Face to Face or Facebook?

Adapted from Emma Gardner’s blog post, Breastfeeding Support Pages on Facebook, 2012.

More and more mothers are communicating on Facebook and many local LLL Groups have found it is a good way to announce meetings and stay in touch. In the first of two articles on using Facebook for support, Emma Gardner talks about the differences between a traditional helping situation and online forums and offers tips and insight to Leaders who are moderating Facebook groups. In a second article in our series on social media Guidelines for Leaders on Facebook Sara Dale-Bley lists some useful guidelines for Leaders who are offering mother-to-mother support through LLL Facebook groups

Breastfeeding support pages on Facebook can be very different from real life support at an informal breastfeeding group or a La Leche League Series Meeting. In a face-to-face group, women with babies and toddlers sit together to talk about everything that needs discussing, just like small, close communities do. Facebook—a recent communication newcomer, having been launched in February 2004—can involve posted comments from a huge, even global, community.

Supportive atmosphere

In a support group, women usually know each other already. Some observe others’ journey and are there when needed with wise words and support. Sometimes mothers don’t know each other, though in both cases there will be a facilitator or La Leche League Leader to encourage the women to relax, get to know each other, and guide conversations if needed. The social environment is supportive and giving, and at times it can be intimate. There may be cups of tea or coffee available with some tasty snacks, too.

Sometimes we may be surprised to hear how another mother and family see breastfeeding and parenting. There can be inner gasps when we hear a mother’s experience perhaps, but we are sitting face to face with this mother, so we listen to her story. We might hear of family customs, or practices from her country or religion. She might go over a few things repeatedly until she explains just how she feels. She may amend her story.

We can learn so much by listening and watching a mother. Her body language gives us information, as does the tone of her voice. She may even become so choked up that she can’t talk for a while. We give her space to compose herself and perhaps pass her a tissue. We see how she interacts with her baby, and we build a rapport with her from what we have learned and observed.

Then comes the support. There may be a flurry of “It’s so hard, but it will get better,” or “You’ve done so well. Be proud of what you have achieved.” Then come suggestions and information, and encouragement. Perhaps another mother will tell some of her story. There are nods and affirming noises from mothers in the group. Questions will be asked of the mother so that a clearer picture can emerge. Perhaps some will remember other things to share and add them to the mix. Various books may be suggested, too. In this way, we help the mother move her situation forward, maybe only in the emotional sense at first, but all changes need to come from somewhere.

It is easy for women to make a “discussion tree.” Think of a tree with branches going off in many directions, each with its own topic. The Leader will help the chat to stay on the same branch so all responses stay on topic—much more helpful for the woman in need.

The mother asking for help has so much to think about now, but she feels listened to, and that is so supportive! She goes home with renewed energy from the group, and hopefully a smile on her face or at least hope of one to come. It can be very hard to open up sometimes. We all need to feel safe to do that. This mother has felt vulnerable, showing a weakness perhaps. But she has been brave today.

Facebook initially seems very similar to the groups we visit in person. Mothers who are at the same parenting point as we are may turn to Facebook, or perhaps they are at the next stage, which is helpful. They may be health care professionals. We might assume that because we all “like” the same page, we hold the same or very similar parenting views. It’s a quick way to ask a question and receive answers and replies without leaving the comfort of one’s own home; we can get almost instant feedback. It’s an easy way to socialise and share our knowledge while our children play, or our baby sleeps. Facebook can help prevent us from feeling isolated in today’s society.

From supportive to destructive

Facebook members are essentially unknown to each other in an online support group. We don’t know the mother to whom we are responding. We don’t know her ethnicity, her background or her family situation, or her vulnerabilities. When we post a question, we are likely to shorten it to fit Facebook parameters and thus omit information we might otherwise include in a person-to-person conversation. We also can’t include tone of voice or body language, or emotion. Even if we use emoticons (pictorial representations of facial expressions), they are just not the same as communicating in person. There is so much we can’t convey. Yet, from the post, we may all make instant assumptions and form opinions.

