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Parenting in the digital age Parenting

Parenting in the digital age

Love it or hate it, technology affects nearly everything we do—including how we go about being mamas.

Not so long ago, life was lived without many of the conveniences we rely on today. Our moms didn’t have smartphones or WebMD; they had to make lists on real pieces of paper, ask neighbors to help identify a rash, and buy whatever diapers and gear were available to them locally (the horror!).

“When I think about my own parents not having access to half of what I utilize on a daily basis, it blows my mind,” confesses Jessica Rich, a mom of two in Amarillo, Texas.

Today’s moms typically have a gadget within arm’s reach at all times, and we count on them for everything from waking up on time to polling friends on Facebook for pediatrician recommendations to texting our partners reminders about daycare pickup. The process for just about everything seems different—and more convenient—than it was for baby’s grandparents.

But does an ovulation-tracking app and diaper subscription service actually mean we have it easier? There may not be phone books to flip through or film to develop, but there are definitely some hardships to our tech-filled lives. The expectation of always being available, online attacks following an innocent status update, getting so caught up in documenting “the moment” with our smartphones that we miss it … it can wear a mother out. Plus, we’re constantly reminded how perfect everyone else’s life is, which can be a real bummer when you’re in your pajamas and surrounded by dirty dishes midafternoon.

Technology is a tool with incredible power—but it can quickly become overpowering if we let it. So how do we strike the right balance?

Friendly fire
The camaraderie that can be found online is a huge plus to digital living. It isn’t always easy for new moms to get out of the house, but technology gives them a way to connect with fellow knee-deep-in-diapers mamas who know firsthand just how overwhelming life with a newborn can be.

Online communities can be welcome outlets for moms to support one another when going through rough parenting spells, suggests Sherrie Campbell, PhD, Los Angeles-area therapist and mom of one. Amanda McKinley, a mom of one in Fort Collins, Colorado, agrees: “I’ve turned to my fair share of online communities to get some feel-good advice about sleep regression, teething and weaning.”

When you target your questions and research to like-minded outlets, you’ll no doubt find reassurance and a wealth of tips. Beyond the helpful info, it can put a mama’s mind at ease to know she’s not the only one with a child who still isn’t rolling over. Regardless of your lifestyle (on a budget, working from home, exclusively breastfeeding, you name it), there’s a virtual space out there for everyone who is willing to do a little digging—and it’s worth doing so. It feels a bit like winning the lottery when you find your “people.”

On the other hand, you can also come across a lot of naysayers and unfriendly posters online. An open question or comment on an unmoderated forum can lead to some unwanted opinions—and sometimes folks don’t share their alternate viewpoints softly. In fact, the drama seen in online parenting debates can be fierce, with things that would likely never be verbalized in a face-to-face conversation being spouted off with abandon.

“Online mom-shaming is a very real thing,” says Rich, “and it saddens me that someone could hide behind a screen name and cast judgment on someone they don’t really know. … When you unleash online, it’s not just a screen name you’re lambasting; it’s a person.”

If it happens to you, Campbell offers this simple advice: “Ignore it.” And if you can, you definitely should. But it’s sometimes hard to shake off a mean comment, particularly if you’re new to parenting and still finding your footing. Before you take the defensive, consider that tone doesn’t translate well in the virtual world. Take a deep breath and determine whether the commenter might genuinely think she’s offering helpful information. There’s a good chance she didn’t intend for her opinion to come across as insulting or demeaning. (Sleep deprivation and new mom hormones can make us all extra sensitive.)

If something was obviously written to hurt your feelings or stir up trouble, remember that it’s not worth getting into a war of words—although it can be tempting! “Take the high road, and let it go,” suggests McKinley. “You’ll thank yourself later.” And if you find that there’s a certain site where you tend to see a lot of drama, look for a safer place to share your thoughts—or make some changes to your online acquaintances. There’s no rule that says you have to stay friends with your high school lab partner if she’s constantly bashing bottle-feeding. Life’s too short to fill it with negativity.

The good life
Even if the players are keeping it clean, overindulging on social media can lead to an unhealthy dose of Instagram- (or Pinterest-, or Facebook-) envy. “Even the most confident mom can feel a little less than stellar next to the cyberparent who has a treasure trove of pictures showcasing her perfect physique, children and home,” admits McKinley. But, she points out, “Perfection really is only picture-deep, and there’s no way a behind-the- scenes look wouldn’t uncover some very normal, very nonphotogenic flaws in even the most awe-inducing Instagrammer.”

The truth is, real life is messy. It’s filled with dirty diapers, greasy hair and piles of laundry. When scrolling online, try to keep things in perspective. “We all have our strengths, but the expectation that everything should be our strength is just ridiculous,” assures McKinley. That picture-perfect blogger you follow may handcraft a centerpiece for every meal (three times a day and always homemade, of course), but keep in mind that you bring good qualities to the table, too. Cheerfully articulating a Dr. Seuss story for the 10th time in a row is just as impressive as serving your children green smoothies made with locally grown organic produce from the farmers market.

