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.
Dr Ciarán McMahon, head of the cyberpsychology research centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, agrees that luck plays its part. While it is easy to see what a group such as this has in common, it is very hard to replicate it, he says.
An online group needs to be reasonably homogenous but must have diverse opinions, otherwise it gets very boring, he says. Empathy and a sense of community spirit are also important.
The increased exposure of transferring to Facebook can be kind of risky, he says, and it was a sign of confidence the September Mums had in their group. Kirwan agrees that this was a big step and the fact that they have gone on to meet up in real life is “fantastic”.
Carolyn Bracken from Galway had grave reservations about meeting her fellow mums in person because they “had shared so much about each other”. She was worried about dismantling that virtual wall.
“Reality was too much for me, personally,” she admits. But she overcame her initial shyness to attend the third and fourth meet-ups with her son, Jamie, and is very glad she did.
“It is fascinating to see the babies growing,” she says. “And the most refreshing part of this group is that there is so much honesty and lack of judgmental attitudes.
“It is one of the most drama-free relationships I have established in my whole life. Well, there’s plenty of drama, but in a good way,” she smiles.
Getting so close
Annie Hooper from Kilkenny never imagined she would get so close to this group of women. “All those anonymous faces have turned into friends,” she says, looking around the room as baby Thomas sleeps contentedly at her feet.
When she signed up she was “terrified” about losing her baby as she had had two miscarriages the previous year, at eight weeks and at 16 weeks. Here was somewhere to vent her fears. “You’re so emotional and you can go on and post and everybody understands where you are in your head,” she says. “Nothing is off limits.”
She was dreading labour, but the birth stories of those who went before gave her courage. As it turned out, she had a difficult birth and afterwards was concerned not to feel that much-anticipated “surge of love” for her newborn. “I was really worried about what was wrong with me,” she says. “It was a great relief when one of the other women said, ‘That happened to me.’ You’re never alone in the group. I am just one among many: not broken.”
The September Mums are hoping all 49 of them can meet up with their 51 babies later this month when their one emigrant member is home from Canada on a visit. Here are some of the group’s stories.
‘I was dying to get on Facebook’
Gwen Reil, who lives in Waterford, was just 34 weeks pregnant when her waters broke. It was an anxious time as her first child had died after being born at 23 weeks, although she had carried her daughter, Tess, who is four, to full term since.
However, while Sam had to spend a couple of weeks in neonatal care, he was a “decent size” at birth, she says, weighing 2.5kg (five and a half pounds) and there were no major concerns for him.
“I was dying to get on Facebook and say he was born,” she laughs. But it was only at the first meet-up that she realised the impact this first birth had on the rest of the group.
Reil had been unsure about the switch from the anonymity of a parenting forum to Facebook. For several months she just read posts and didn’t contribute.
“It really took off for me when the babies started being born,” she says. Now, when she logs on during night feeds – at 1am, 2am or 3am – there is always somebody else on.
“It prolongs night feeds. Otherwise I would just feed him and put him back down, but you get into conversation.”
She wonders how the group will fare as many of them start going back to work and demands on their time increase. A horticulturist, she is resuming her part-time job in April and doubts if she will able to attend further meet-ups.
‘It is the only social outlet I have’
Sarah O’Connor proposed that the group move from anonymity on to Facebook.
“Some people didn’t like the idea and some came on as aliases [at first],” she recalls. But she thinks posting under her own name “made me quite honest”.
Living on a farm outside Ballina/Killaloe in Co Tipperary, and with two older children, aged four and two, as well as baby Joni, “I don’t really get out,” she says. “It is the only social outlet I have.”
O’Connor had joined a similar online group when she was pregnant with her second baby, but didn’t gel with the other women. “Everything had to be done by the book. The more dominant people took over and made their opinions known.”
But it was quite a different experience with the September Mums. “I love it,” she says. “We are so close.”
‘They were all very welcoming’
When Nina Kenbert became pregnant with her third child, she didn’t know anything about the Irish maternity system, as she and her husband, Markus, had had their first two children in their native Germany.
But having moved to Co Donegal in 2012, she joined the Rollercoaster group last March.
“They were all very welcoming and kind and I could ask anything,” she says.
As it turns out, she still hasn’t seen the inside of an Irish labour ward because baby Aurelius arrived in an unplanned home birth on September 4th.
“It happened in the middle of the night and he was there half an hour later; there was no time to go anywhere. We were very lucky, he was fine.”
They waited until daylight and introduced him to his older brother and sister, before driving the 45-minute journey from their home in Rossnowlagh to Sligo General Hospital, to have mother and baby checked out.
Kenbert, a designer who blogs on ifeelcrafty.com, has yet to meet any of the September Mums in real life but “they are very dear to me”, she stresses, “and I hope to meet them soon”.
While you can meet other parents locally, Kenbert says, “I think it is impossible to find other mums going through the exact same stages as you are.
“I find you forget so easily and time passes so quickly. I forgot a lot of the things that I went through with the other two.”
‘There is no question that can’t be asked’
At 24, Aisling Flanagan from Ballyteigue, Co Kildare, is the baby of the mums.
With her pregnancy being a surprise, she wondered whether she would fit in with the group because her situation was different from most, some of whom already had children or who had been trying to conceive for a long time. But she needn’t have worried because they were really welcoming.
“There is no question that can’t be asked,” she says simply, and she found the group a really good outlet for all pregnancy – and now baby – talk.
“None of my friends have babies,” she says, cradling her son, Tom. “When I meet my friends, I don’t want to be talking about my baby.”
Flanagan is one of the first to go to back to work – having started a new job in an opticians the day before the meet-up.
If I’m homesick, I know I’ll get a response’
Fiona Gannon left Dublin in July 2011 with her husband, Adrian, and their daughter, Emily, then aged two and a half, for a new life in Canada. As soon as she found out she was pregnant, in January 2013, she joined the Rollercoaster forum .
She was a bit sceptical, not having done anything like that when expecting Emily, but she was unsure about how she was going to get on, being pregnant in a different country, and wanted to keep in contact with Irish pregnant women.
“We formed a bond straight away,” she says. “Unfortunately, there were a lot of lost angels in the first few months, which probably brought us all closer together.”
These women back home, who she has never met, have become a very important part of her life.
“If I have a question or a query, or even if I’m complaining or homesick, I know I’ll get a response very soon, with words of wisdom or a shoulder to cry on.”
Gannon has the distinction of being the last of the group to give birth, being one of four who technically became an October Mum, when baby Andrew arrived on October 4th. “I found it brilliant being the last one as I was getting all the useful tips, whether it was a labour-inducing tip or different coping mechanisms while in labour. Invaluable.”
The group had decided to send gifts as a “consolation prize” to the mother who had to wait the longest, as well as celebrate the last, safe arrival. So presents began to arrive at her home in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and she soon became on first-name terms with the postman.
“I couldn’t, and still can’t, get over the acts of kindness I received,” says Gannon, who will finally meet the group on a visit home later this month. “I’m really looking forward to putting faces to names and accents to people. And obviously I can’t wait to give all the babies kisses and cuddles.
“I know when I meet them,” she adds, “it will be like we’ve been friends for years.”