I took two months off spinning class because of first-trimester nausea, so when I showed up this week at my regular Monday 6 p.m. class at the Y, everyone was very excited to see me. There was a lot of exclaiming over my new bump, and in the first few minutes of warm-up everyone chimed in about how many kids they had, or wanted to have, and when, and how old they were then, and how old they are now.
I mean it perfectly sincerely when I say I love the members of the YMCA Monday 6 p.m. spinning class. The class has around two dozen regular members. Most are middle-aged women, but there are also teenagers and elderly members, as well as half a dozen men. Some appear very fit, from the outside anyway, while others do not. Some wear slick prismatic cycling unitards and others, cotton T-shirts they got for free from fun runs in the early ’90s. About half have those clip-in cycling shoes. They work in a variety of professions, with a tendency toward below-the-line studio workers (I live in Los Angeles). The instructor’s husband is a camera operator; another member is a stunt person.
I only know about half their names. I know my instructor is 50 and has three children (two of whom are twins). I know the youngest girl in our class is her niece, who is in college and is dating several young men but isn’t serious about any of them. I know the woman in the headscarf in the back is a 60-year-old breast cancer survivor who was once in the armed forces. I know that one retired couple goes on a lot of package tours, biking around vineyards. I know one woman translates everything for her mother, who doesn’t speak English. The two of them are also mall-walkers. I know another woman is constantly getting paged by the YMCA daycare staff because her toddler needs a diaper change. One man fondly complains about how much his daughter’s wedding is costing him. Another man is a sort of unofficial class assistant employed by the YMCA — he leaves halfway through class every time after giving everybody high fives. One woman goes out for margaritas every Saturday night and goes to church every Sunday morning. One of the men brings his own heavier dumbbells from home, he sweats so profusely he has to put a nest of towels beneath his bike, and he goes absolutely nuts for Rihanna. I know everyone’s favorite songs from the instructor’s whiplash playlist of hip-hop, dance pop, classic rock, oldies, and Billboard country, a list that can include anything but always includes Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pitbull. I feel so warmly towards everyone it catches my heart, but I also have no particular desire to ever see any of them outside of our Monday 6 p.m. spinning class.
I’ve often joked (however unoriginally) that I will join any club that will accept me as a member. I’m a member of the YMCA, the PTA Executive Board, the Girl Scouts, Real Vampires of Los Angeles, the Audubon Society, the University of Chicago Alumni Association, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, SoCal Valley Haunters, Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles, Sierra Club, the ACLU, the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, the International Dutch Oven Society, and most recently, BabyCenter’s September 2018 Birth Club.
BabyCenter is a vast online media conglomeration on all topics related to fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, infants, and toddlers. There’s a website, phone app, blogging platform, several email newsletters, baby name guides, and tools to calculate ovulation and due dates.
Most new parents arrive at the BabyCenter website via their popular feature: Your Pregnancy Week-By-Week. This feature gives you information about your fetus at every week of its development, charted against a series of fruits and vegetables of escalating sizes, from sesame seed to pumpkin. I’m in Week 19, Heirloom Tomato, which explains cheerily that “[the baby’s] arms and legs are in proportion to each other and the rest of her body now” while her kidneys are busily producing urine and “a waxy protective coating called the vernix caseosa is forming on her skin.”
BabyCenter’s weekly emails also include a section on “How Your Life’s Changing,” featuring a slow-motion graphic video of a woman’s internal organs gradually, but inexorably, drawing up and back away from her expanding uterus like Malibu real estate receding from a rising sea. On the home page, there are polls, expert advice columns on everything from morning sickness remedies to maternity leave policies, and recommended weekly activities, from “keep a journal” to “take off your wedding ring.” But the heart of BabyCenter is the community message boards.
There are thousands of BabyCenter Community Boards, some with only a few dozen members and others with more than 100,000. There are 2,261 groups for those trying to get pregnant and 4,409 groups to discuss infants and newborns. 60,083 women (and some men) are discussing Cloth Diapering. 41,569 are uploading and analyzing ultrasound images. 9,946 women are on Clomid, a drug that facilitates ovulation. 104,509 are trying to pick a baby name. 55,073 are Plus Size and Pregnant. There are 34,543 women on the Working Moms board and 29,293 on the Stay-at-Home Moms board. 10,702 women are discussing postpartum anxiety and depression. There’s a board for “Pagan women trying to conceive” and “Jewish families raising a child with Down syndrome.” There are Pot Smoking Moms, Crock Pot Cooking enthusiasts, and proponents of Baby-Led Weaning. There is one anti-Trump board and one (presumably inactive) Mamas for Obama. There are no expressly pro-Trump boards, but there are many labeled “Conservative.” Groups tend to align themselves in ways you might expect: the 878 Vegan Pregnancy Moms are generally to the left of the 260 moms in Police Officer’s Wives. But there are unexpected coalitions, too, particularly around fringe parenting practices like natural childbirth, homeschooling, and yes, anti-vaxxers.
