Navigating the tension-filled world of motherhood in Pittsburgh’s Facebook groups

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Tanisha Bowman, wearing a blue floral dress and glasses, stands outside posing for a photo.

Tanisha Bowman joined the New Moms Coffee online space just as her daughter was born at the start of the pandemic. She immediately noticed the racial tension. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Leah: Being a mom can be very challenging. Balancing work, homeschooling, running a house and the never-ending task of house training our dog definitely gets the best of me at times. So naturally, after a long day of meltdowns, cleaning up dog poop, answering the same questions over and over all day long, I enjoy a mindless social media scroll at night in my free time. On Facebook, I often seek out mom groups I feel could be a great support for whatever life tragedy may have happened during the day. Child got his head stuck in the monkey bars at the park? There’s a mom group for that! Mall meltdown earlier in the day still got you feeling like crap? There’s a mom group for that!

Many times, these mom groups are like a breath of fresh air. The support, advice and the resources are usually just what I need. After joining a new group and observing for a bit, I usually feel like: “Ahhh!! I have found my people!”

Leah

Leah Walker is a homeschooling mother of four school-aged children and an adult child. She is a speaker and educator living in Westmoreland County. (Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Then, it happens. The judgment, the mom shaming, the entitlement, privilege and... dare I say it? The racism. Yes, it is true, in moms groups centered around disabilities, recipe ideas and even arts and crafts, it happens. Sometimes it’s passive aggressive. “Oh, we prefer to shop in the suburbs.” Or the, “I would never send my child to a city public school because the kids there are so rough.”

Other times it’s straight in your face. All city neighborhoods are ghetto and filled with drug addicts and thugs. I’ve experienced both types. Initially, I was blown away. I would just clutch my invisible pearls and keep scrolling. Eventually, holding my tongue was no longer an option. Against my better judgment I began to engage. Most of the time, I left the conversations frustrated and baffled. It perplexed me that, as a woman of color, my truth and experiences were often dismissed. I remember one time a white mom actually proceeded to tell me how Black people feel. Did she somehow have the inside track to Black feelings that I wasn’t aware of?

Local journalist and mom Meg St-Esprit and I have been navigating these online spaces with varying degrees of success — she from the perspective of a white woman, and me from the perspective of a Black woman. Here, she shares a bit about what she has seen.

Meg: I remember as a new mom with my oldest, who is almost 10 now, I was added to a Facebook group that branched off of the in-person Storkbites meetups through Heritage Valley Sewickley. The Tribune-Review even covered the e-village, way back then. As the number of kids grew in our family, and our dynamics changed, more and more groups were added to my world. There is a Facebook group for everything. I am in so many that cover a wide variety of topics: things found hidden in walls, bearded dragons, adoption, refinishing floors, finding Aldi sales, writing, cloth diapering, you name it. Sometimes, those groups implode. Losing an online community can be heartbreaking, and I wrote about that once for Romper. Sometimes it happens for reasons out of our control. Sometimes, like the loss I described in that piece, I messed up, but lines are more easily drawn than in real life, and many parents feel the loss of online support systems viscerally.

When we moved to Bellevue in 2014, I did not know a soul. With another mom, we started a local Facebook group for the area that grew quickly to be a pretty active space. I began to start being invited to be an admin in other groups too. At one point, I was an admin for over 20 groups, which was overwhelming at times. Issues cropped up at all hours of the night, and I would often wake up to 20 or 30 angry messages about a problem I had missed. Often the issue was legitimate, and I felt terrible about my inability to address it.

As Leah and I talk about in this piece, racism and microaggressions are rampant in online spaces. Sometimes the issues were not legitimate. Ask yourself if sending 20 messages at 2 a.m. over sidewalk chalk art is necessary.

This spring, in the wake of dealing with the long-haul COVID-19 recovery process, I stepped down from my admin role in nearly all of the groups. I still remain a member, and while they are often still very useful, as an observer, I have become more aware of the harmful dynamics of the groups for marginalized and members who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color [BIPOC].

