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Together alone: How do we parent in a sea of online advice?

In her quest for good parenting advice, Thomasin Sleigh has asked Google, skulked around online forums and, of course, become a devoted fan of The Spinoff Parents. But what are the pros and cons of turning to the internet for parenting tips?

There’s a great quote by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze which I came across when it was referenced by the author Chris Kraus in a New Yorker profile of her. Deleuze said, “Life is not personal”, which I read as: experience is shared; what you go through, many people have been through before, and alongside you. Within the confines of your class and culture, there are common human experiences. I imagine this is very much the case with first babies. The moment, three or four days after giving birth, when the world is altered, and you are exhausted, and you collapse and think: what do I do now?

What do I do now?

The persistent question for each unexpected challenge (after you’ve waved goodbye to your midwife and the next Plunket visit seems a long way off). The baby won’t latch properly. What do I do now? The baby seems exhausted but won’t go to sleep. What do I do now? The baby has strange spots on its face. What do I do now? The baby spews all the time, mostly on me. What do I do now?

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When I was pregnant, a kind friend with an eighteen-month-old gave me boxes of newborn kit: clothes, bibs, sheets, and toys, even a cot. Amongst it all was a copy of What to Expect: The First Year. The thick book had been well used, its spine was half-collapsed and several pages were breaking free. I looked at it quickly before putting it away on the shelf. It seemed antiquated; I couldn’t remember the last time I had consulted a large reference book, and What to Expect was very encyclopedia-like, with an index, spreadsheets, and comparative charts.

When the baby arrived, real, screaming, I had an urgent need for guidance, so I got What to Expect down from the shelf and found it to be well written, witty, and very useful. I liked the way it was constructed around real questions posed by new parents. There was something in the authors’ writing style that was comforting: a mixture of pragmatism, experience, and warmth. I liked the index. I liked the charts. I consulted it at every opportunity (trying to keep its wayward pages in order), and read forward in time, months head of my baby’s age.

There were moments though, when What to Expect didn’t have the answer, or, it was 3am and I couldn’t be bothered searching for a tiny, specific paragraph in the disintegrating tome. Then, of course, I would turn to Google. Anyone who has had a baby in the last fifteen years and has access to the internet will know how tempting it is to ask Google everything about your baby. Amongst some of the more inane things I’ve typed into the blank, receptive search box are: “why is my baby always grumpy in the mornings?”, “will my baby ever like dal?”, and “how to make baby be gentle with other babies at crèche”.

These were relatively minor concerns. There were more worrying incidents, such as when our baby had his first cold and he coughed and rasped all night. Lying awake at in the night, listening to his staccato cough, I looked over to see my husband staring into the white window of his phone. ‘Are you googling about babies who cough at night?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’

‘What does it say?’

‘Terrible, terrible, horrific things.’

We were lucky and our baby was OK. He had a cold, so he coughed at night, which made him upset for a while, but he got better. Googling his symptoms in the middle of the night brought up such a bewildering array of opinions and forums, which were mostly irrelevant, and made us even more concerned (we didn’t go back to sleep after that conversation, listening to his cough, like a knock at the door).

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Worrying seems to be endemic to being a parent. The stakes are high. This small human needs care and attention and I am the supposedly responsible adult charged with their care. My (limited) experience so far has been that travelling too far down the Google wormhole to get advice about our baby, has been helpful but also, at times, seriously detrimental to my parenting and state of mind. As our own dear Emily Writes has said, “The internet for parents is sort of like a garbage dump. But it’s a garbage dump that’s on fire and sprinkled with poop and broken glass.” Wise words! But I’m still wondering (as I reach for my phone): There must be something useful there, right? Or is it really just a bad bad thing to have access to the hive mind of parenting advice on the internet?

To feel connected and comforted that your baby is doing ok is a undoubtedly a good thing, and finding a site or a community online that supports you and provides you with advice and tips is wonderful (shameless applause for Spinoff Parents!) Parenting isn’t easy, and I think there is also an unhelpful societal assumption that being a mother is wholly innate, something instinctual that can’t be learned. When I mentioned to a friend that I had been researching reusable nappies online, she snorted derisively at the word “research”, as if nappies and research were mutually exclusive. Anyone who has looked into reusable nappies for the first time will know the overwhelming plethora of brands, designs, and Youtube tutorials; it takes time, consideration, and analysis to find what works best for your situation. It is research and the internet is awesome for up-to-date reviews and thoughts on practical baby matters.