You can join as many boards as you care to, but your core group is your Birth Club, BabyCenter’s homeroom. Birth clubs are organized by the month of your expected due date, and each generally hosts around 25,000 members. I first joined BabyCenter’s June 2009 board while pregnant with my daughter, and later joined the May 2011 and December 2013 boards while pregnant with each of my sons. Unlike the proponents of Lotus births or prenatal CrossFit or extreme coupon-clipping, the birth club moms profess no common cause. Twenty-five thousand women of every description, roughly between the ages of 16 and 50, who have nothing at all in common — except a due date in September 2018.
I would never spend time with probably 90% of these women were I to meet them in real life… And yet, I genuinely care about all of them because we share a common cause.
Nothing is too embarrassing, too disgusting, too sad, or too stupid to post on a BabyCenter community board. The dominant tone is both cheery and clinical, like a medical sales rep. I like to think my social milieu is admirably diverse because I have a few friends who are not white, not straight, not cis. I do not, generally, have friends like the woman who asked whether it was safe to get into a bar fight while pregnant. (She was careful to add that she had been sober when she started the brawl.) I do not have friends who are on their 11th baby, who think high chairs are fascist, or who’ve asked their husband to cut the umbilical cord with his teeth. I would never spend time with probably 90% of these women were I to meet them in real life, whether my aversion came from moral and political principle or just plain snobbery. And yet, I genuinely care about all of them because we share a common cause, all of us counting the days until September.
BabyCenter has its own system of acronyms and euphemisms, many of which have spread to the broader internet. DH is Dear Husband, used fondly or sarcastically; DF, Dear Fiance. OH (Other Half) and SO (Significant Other) are more inclusive alternatives. BF can be a boyfriend or best friend, depending on the context. You may have a DS (Dear Son) or DD (Dear Daughter). Perhaps you are waiting for AF (Aunt Flo, or your period) or doing the BD (Baby Dance, or sex), Perhaps you received a BFP (Big Fat Positive, on a home pregnancy test), or a BFN. You may be a FTM (First Time Mom), or SAHD (Stay-At-Home Dad).
Most posters have a signature line, a sort of reproductive CV, often embellished with badges and stickers and GIFs. Many are records of tragedy, shorthand for years of miscarriages and stillbirths, or of failed IVF attempts. Many women refer to their fetus as their “rainbow baby,” a term for a baby conceived after an earlier miscarriage. For the last four years, my uncorrected signature line read, “Mother of Beatrice (4) and Arthur (2). Expecting Baby #3 in December 2013.”
There’s a rhythm to birth boards. The first few weeks are the most tense. Women are taking home pregnancy tests, sometimes more than one a day, waiting for good news. (There are also TTC — “Trying to Conceive” — boards, but many TTC moms join the birth club month they’re hoping for and then quit and join the next month, again and again.) There are unplanned pregnancies and “miracle babies” for women who had long given up on trying. There are stunned announcements of twins. One woman in our group found out she was having triplets. And every day, women drop out with a last goodbye post: “no sac,” “no heartbeat,” “it was there and then it was gone.”
Then, the calmer second trimester, when talk turns to lighter things like what to register for and when to tell your boss, and “No, your MIL is NOT going to be in the delivery room no matter DH says.” We learn more about each other, about our families and our marriages and our other kids, about our financial struggles and our body images, and especially our medical histories, every bloody detail, often with accompanying photos. Women are congratulated for leaving their shitty husbands, consoled for being left. There are pointless, time-wasting arguments about the usual divisive issues — epidurals vs. “natural” births, sleep training vs. CIO (“cry it out”), OBs vs. midwives — where everyone shouts past each other into the empty void of the internet until a moderator comes to scold them all. There are more losses, complications, bed rest, diagnoses of chromosomal disorders, and terrible decisions about termination.
