Caroline, a twentysomething mom who lives with her parents and fiancé in Georgia, loves her 2-year-old daughter. That doesn't mean she doesn't have rough days, or even regrets. But, she's discovered, no one wants to hear about her struggles.
The first and last time Caroline (not her real name) complained about being a parent on Facebook, she "got attacked by family basically telling me, 'Tough shit, get over it,' they've been through worse, blah blah," she told BuzzFeed News. Caroline tried joining some local online parenting communities, but the people there were just as judgmental, even in the "unconventional" groups that allow moms to (gasp) swear and joke around.
So, Caroline downloaded Whisper, an app that lets users anonymously confess their secrets to millions of others across the globe.
"well maybe one day I'll see my daughter as more of a blessing and less of a burden," she posted on Whisper a few weeks ago. Later, she followed up: "I don't mistreat her in any way. and I do love her, I just also regret having her sometimes because I'm struggling being a mother...so calm down okay?"
Caroline says she loves Whisper because "when I'm hating my life at 4 a.m. and my daughter isn't going to sleep I can rant ALL I want... and then never talk to those strangers again."
Facebook, where she feels pressure "to appear perfect and in control," is now reserved for smiling photos of her daughter.
Moms, 20% more likely than the general population to use social media, have their pick of platforms to brag about baby's first steps and post photos of meticulously organized lunch boxes. There are even "alt" groups for "bad mommies" who admit to being hot messes; sometimes, apparently, they dare to sit down on their birthdays and drink out of mugs with scandalous inscriptions like, "There's a chance this is vodka."
But there aren't many social media platforms that allow moms who really worry that they're bad moms to let off steam. These women, many of whom are teen moms or parents fleeing abusive relationships, don't fit in on unabashed anti-child forums like reddit's r/childfree, where parents are "breeders" and children are "crotch fruit." But they feel like monsters compared to their smiley friends on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, not to mention the rising number of mommy bloggers who profit off telling people how to parent.
"Mothers expressing some semblance of regret or wondering what their lives might be like down another path is something we see quite often on Whisper," said Slade Sohmer, Whisper's Head of News.
Posts like, "I regret becoming a mother most days. He is better off without me," and "I love my son with all my being but I'm about to be 21 and I wish I would've waited. Sex doesn't feel that good" show up daily, he said, while dads "rarely" post about their own parenting efforts.
In interviews, Whisper users who post about the hardships of motherhood said the app was an antidote to the pressure they feel online elsewhere.
"In our society, if you admit [parenting] is hard, that means you're a failure," said one mother who said she recently left her abusive partner. "I have to live with the damage I've let happen every day. It's painful. It's embarrassing. I feel like people will think I don't love my kids 'cause I stayed so long. I start to get scared someone will try to take my kids away from me for my shortcomings." She also feels like she "bothers people in real life when I talk to them," she said. But on Whisper, she's free to confess her deepest secrets.
"I'm a horrible mother," she recently wrote. "I overlooked years of mental and emotional abuse to try to keep a family together. I hate myself for what I've put my son through. I deserve hearing how much you all hate me."
A 19-year-old mother who says she has no non-virtual friends to talk to said mothers on Facebook and community forums make her feel bad about herself because they "seem happy and seem to know what to do."
"It makes me wish I was more like them," she said.
Recently, when she was feeling overwhelmed, she posted on Whisper:
"i knew i was too young to have my son cuz im actually sad that i cant go out anymore i love him but wish i couldve waited"
"A lot of people think I don't know how to take care of my son because I'm young," she told BuzzFeed News. "If I'm sad or angry I can post on Whisper and it won't make things worse."
There's "an eagerness for women to band together online to feel superior about their own parenting by putting others down," said Blair Koenig, author of the blog-based book "STFU Parents," which chronicles "The Jaw-Dropping, Self-Indulgent, and Occasionally Rage-Inducing World of Parent Overshare." She said she understood why younger mothers in particular were more interested in an anonymous app than in starting their own blog or joining an established forum. "It sounds terrible to call them the mommy brigade, but it really is a full-force army."
Whisper users aren't always more welcoming. On a post confessing, "I love being a mom, but I'm too young for this. I wish I could've waited," a user responded, "Maybe you should've kept your legs closed Slut."
Whisper posts about conflicted moms "generate intense and serious conversations," Sohmer said, "but at least these mothers can spend their energy looking inward about their choices, not worry about besmirched reputations."
Most users said they didn't care about mean comments or even, in one case, "requests for nudes" because of how cathartic it feels to "stop pretending motherhood is a constant joy."
"In reality these feelings are normal, even if people don't want to admit it," one user said. Parenting is "hard and patience-testing every day, plus once you have a child it is never just about you. That child is and should always be first."
But on Whisper, no one is held accountable, which means mothers can, at least for a moment, put their kids second.