Today, making best friends on the internet is common. But 10 years ago, it was a bit more rare.
So a group of expectant mothers who are still friends a decade after meeting in an online forum are pioneers of sorts.
During her first pregnancy, Texas mom-of-four Briean Vandeventer felt isolated and alone. She was young, and the only one of her friends who was pregnant. Her doctor suggested she find an online group and reluctantly, she began to research her options.
"I knew nothing about pregnancy or babies at the time," said Vandeventer. "The prospect of having my own baby was scary and I wondered if I was alone in that or if there were other women out there who could give me some advice."
Vandeventer joined a group for pregnant women due in November 2008 on the pregnancy and motherhood site JustMommies. There were more than 50 women in it, and Vandeventer quickly made connections.
One of the users was Chelsea Arledge, a California mom-to-be. When Arledge's water broke at just over 19 weeks pregnant, she says the moms in the forum had her back while she spent 24 days on bedrest and gave birth prematurely at 23 weeks.
"They never once questioned my decision to continue with a pregnancy that was, by all medical statistics, surely not going to end well," recalled Arledge. "I never lost hope and they never left my side."
Arledge's son, Travis, spent his first 142 days in the hospital, fighting for his life.
"Most of what I documented during his long NICU stay consists of my posts in my mommy group — updates on his condition and my cries and pleading for prayers as we watched him tap on heaven's door more than a few times," said Arledge. "And life was not smooth sailing after his discharge from the hospital. He was still a very fragile baby who had many follow-ups and therapy, but I was never alone because I had my tribe."
Travis recently celebrated his 10th birthday and today is thriving. To celebrate the milestone, Vandeventer and six other moms from their JustMommies group traveled to California.
Vandeventer wrote about the experience on Love What Matters, saying, "Last weekend, I flew halfway across the United States to attend a child’s 10th birthday party with a group of women that I met on the internet. Yes — you read that right. And yes, I’m aware of how crazy it sounds."
But for Destiney Robb, a Louisiana mom and member of the JustMommies group who also traveled to the birthday party, their trip wasn't crazy — it was perfectly typical for her friends.
"Over the last 10 years, I've seen this group come together in so many ways," said Robb, recalling the JustMommies' help after her son's autism diagnosis. "If I've ever had a question, these girls have had answers — or at least ideas. They have loved and supported me through the bad days and during victories, no matter how small, they've been there to celebrate with me."
"Our group has supported each other through divorces, marriages, catastrophic illnesses, suicides, college graduations, deployments, moves across the country and moves across continents," said Katie Yeh, who lives in California. "We have an incredible group of women from all walks of life, various ages, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds — and none of it matters."
The group has seen heartbreaking losses together: One mom lost a child at age three of cancer; another child was killed in a car accident at age five. Each time a group member is in crisis, these moms show up.
Robb says while some have poked fun at their meeting online, their friendship has stood the test of time.
"We actually coined the term 'imaginary friends' because at first, people did have a hard time accepting that I had an online mommy group," said Robb. After her "real life" friends saw the group mobilize during times of tragedy, that changed. "I don't think anyone questions it now. The age of online friends has come a long way in the last 10 years — who doesn't have an online relationship nowadays?"
For those hoping to find their own "mommy friends" online, Vandeventer offers a litmus test.
"Hold out for the right one," she said. "Stay away from the groups that are constantly arguing about the right or wrong way to parent. Find the women that are cheering each other on and encouraging one another."