Julie Cole, co-founder of Mabel’s Labels, is the mother of six kids. But her experience raising them was pretty different from your experience raising yours. That’s because her children were born between 1999 and 2009—a time when the internet, while it existed, wasn’t the vast place it is today. My own four kids were born between 1991 and 2002, when the internet was even more of a baby.
“I can’t say whether parenting was better or worse before the internet, but it was certainly different,” says Cole. She and I took a walk down memory lane to remember exactly what it was like raising babies without being able to go online.
Just as my mom relied on Dr. Spock’s famous book for parenting advice, my generation all owned a physical copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. We also subscribed to one or all of the many parenting print magazines available to us (there were tons back then, including Today's Parent) and we picked up all the brochures from the doctor’s office. There was no Google, no WebMD, no pregnancy apps, no parenting Instagram accounts.
While parents today still of course have in-person doctor visits for their babies and kids, when I was parenting young kids, all my medical information came from that one doctor. We saved up our questions (we wrote them down on a piece of paper, which I suppose feels old-fashioned in these days of the iPhone notes app) and asked them during a regularly scheduled appointment, with pretty much no ability to research the topic in between visits. I remember going to open clinics with my first born, where we sat in a circle and asked a doctor all our saved-up questions. I learned so much from other mom’s questions, I suppose the way moms do today reading other moms’ questions in Facebook groups.
One of the best sources of information came from other moms. In-person mom groups, and the very occasional dad group, were extremely popular. We all joined them, as there wasn’t a social media alternative like a Facebook group. It would be either an informal coffee get-together with new-mom friends, or attending a more organized centrally run mom groups who would bring in speakers. We asked questions, and exchanged phone numbers and advice. I remember I joined a mom group with my third child, as I had just moved back to Toronto. The nurse running the group used to look to me for answers to some of the other mom’s concerns. “How long do we sterilize soothers for, Kathy?” I answered by picking one off the floor, putting it in my mouth, then putting it in my two-month-old baby’s mouth.
The grocery store, clothing stores, Blockbuster… Since there was no such thing as ordering stuff online (or streaming), the kids had to come with you pretty much everywhere (or you had to have someone else watch them for you—which wasn’t always easy).
Today, if word of mouth fails, you can find a babysitter through apps and social media. When I was parenting little kids, there were lists of local babysitters that would circulate through the neighbourhood moms. But the moms wouldn’t always give it up! When we moved into our new house in Mississauga, Ont., we had three young kids and try as I might, I couldn’t get my hands on the list. Finally, only when a neighbour was moving to a whole other country, she handed me her list, like it was gold. And it was. Before that, we had to look for flyers taped to telephone poles. There were definitely some desperate times. I remember hiring a 12-year-old who lived on my street to babysit. I had an 11-year-old, a nine-year-old, a four-year-old and a six-month old at the time. They lived!
FaceTiming with grandkids is one of the best things to come out of the internet. A letter and a phone call are great, but nothing can take the place of face-to-face time. Sharing toys, books, jokes…it’s all so much better when you can see each other’s faces light up. When I was parenting small children, we were lucky to have grandparents within an hour’s drive of our house, although our visits were mostly limited to special occasions. This seemed like a lot to me, as all of my grandparents lived in England, and I only met them a handful of times. I think about if we’d had the internet back then, whether I’d have gotten to know them, and their stories, better.
There were no cameras on phones, or even really good, inexpensive cameras that a family could use to get a good picture of their child, so school photos were our only option for a professional-looking shot. We loved the school photos and ordered tons of them to be printed, cut, and mailed to all of our far away relatives, and to have in our wallet to show off at the office.
Naturally there would always be a busybody in a grocery store telling you your baby was cold, hungry, or too fat, but rarely would we get into arguments with total strangers about the well-being of our child, which is now pretty much an everyday occurrence on social media.
My take is this: There’s no doubt that the internet has depersonalized much of our communication, versus face to face, but on the whole, in the complicated and sometimes isolating world of parenting today, it has become a virtual life line.
Kathy Buckworth is the author of six parenting books, and a new novel, MotherBlogger. She is the host of Go-To Grandma, a radio show and podcast. She has four children, and two grandchildren.