It is very easy to reply quickly with compassion, support, and information. But, it is just as simple to reply with disbelief, shock, strong viewpoints, and at times perhaps inadvertently, insults. These kinds of responses may appear when there is a particularly emotive issue being discussed, and this is where responsive threads can turn from being supportive to being destructive.

Potentially, a huge number of people can read the poster’s emotive question. More posts may come in thick and fast in response to the original poster’s question. These comments can at times be blunt, cutting, sarcastic, or just plain rude. There sometimes seems to be no thought for the mother behind the question, her emotional state, and her well-being. I’ve read comments like, “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t have had a baby.” Would a poster say that to someone’s face, or would she be welcome at a women’s group after saying something like that?

Of course, there is the facility to delete your own post if you regret your impulsiveness, or a page’s administrator can delete the post or indeed the whole thread. But many people may receive copies of the messages by email, and the comments can linger for a while longer. The poster is likely to receive backlash for her impulsive words and may defend her position. Yet if she tries to undo her words or make them clearer, she can inadvertently dig herself deeper into a hole.

Tears in her eyes

So, how might the mother who has asked the original question feel? She came for support and opened herself up to others. How many of us have said or heard, “You only know what you know” or “You can only do your best with what you know at the time.” This mother may realise she needs to know more. She might be at the end of her tether. She might have gathered up all her courage that day just to post her question. That’s why she posted. She probably feels shocked and hurt by the strong comments. If she were sitting in front of you, you would be able to see the tears in her eyes.

The page’s administrator can step in to smooth things over and validate people’s opinions, share factual information, and bring the thread back to the topic. She also needs to decide if she wants such strong and possibly insulting opinions on the Facebook wall at all. People can comment hours after the initial furor has died down. It is very likely that the page’s administrators are volunteers. It is also likely that when a thread goes wrong, the administrators are otherwise occupied with their families and can’t intervene as they would in person.

Deleting whole threads can be a simple way out of a tricky situation. But the decision to delete a whole thread is not taken lightly, and it denies people the right to talk after all. In all probability, there were some informative, supportive posts in the thread that will still be useful to the mother. It is likely that the page’s administrators feel a responsibility towards the page’s contents, and they can feel protective towards the person on the receiving end of the unhelpful harsh words and judgments.

Phone helping also has the distance and some of the anonymity that Facebook does, but Facebook is very public in a way that a one-to-one phone call is not. Facebook posts are read by anyone and, even with a moderator, unedited responses can then come from anyone. A mother posting on Facebook may be at home and in her pyjamas (and perhaps nursing her twins or trying to cook a meal), but other people cannot see what she is doing and only her words can be viewed.  And though Facebook comments may almost look like the transcript of a support group discussion, an important difference is that comments may get submitted around the clock—24 hours a day, seven days a week—without a consistent Leader’s presence during the entire time. A Leader-administrator-moderator may find it more difficult to use her usual communication skills.

Effective helping skills 

An LLL Leader’s key communication skills for mother-to-mother help remain the same:

  • Encouraging the mother to feel at ease
  • Establishing a feeling of rapport with the mother
  • Listening carefully to demonstrate genuine interest in helping
  • Asking questions to clarify the mother’s situation
  • Helping the mother identify her feelings, where appropriate
  • Offering information, making suggestions, and discussing options, so the mother can evaluate the advantages and disadvantages, and make up her own mind
  • Recognizing the mother as the expert on her own baby

—Page 1, “Mother-to-Mother Help,” Chapter One, Leader’s Handbook

No matter the format—the phone, an in-person meeting, Facebook post or text message—consider these skills and helping basics as you offer mothers breastfeeding support.

Emma Gardner was accredited as a Leader in 2005 with LLL Northampton, England, where she and her husband home educate their three children, ages 5 to 15. Emma also co-administers LLL of Great Britain’s Facebook page, is a contributing editor of Breastfeeding Matters (LLL Great Britain’s bimonthly magazine for members), and administers LLL Northampton’s Facebook group. She blogs at http://gardnersword.wordpress.com/