Then, at last, the babies start to arrive. Some are born much too early, and we rally around them, their parents uploading photos of near-translucent newborns taking determined breaths inside a tangle of monitors and cords. Some are in no hurry to be born, and so, like old wives, we suggest eating spicy food, eating pineapple, having sex, going for a long walk, getting a pedicure, whatever worked for us or our neighbor or our aunt. Every day there are new announcements and new photos, 25,000 brand new people, terribly fragile but wondrously living, the newest members of June 2009, May 2011, December 2013.
With my first baby, I was a voracious BabyCenter user. I scrolled through endless hours of discussions about Pitocin and body pillows and the risks and rewards of red raspberry leaf tea. With each subsequent child, I came back again, but less often and less urgently.
By now, I can say I know about as much about pregnancy, birth, and babies as anyone. I don’t need ovulation tracking tools or Expert Answers or email reminders about getting enough iron. Yet, the day I found out I was pregnant with my fourth baby, I logged into my long-neglected BabyCenter account and updated my signature line. “Mother of Beatrice (8), Arthur (6), and William (4). Baby #4 due September 27, 2018.” I didn’t even know if it was true, I hadn’t gone to the doctor yet, but I wanted some company while I waited.
It’s easy to glorify the idea of “community,” whatever it means. Perhaps some element of community must be that it’s not entirely optional.
I poked around the Secular Large Families board. Though I would not describe myself as “secular,” it’s a gentle way to say People With a Lot of Kids but Not Because They’re Religious. I joined a group for pregnant moms who exercise a lot and another for mothers over 35. And of course, I joined the September 2018 BabyCenter Birth Club. I read some posts about cheating husbands and no medical insurance and a dozen women telling a 19-year-old who had just suffered a miscarriage not to blame herself because she’d had a cup of coffee. Someone frantically posted, “Is there any danger of over-consuming elderberry syrup?!” I introduced myself as a 38-year-old mother of three, divorced, and dating a man eight years younger, pregnant with her fourth baby and his first. Other women commented, women who’d lived through some variation of these confounding factors before, to tell me it all turned out fine.
It’s easy to glorify the idea of “community,” whatever it means. Perhaps some element of a community must be that it’s not entirely optional. The longer our lives go on, the more we self-sort, into universities, professions, and neighborhoods, by class, race, religion, and the thousands of cultural markers that signify these things. Of course, the Burbank YMCA is self-sorted, too, and so is BabyCenter, but their membership criteria cast a pretty wide net.
I seek out little friendships because I like to like people. It makes me feel open-minded and kind. It’s easy to be a Nice Person. It’s condescending, too, to excuse some people from the rigorous strictures to which I hold my better friends, or myself. I like everyone on BabyCenter, but I don’t necessarily respect the woman who wants her husband to cut the cord with his teeth.
It’s a privilege to live safely enough that you can afford to give a friendly nod to everyone. As a straight, middle-class white lady, I can assume that even if some people don’t like me, they probably don’t actively wish me harm. Some people and their beliefs are simply beyond the pale, and we don’t owe them our indulgence. A lot of our community members likely believe things we would never countenance in our close friends or relatives, but we don’t have to know about it so long as we only see them at 6 p.m. on Mondays.
It’s a privilege to live safely enough that you can afford to give a friendly nod to everyone.
I keep interrogating my motivations, but my love for my birth club, for my 6 p.m. spinning class, is sincere, deeply felt, anterior to interrogation. Those first few minutes of class on Monday when everyone was shouting truisms across the rows of bikes (“the first trimester is the worst,” “twins are a handful,” “teething is hard”) were an act of imaginative empathy, of real community, of respect, and not just smug tolerance or bloodless courtesy.
I traveled to Paris when I was four months pregnant and suffered from jet lag for days after I got home. I’d wake up every morning at 2 or 3 a.m. That’s when I’d sign onto BabyCenter in my still, dark house, my BF and DD and DS1 and DS2 sleeping, and scroll through page after page, occasionally commenting, but mostly just enjoying the camaraderie of many sleepless women in many still, dark places, giddy about their latest ultrasound, anxious because they accidentally ate some deli meat, grieving because they couldn’t find a heartbeat, feuding with their MIL about whether to name their baby Sara or Sarah. And when DD2 arrives, this is the first place I’ll go to share the news, to receive dozens of anonymous blessings from weird strangers all across America.
This story was originally written in 2018. Margaret (DD2) was born in September 2018 and now I get weekly Baby Center emails for four children.