Like a firefighter in the fray,  when I was an admin, I think I became overwhelmed with everything going on around me and often missed the key issue — especially when it hurt our most vulnerable members. Now, as the neighbor standing on the sidewalk watching where the flames shoot out of the burning house, I have a wider perspective that is helping me grow and showing me how much I was missing.

Meg St-Esprit photographed outside her home in Bellevue. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

I still think Facebook groups are useful. But they are also a microcosm of how much we have to do as a society to become more understanding, actively antiracist and more empathetic, myself included. Leah and I spoke to some members and administrators in these groups to hear just what they had to say about the tensions, implicit bias and racism.

Two of those groups are Pittsburgh Moms Connect, which has 18,000 members, and New Mom's Coffee, which was hosted and recently disbanded by KidsPlus Pediatrics. BIPOC mothers and white allies in both groups have expressed deep concern over how the dominating white suburban voices silence the voices of traditionally marginalized members.

Tiara Emery and Tanisha Bowman were both members of New Mom's Coffee and found value in the group as parents of young children. Bowman, a palliative care social worker, joined the online space just as her daughter was born at the start of the pandemic. Lacking the ability to connect in real life with other moms, she jumped into the new space earnestly. Bowman immediately noticed the racial tension. “Little racial tiffs kept popping up, references to things that happened in the past, and I thought: Ugh, here we go…” She had seen similar tiffs in other groups where white women would bristle over having to be racially sensitive, as if it were an added burden they did not want to shoulder. “The general group was meant to be a safe space for women who were coming to it in the middle of the night in tears because they didn’t understand why their baby wasn't taking a boob, right? Why make them also reckon with their issues with race?”

Emery had similar experiences in New Mom's Coffee and a spinoff group called Unites, which was created with the purpose of doing antiracism work. That wasn’t what Emery saw, though. “It was primarily white women talking to white women without any people of color commenting.

The voices of women of color were often dismissed or labeled as angry. The women of color would be labeled as aggressive and attacking white women when they voiced their feelings on their lived experiences. Very common."

Despite the online conflicts, Emery recalls initially being excited to meet up with women from the New Mom's Coffee group in person — women who shared her parenting joys and struggles. Her excitement was short lived though, as these events are often very cliquey. As a woman of color, navigating these spaces causes a great deal of anxiety for Emery. “You aren’t totally sure if you are really welcome.” She was met by a sea of white faces and cold shoulders. One lady made a point to tell her there were “Black meetups and Black breastfeeding things that she could go to.”

Emery felt unwelcome. There were comments made about her baby's car seat cover being inappropriate and unsafe. She was not the only mom with that particular cover, just the only one singled out.  She felt like her contributions to group conversations were dismissed. She left in tears. With her baby in the backseat, she called both her husband and sister. They each comforted and encouraged her to try to participate again. This was her second child, and she was hopeful to experience the same community and friendship with New Mom's Coffee that others had raved about.

Two weeks passed and Emery returned. The same woman repeated the comments from the first time. She encouraged Emery to seek out Black breastfeeding groups and meetups. After that encounter, she knew she would not be returning to in-person meetups. When Emery and others shared their experience with the group, her comments prompted the admins to remove her from the main New Mom's Coffee group.

KidsPlus Pediatrics disbanded the main group this spring, though many spinoff groups exist unofficially. A Facebook post said the group was ending due to the main admin retiring. PublicSource reached out to both KPP and Unites, but they didn't respond.

Tanisha Bowman holds her daughter Sidney outside their home in Spring Hill. Bowman, who joined an online group after Sidney was born, immediately noticed racial tension. “The general group was meant to be a safe space for women who were coming to it in the middle of the night in tears because they didn’t understand why their baby wasn't taking a boob, right? Why make them also reckon with their issues with race?” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Pittsburgh Moms Connect, the city’s largest parenting group, admins often have a hard time keeping up with posts that “blow up.”

