyes and wavy blonde hair gathered in a Pebbles-style ponytail. (How conveniently Aryan, I thought now.) The photos were a collage of typical little kid things—stuffed animals, Minnie Mouse bedding—and medical paraphernalia that would have been depressing enough in a retirement home.
Going through the adoption process, C.C. and I were required to check boxes stating how open we were or weren’t to children with disabilities. We’d checked the box that said “minor, correctable disability such as a club foot or cleft palate.” I’d felt a little bit guilty. C.C. had felt like we were just being honest about our own limitations. But we both knew that parents who charged headfirst into such steep, life-altering challenges were a special breed.
I couldn’t and can’t reconcile such unconditional love with loyalty to the Confederate flag.
Eventually, I decided it wasn’t my job to reconcile. To withhold baby clothes in the name of philosophical differences—no matter how deep—was the opposite of unconditional love. I went to the post office in L.A.’s Chinatown and shipped the box to Alabama.
After Dash was born, I started looking around for other online moms’ groups to join. There was an L.A. group called Mommy2Mommy, where one woman posted a long rant about the customer service at her Mercedes-Benz dealership, and another attributed her healthy pregnancy at age forty to surfing and herbs. I got in a flame war with latter woman and left the group. Not my people.
I found my people, approximately 15,000 of them, in the Longest Shortest Time Mamas group, the Facebook counterpart to Hilary Frank’s podcast of the same name. The only rules of the LST Mamas group were: no asking people to diagnose medical conditions and no judgment. The latter rule, arguably a backlash to Pinterest and tiger mothering, is enjoying what I hope will be longer than fifteen minutes. Being a kind, loving hot mess is the new winning. Brene Brown’s Ted Talks get millions of hits on YouTube. Sara Given’s blog, It’s Like They Know Us, was itself born of an LST Mamas thread, and is now being published as an actual book featuring #RealStockPhotos of absurd depictions of perfect parenthood—white couches, well groomed children, parents with nary a bag under their eyes.
If this cultural moment had come along about four years ago, I might have saved myself some heartache. Or maybe it was already bubbling and I just wasn’t open to it. All I know is that the depictions of parenthood in my feed back then made me feel small and isolated. When I read half-joking posts about sleepless nights and bodily excretions, I grumbled that cancer could make you lose sleep too.
Most of the 15,000 LST mamas don’t know each other in real life, and so the group functions as a giant cyber confessional. So many posts begin “I can’t put this on my regular page, but I’m hoping you all will understand, wise mamas….”
What follows: posts about difficult marriages, lost pregnancies, postpartum depression, meddling grandparents and in-laws. Some of the confessions are filed here because they are too big and scary and personal for “real” life. Others are too small, and women don’t want to be thought of as bitching about their “first-world problems.” They’re worried about their children’s birthday parties. They feel guilty for looking forward to naptimes. They are proud of reorganizing a closet while parenting a toddler, and they need somewhere to share this small but hard-won victory.
There are dozens of LST subgroups built around particular identities and interests. I’m a member of the queer parent subgroup, the adoptive/foster parent subgroup, the subgroup for moms with genetic mutations that predispose them to cancer, the “healthy mamas” fitness subgroup and “LST Dead Parents Club,” for those of us trying to navigate parenthood while missing a parent. With the exception of the healthy mamas group, I realize this is a list of the ways in which I’m a minority, a list of the adversities I’ve encountered. That’s fine. That’s where I need solidarity.
Savannah gave birth in June. Ange’s older sons named the baby Jordan, and she took him home from the hospital wrapped in a frog blanket I’d sent.
And then Savannah abruptly changed her mind: She wanted to raise Jordan. After being by Savannah’s side almost every day during her pregnancy, Ange was blindsided and terrified.
The local judge decreed that Ange and her family should retain temporary custody of Jordan while he looked into the case. Savannah got a lawyer. Paternity tests were ordered.
I CANNOT take this stress, Ange posted. She couldn’t stand to lose another baby. Her husband couldn’t take her crying. And, she said, after talking to Savannah every day for months, she missed her.
We said: Keep swimming. We said: We love you. We are praying.
The next day, Ange posted a picture of herself and Jordan, his puffy-eyed pink head nestled in her neck. She looked tired but serene. Just gonna take this day by day and enjoy my baby, she wrote. I am COMPLETELY at PEACE.
I didn’t know if she was doing as well as she claimed. I didn’t feel entirely surprised by Savannah’s about-face. I didn’t know what I thought about Alabama’s pre-adoption termination laws—maybe mothers should have a chance to change their minds. But I didn’t need to have answers and opinions. I just needed to be there. Or, virtually there.
*Names and some identifying details have been changed, and quotes are paraphrased to the best of my recollection.
UPDATE (February 19, 2016):
Two and a half months is a long time in internet years. Since my essay ran, LST’s membership hit the 18,000 mark, and the group crashed and burned. (You can read more about that here.)
Shortly before its dissolution, I joined a subgroup devoted to social justice, which then became unaffiliated with LST. I’m still a little unclear on exactly what went down between the time the subgroup was formed and its official divorce from the main group. There was proud chatter about being exiles: Who wanted to be a member of a group that stifled important conversations about race in the name of getting along? It was like our favorite band had blown up and our favorite song was being played at frat parties.
Then there was that time someone took a screenshot of one social justice mom’s post about circumcision and shared it with a “Men’s Rights” group, where our group was declared a Bitch Coven. There was some talk of renaming the social justice group Bitch Coven, which would have been the best ever.
I miss the camaraderie of the big LST group. I like the social justice group folks most of the time, except when one of them got on my case for suggesting that adoption could be a good alternative for abortion and was like “No one owes you a baby.” At least that’s what I heard, because I have all kinds of baggage from the time when I was frustrated and baby-less and felt like someone owed me a baby, but also like I didn’t deserve one.
I still like my adoption group folks most of the time, except when one mom complained that only four of her five kids have accepted Jesus as their personal savior.
The key sentence in Laura June’s article about LST is this: “our career choices, our ethnic backgrounds, where we grew up, our political mind-sets—they all inform the people we’re likely to get along with, just as they did before we had a child.”
That says most of it, but I’ll just add this: Back in 1991, when the Internet was just a glimmer in the military’s eye, anarchist Hakim Bey wrote about Temporary Autonomous Zones. He believed that “the best way to create a non-hierarchical system of social relationships is to concentrate on the present and on releasing one’s own mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it.” I’m quoting Wikipedia here, because it’s been a long time since grad school. Bey probably wasn’t thinking of new moms finding brief but lifesaving solace among other women with clogged milk ducts. But those moms had their space and their moment, and they will have others. Nothing gold can stay. That’s Robert Frost by way of Ponyboy Curtis.