At a time when moms are screaming in fields and experiencing arguably more burnout than ever before, an online parenting group is giving them the space to be angry, crass, honest and shamelessly imperfect.
Alexis Barad-Cutler, 41, was tired of curated Instagram feeds, filtered momfluencers, and holier-than-thou Facebook mom groups that made her feel worse about her parenting.
"Whenever I would go to my mom groups, it felt like I was having a completely different experience than what my peers were having," Barad-Cutler told TODAY Parents. "I was mired in postpartum anxiety, depression and psychosis, and my baby was really colicky. So it just felt like there was a cellophane between me and the rest of the world — like I was living on a different planet."
A former children's book editor, Barad-Cutler decided to write about her experience, eventually submitting articles to various parenting publications. But she said even established media outlets weren't always comfortable publishing articles depicting motherhood as anything less than idyllic.
"That's where it started — the idea that I couldn't say these things out loud," she added. "I wanted to create a community. I wanted a place for people to go and be able to say the things that they're feeling out loud."
In 2018, Barad-Cutler went public with Not Safe For Mom Group (nsfmg), an online community for all parents, including those who are hoping to become parents or are caregiving in other ways. A member doesn't have to identify as a mom in order to join — all are welcome, as long as users abide by a few rules.
"You don't have to preface anything by saying, 'I love my baby' — it is assumed that you love your child," Barad-Cutler explains. "We invite you to curse — we love a good curse word. We welcome a difference of opinion, and we encourage people to use language like 'folks' or 'friends' — not heteronormative language, because we know that not everyone is married or cisgender."
Now, (nsfmg) has over 29,000 members, providing users with online conversations that are moderated by other users, and ways to post anonymously if they feel so inclined. The group was recently featured in The New York Times, and launched the Not Safe For Mom Group Podcast on Jan. 16, 2022, surpassing 1,000 downloads in just a few months.
Growing a filter-free online community of parents and caregivers has not been easy, Barad-Cutler admitted, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a nationwide racial reckoning and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"You know, I started this community saying, 'You will not be judged; this is stigma-free; no judgement. Say anything.' But then we hit a real wall politically, with the 2016 presidential race and with Black Lives Matter," she explained. "It was really hard to moderate certain discussions. At one time, I said, 'If you're a Trump supporter, you're not welcome here.' I was judgmental at the time, and looking back I have mixed feelings about it because I'm supposed to be open, as a moderator."
Barad-Cutler said that while she felt attacked by people with opposing political views, and protective of the people she loves who were being harmed by certain Trump-era policies, she realized she had to be an open-minded community leader.
"I'd say that was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," she added.
The ongoing global pandemic also poised a significant challenge, especially when conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine rhetoric permeated the platform.
"Now there's a very different thread of mother who considers herself super liberal and not anti-vaccine, but doesn't want to put the COVID-19 vaccine in her children under 5. And she believes the fact that we're 'promoting' the vaccine to be 'disgusting.' That person exists in our community, and I was so shocked to see her there. And she doesn't want to be judged. She doesn't want to hear us say, 'Well OK, I get that you have an opinion, but just know that your opinion affects everybody else.'"
Barad-Cutler said she received a lot of hate mail for refusing to end any discussions about the COVID-19 vaccine, or deciding not to discourage people from challenging anti-vaccine views. But in the end, she said those conversations are just one of the many reasons why (nsfmg) exists.
"A lot of people say, 'Why are we talking about this stuff? This doesn’t have to do with motherhood.' It has everything to do with motherhood," she explained. "Motherhood is political. Motherhood is about science. We can’t just say, 'Oh, I only want to talk about maternal mental health.' It’s not separate from everything else — it’s all a part of the same thing."
'We made it a place where you can say anything you want and ask anything you want'
While (nsfmg) is continuing to grow and evolve, the core mission of the group remains — providing moms with a space to say what they've been so afraid, and often discouraged, to say out loud.
"One major admission that I have always felt stigmatized for is not always enjoying motherhood, and, in fact, sometimes regretting it," Kayla, 35, a mom of two living in California, told TODAY Parents. "I love my children dearly — see how I have to add that disclaimer? — but motherhood is hard. I never felt judged for not pretending it’s always rainbows and butterflies with (nsfmg)."
Kayla, a special education teacher and mental health and sustainability advocate, joined (nsfmg) shortly after it was founded, and credits the group for helping her make it through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Something unique about (nsfmg) is that candidness is welcomed and encouraged," she explained. "You’ll find moms cursing or revealing their deepest secrets with flagrant honesty. As moms, we’ve especially had to hold it together during the pandemic, for our children. It’s been invaluable to have a space like (nsfmg) to be able to let it all go."
Molly Minnick, 25, who became a mom just four weeks before the pandemic hit, said (nsfmg) saw her through the toughest moments of new parenthood.
"The loneliness and isolation was so real in every way imaginable," Minnick told TODAY Parents. "(nsfmg) has kept me grounded and made me feel so incredibly seen and validated in my struggles as we all navigated the unknown."
And while the group does not always agree, Minnick is grateful to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints she may not otherwise come across in her every day life, especially when people are often encouraged to avoid discussing politics in order to "keep the peace."
"People are able to have hard conversations, controversial conversations even, without fear of retaliation," she explained. "It's a melting pot of people who have such incredible, unique, and captivating stories for others to learn from."
Manisha Priyadarshan, 33, who was initially a (nsfmg) member and now is the head of marketing for the group, was often the only woman of color in other mom groups she joined.
"It didn't feel great," she told TODAY. "It kind of made me feel like a little bit of an outsider. I left thinking, 'This isn't it. These aren't my people. Where are the moms that are struggling? Where are the moms that look and feel like me?'"
After discovering (nsfmg) on Instagram, Priyadarshan realized that diversity and inclusivity were paramount — she joined shortly afterwards. Now, as a member of the team, she said the group remains dedicated to welcoming everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or parental status.
"A lot of the content that we put out there is highlighting Black, Indigenous, and other moms of color. We're highlighting people and folks who don't fit 'the bill' of 'what a mother should look like,'" she said. "Highlighting queer moms and opening the door to trans parents. We're continuously putting it out there that this is a community for everyone. If you are a mother, you love mothers or you want to know more about mothers, you're welcome here."
"We made it a place where you can say anything you want and ask anything you want," she added. "And that has really helped to give everyone that inclusive feeling."
Barad-Cutler said that when it is safe, the group will provide local in-person gatherings, expanding (nsfmg) to "local chapters" that foster community.
Kayla, the mom of two, said she can't wait. But until then, she'll continue to engage with all kinds of moms on the (nsfmg) digital platform.
"I count on moms I know online who value the group as 'my people,'" she said. 'Women with whom I can be real and drop an F-bomb every once in a while without judgment."