Rollercoaster ride from virtual reality to real friends
Expecting to give birth last September, 50 women shared their pregnancy online – then finally met up
Aisling Flanagan with her son, Tom. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
A gathering of the September Mums group in the Green Isle Hotel, Naas Road, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Gwen Reil with her son, Sam, from Waterford. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Sarah O’Connor with Joni from north Tipperary. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Just over a year ago they were a bunch of strangers, scattered around Ireland and abroad, with one thing in common: they were all women expecting babies in September 2013.
Now it is as if they have been friends for life. Sitting chatting in a Dublin hotel, babes in arms, they are at ease in each others’ company. They have shared a life-changing journey and told each other things along the way that they may not have shared with anybody else; not even their partners.
They are mothers of their time, using the internet to bond, but then successfully converting “virtual” friendships into real life. At their latest meet-up, it’s astonishing to see a whole host of babies, all aged about five months, gathered in one place.
Not yet crawling, they sit and lie on baby mats, mildly curious about each other, but mostly keeping a close eye on their mothers.
The “September Mums” found each other on the parenting forum Rollercoaster after their BFPs (positive pregnancy tests in online speak). At that stage, many of them would not have disclosed their news to anyone other than their partners, so here was an outlet for niggling concerns, seeking information and a sense of sisterly camaraderie.
Trish Hennessy, who was pregnant with her second child, remembers tentatively putting her first post on the Mums2Be thread and seeing a flood of well-wishers commenting in reply.
“Happy, welcoming strangers sharing my excitement – instantly I was hooked.”
But then, as early miscarriages took their toll, she felt her happiness could be cut short at any moment. Her joy at seeing a flicker of life on her first scan was tempered with sadness for those who were not so lucky.
The group consolidated into 50 committed members when, in a big leap of faith last April, they moved from the anonymity of Rollercoaster to posting under their own names as a private Facebook group. But the loss of another baby, in the second trimester, had them all holding their breath once more.
“Over the months we bonded over chats about swollen ankles, back pain, heartburn and all other pregnancy-related moans,” says Hennessy, who lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow. They started to post photos of their growing bumps every Friday, as they waddled through one of the hottest summers for decades.
The premature arrival of baby Sam (see below) in August sent a shockwave through the group. Hennessy recalls immediately packing her bag for the hospital and thinking, “OMG . . . we are all going to have babies now.”
As a trainee midwife, Ciara Keogh of Moycullen, Co Galway, became the “go-to” person in the group for queries about aches and pains and whether they might be the first signs of labour. And Hennessy started up a “labour watch” as their time came:
at one point, four were born together.
Four babies hung on until early October but, between them, these 49 women delivered 51 healthy babies – 30 girls and 21 boys – including two sets of twins.
One baby, Ruadhán Phelan, has had health problems and, weighing just 4kg, is noticeably smaller than those around him who are nearly double his weight.
His mother, Reena Cole, who lives in north Tipperary, had been determined to breastfeed him as that hadn’t worked out with her older two children. So when he was slow to gain weight, she put it down to his being breastfed.
But, even after supplementing breast with formula as advised, he still struggled and she was shocked to be told he was “severely malnourished” when he was hospitalised in Limerick for nine days in January.
He has since been diagnosed as allergic to cow’s milk and, after being switched to a hydrolyzed formula, he seems to be doing all right, says Cole, who has got huge support from the other mothers, not only online but also through the practical gesture of a huge hamper they sent when Ruadhán was in hospital.
Since the births, the group’s preoccupations have moved on. Weaning is a hot topic as they approach six months. The way they progress through these same stages of motherhood together is the defining strength of the group.
As cyberpsychologist Dr Gráinne Kirwan of IADT Dún Laoghaire points out, what would be the chances of knowing even one person in real life who is due to give birth at the same time as you?
Even if you did know someone, she would probably be keeping it to herself in the early weeks, when these women started to meet online.
Kirwan sees this group as an example of the internet at its best. In the early stages of pregnancy they could become each other’s sounding board, giving them “a wonderful sense of cohesion”.
For once they have reaped positive benefits from the known “disinhibition effect” of online communication, which is more often observed at its toxic worst in cyberbullying.
However, undoubtedly the September Mums have struck lucky with the mix of personalities. They talk, almost with a sense of incredulity, about the absence of judgment, competitiveness or bitchiness within their circle. It helps that there are enough of them to cover a wide range of choices and experiences.