Let’s face it: Life is a lot prettier in edited images. When you only need to fill a tiny little square, you can crop out all sorts of things you don’t want people to see—and you can add a filter that literally changes the tone of the day. No one’s life is as idyllic as it looks online. Spend 30 minutes on social media, and you’ll walk away with a mental list of things you could (and should, in your mind) improve—your house, your hair, your family’s wardrobe, your meals. (And is it just you, or is everyone else’s husband a lot nicer?)

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” reminds Rich. If you spend all day stacking your real life up against someone’s online life, it’s probably not going to leave you feeling particularly high-achieving. But if you take off your screen-hazed glasses and look around, you’ll likely find that your lot is not so bad, after all. Your house may be messy and not quite magazine-worthy, but your kids won’t remember that in 20 years. They’ll remember feeling safe and loved, and that will matter—most of the other stuff won’t. Yes, that food blogger’s feed is fabulous, but would you want to do all those dishes afterward? You can bond just as well over a thrown-together sandwich.

Life is made up of moments, and sometimes those moments will be remarkable. But sometimes they will just be ordinary, and in the long run, those might be the most memorable of all.

When the Internet has you feeling absolutely certain you’re the only underachiever serving store-bought baby food in your farmhouse sink-less kitchen, McKinley encourages you to step back into reality. “Get out, and experience the chaos that is real life,” she urges. “Go to a friend’s house, the park or even Target, and I promise you’ll see all the crusty-faced toddlers, makeup-less moms and frozen pizzas that you’re missing on Pinterest.” For every awesome mama you see on Instagram, there are hundreds out there just living a regular old average life.

A world of help
Anyone who spent time in her youth poring over books in the library for a research paper can attest to how convenient the Internet has made our lives. We literally have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. (Plus, we use it to create cat memes and gawk at celebrities—good times.) When it comes to answering a burning question or reading up on a certain topic, the interwebs are a new mom’s best friend.

“I take everything straight to Google,” admits mom of three Molly Harper from Charlotte, North Carolina. This resource can be particularly helpful when you have a question that you don’t necessarily want to share with anyone else or when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re trying to decide if letting dad bottle-feed baby at the next wake-up would kill you all. (We’ll save you a scroll: It won’t.)

“When I thought my 2-week-old baby had thrush, the Internet was a lifesaver,” recalls McKinley. “Because I found so much helpful information, it gave me the confidence I needed to call the doctor without feeling like a crazy person.” Harper mustered up the courage to cloth diaper with her second baby, thanks to online instruction, even though all her local friends thought she was crazy. Whether you’re hoping to master the swaddle or seeking tips for tackling solid feeding, there’s a wealth of information out there just a click away.

Although this quick source of knowledge is extraordinarily helpful, there are also times when a simple search might lead to more questions than answers. Not only is the abundance of not-always-trustworthy information overwhelming, it can also sometimes be scary.

McKinley cautions, “The Internet can turn something as simple as a little too much foremilk into a worst-case scenario that involves words like ‘intestinal blockage,’ ‘permanent damage’ and ‘emergency surgery.’” So remember to take everything you read realistically, and ask a professional about any medical concerns. Too much research can unleash the inner hypochondriac in all of us.

“I work for a doctor,” Rich explains. “You can’t imagine how many times a day I hear, ‘Well, I read on WebMD … ’” Her professional opinion is this: “Let your health care provider assess the situation. Don’t get caught up in the ‘what ifs’ or ‘could-bes’.” The Web can be a valuable resource, but it’s no replacement for an in-person diagnosis from a doctor.

The real deal
From the moment your baby is born, screens and gadgets will simply be a way of life for him. “I am hyperaware that [my daughter’s] generation will never know a life ‘unplugged,’” notes Rich. “Appreciation for a life sans technology is something I want to instill in my tribe. Forget ‘virtual reality,’ ride your bike! Feel the breeze on your face, not the tablet in your hand!” While you might not yet be too worried about your 2-month-old becoming a video game junkie, good habits start early—and we are our kids’ biggest and brightest examples.

As parents in this digital world, one of the single greatest things we can do for our kids is step away from the screen and dive into “real” life. “I have to remind myself daily to put down my phone and pay attention to what’s going on around me. Those minutes where I’m disengaged add up fast,” notes McKinley. When you’re tired and bored, it’s easy to reach for your phone for stimulation. But we tend to forget that it’s OK to be bored every once in awhile. Entertainment doesn’t have to come in the form of a finger-swipe. Go on a walk. Clean out a closet. Read aloud to your baby.

“As helpful as technology is, I think it can also become a barrier to reality; although it keeps us connected to the world as a whole, it can disconnect us from what’s going on in our own living room,” says McKinley. Online communities are important, but it’s just as important to have real, in-person connections. Rich adds, “When you rely too much on the community you have in the computer, I think you lose touch. Facial nuances and tone can’t be re-created with a blog. … There is something about sharing with a person, not a thread.” So, sure, go ahead and get your social media fix and correspond with fellow moms online—but get out for some face-to-face contact, too.

Ultimately, it’s about finding balance. If you let the wide world of technology enhance your life by way of education and inspiration (and that all-important convenience, of course), you’ll reap many benefits of parenting in this digital age. But if you let it rule your life, it’ll weigh you down. Technology can be a valuable tool, but don’t let it keep you from living in the moment. There’s a whole lot of unfiltered fun to be had.