Natasha Vasquez Lee, an admin and a woman of color, said managing a busy group of such considerable size is a big job, especially since admins are all volunteers with jobs and kids themselves. “It does not sit well with us that brown mamas don't feel as welcome or safe,” she said. “We delete any blatantly racist comments that we see and block those posters; otherwise, we generally monitor potentially tricky posts and step in as needed.” The admin team still struggles with how to address the implicit bias behind many posts and comments.

She described a recent post about a white woman who was seeking a salon to give her cornrows, and the ensuing fast-paced conversation about cultural appropriation that followed. Many BIPOC women and white allies attempted to educate others, but much of their words were received with hostility. “I think some of our members do an admirable job of attempting to educate and ’call in,’ but not everyone is at a place where they're willing to learn, and then the conversation gets off the rails,” she said.

“As admins, we think it is important to allow space for hard conversations that quite frankly might not happen elsewhere, and we hope that some members will benefit and learn from these honest discussions.”

She said that they can’t force someone to learn, though, and often end with shutting off comments on a post when things become heated. As a woman of color in a multiracial family, it wears on Vasquez Lee too. “We're no strangers to prejudice, and it doesn't surprise me to see the comments being made in the moms group, but it is still disheartening and, frankly, exhausting. How do you get someone to begin to value another person and her situation when they refuse to even see her?”

Kristie Lindblom, a North Hills mom of two teens, has been a part of local Pittsburgh parenting groups since they existed as Yahoo listservs. She is a member of Pittsburgh Moms Connect. She remembers her own learning curve, and the women who took the time to show her where she needed to grow. “I was part of the problem. I was unaware of my own privilege. I really value when women of color are willing to come into the spaces and educate.” Lindblom credits local Black activists for taking the time to teach white allies, even though they didn’t need to. “That's not incumbent upon women of color. They were asking white allies to come take care of our people. That was a wake up call for me.  I am very grateful for the labor they put in that they did not have to.”

Lindblom works in mental health. She has been able to apply some of these strategies to the group interactions, as well. Here is some advice she offers to other white parents in these spaces who want to be antiracist:

Highlight the experience of the person who is impacted. “This is their experience. You need to understand, and if you are not taking that time to understand, you need to figure out why. Why can't you listen to this person's experience?” Lindblom and her fellow white women have been conditioned, she says, to see themselves as empathetic listeners but often balk when their worldview is challenged. She shared a couple of tips for white moms:

  • Encourage white parents  to think about what they are saying. “The teacher in me likes to use inquiry to poke holes in their logic. ‘Am I hearing you right that you think XYX?’ And then they have to stop and reflect. Is that really what they mean?”
  • Know when enough is enough. There are times when the racism and aggression has gone too far, and white allies need to step in and be direct to protect marginalized members. “If you’ve had ten women of color and a bunch of white allies tell you that you’re wrong, and you’re still doubling down, you’re done.”

Meg: Lindblom told me she told me she has continually made mistakes as she learns to become actively antiracist. She knows she is always a work in progress. She urges her fellow Pittsburgh white women to do the same. “I appreciate when people call me on my blind spots, so I can model how to get called out too,” she said. “Even if I double down, I can come back later and say I was wrong and I need to do better next time.” The most important thing is to keep trying and set defensiveness aside when someone with a different life experience shares how we’ve hurt them. The process of unlearning the harmful and racist attitudes we were raised with is not a path taken without stumbles. Get back up, and keep going.

Leah: Throughout the years I’ve had to pick and choose my battles and what topics I decide to engage in wisely. I’ve met many women of color who have also experienced racism in mom’s Facebook groups. We’ve been very intentional about creating safe spaces for us as well as protecting our mental space. The racism in these groups, whether passive aggressive or full out in your face, begins to take a toll on you. With the climate of today’s world, allowing strangers behind a keyboard to live rent free in my head is no longer an option.

Update (9/17/2021): This story was updated to clarify that Tiara Emery was removed from the main New Mom's Coffee group.

Leah Walker lives in Westmoreland County and is a homeschooling mother of four school-aged children and an adult child. She is a speaker and educator and can be reached at lwalker3106@comcast.net

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @megstesprit.

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