However, my most regular questions of Google are, inevitably, about infant sleep: sleep regressions, normal sleep patterns, ways to make your baby sleep, why they won’t go to sleep, what happens if they don’t get enough sleep. But in the muddy, bottomless space of a parenting website’s comment thread about baby sleep, reality is warped and I find myself lost, mindlessly scrolling in the middle of the night.

What am I looking for?

I’m looking for advice, some sleep-inducing technique to try, but mostly, I suspect, I’m looking for someone else whose baby does the same thing as mine, has similar patterns or behaviours, so that I can feel comforted that my baby is ok, and this is all normal.

This suspicion was further underscored when I read a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert earlier this year, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds”. She looked at why humans are so inclined to ignore facts and so disinclined to change their minds when presented with rational information that contradicts their opinions. Interestingly, there is research to show that “people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.”

“Confirmation bias” is an overused term at present, but, as this article argues, there seems to be compelling evidence that once a person’s opinion is formed, there is very little that can be done to change it. In light of this, I’ve been thinking about how I navigate the internet for parenting tips and the unconscious decisions I make about what search terms to use and what sites to click on. Ostensibly, I’m looking for advice (about teething, bathing, appetite, colds, etc), but perhaps what I’m really looking for is that “rush of dopamine”, someone out there in the digital ether to say they are doing the thing that I’m already doing, so that I can feel better about the decisions I’ve made. Circling back to that Deleuze quote, I’m searching for confirmation that my “life is not personal”.

It’s a strange contemporary condition though, that this reinscribing of personal identity can come from a brief comment by someone you’ll never meet, someone likely to be on the other side of the world. (Who are you really, mayjellybean?) And I think it can be a double-edged sword: I feel a frisson of happiness when finding information which supports my views, but simultaneously sense a lack of personal connection and I feel distance from real people.

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The undocumented networks of advice and knowledge about childcare that pass between women are crucial, and I worry that they’re in danger of atrophying. I’m lucky to have a generous friend with a baby five months older than mine, who has a great capacity for finding and synthesising information. She is always just a text message away, and always willing to give suggestions and assurance. The female whānau network of mums, aunties, grandmas, sisters, and sisters-in-law, who can share knowledge and experience about babies, are vital, and it would be a great loss if these in-person networks became devalued because of easy access to the cacophonous web of information online. Because, although babycentre.com (and its clamoring chorus of commenters) can tell me that four milk feeds a day is pretty normal for my ten-month-old, it doesn’t compare to Skyping my mum so she can gaze adoringly at my snotty baby, and give me the low-down on how many milk feeds I was having at ten months. My experience is that talking directly to the right person at the right time is good brain food.

Reading an unknown person’s digital diatribe in a comment thread at 4am, on the other hand, is not.

The internet’s limitlessness is perhaps part of the problem. It is, by its very nature, heterogeneous and unstable, in a perpetual state of reevaluation and expansion. People debate and contradict and dissent, and a multitude of opinions isn’t a negative thing. But, (and I think this is why I find myself returning to the hard-copy-real-thing pages of What to Expect) when I was in the uncertain and often isolated headspace of caring for a newborn, I wanted something curated, static, and finite. In the current moment of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and Michael Gove’s pre-Brexit claim that “people…have had enough of experts”, I wanted some experts to have done the thinking for me (even if I didn’t always agree with them), and not to have to parse screeds of contradictory opinions.

Perhaps, as a new parent in 2017, it’s as simple as being a bit picky: find the websites I trust; join the Facebook groups where I feel supported and safe; and try not to slip into the chaotic spiral of confusing comment threads. I think I’ve also come to realise that sometimes, online, I’m not really searching for an answer, I’m looking for my own reflection, and that’s OK too.

Thomasin Sleigh is a writer with a focus on contemporary art and culture who has written for galleries and magazines throughout Australasia. In 2014, this writing morphed into long-form fiction when her debut novel Ad Lib was published by Lawrence & Gibson.

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