The Motherload: How pandemic anger almost destroyed a mums' support group

By Kirstie Brewer
BBC News

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image copyrightKate Dyson

Kate Dyson set up a Facebook group for mums when she was suffering from post-natal depression. It helped her recover, and running The Motherload - which now has 107,000 members - has been a rewarding experience. But as the pandemic wore on, abusive messages started flooding in, and Kate came close to shutting the whole thing down.

"There was a real Blitz-style sense of camaraderie during the first lockdown," Kate Dyson says.

"I had a nine-year-old and seven-year-old who needed homeschooling, and nowhere to take my two-year-old. It's been a real rollercoaster."

Back then, everyone seemed to be respecting The Motherload's motto - "sharing the load of motherhood, without judgement" - save for the odd comment from overly competitive homeschoolers.

For many of the group's members, The Motherload helped to make up for the absence of playgroups and real-life contact with other mums, and the increased activity meant more work for Kate and her team of volunteer moderators.

Every day The Motherload's inbox is filled with as many as 800 posts waiting to be approved, and there was a stage when Kate and the team were also getting hundreds of private messages.

Amy Woodall, a mum of three living in Berkshire, is one of those who have appreciated the frank and honest discussions that take place among the group.

"This group posts all the real, the gritty, the unpostable things - the things we won't post on our own page because of the stigma and the worries we aren't good parents," she says.

"For example, there have been mums admitting that some days they've given in and let the kids on the tablet for longer than they should - or that a glass of wine was drunk by 4pm and a takeaway was ordered for tea," says Amy.

Chloe de Mornay - mum to one and expecting another - says being able to smile and laugh along with everyone else's highs and funny stories, and sometimes share their pain, has been good for her mental health.

"Knowing that I'm not alone when I've been wanting to tear my hair out, or cry in the bathroom has been such a support," she says.

I have always wanted it to have the feel that we are all sitting on the same sofa... it's why any abuse feels deeply personal
Kate Dyson
Founder of The Motherload

Kate gets a lump in her throat when she hears this kind of positive feedback.

"I've seen so many members join when they were pregnant, and now their children are starting school," she says. "It is a real privilege to share their motherhood journey."

She likens running the group to inviting people into her home.

"I have always wanted it to have the feel that we are all sitting on the same sofa, having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine together," she says. It's why any abuse feels deeply personal."

Kate set up the group in 2015 for herself and eight other new mums she'd met locally in West London. It started life as the Sandpaper Eyes Club because none of them were getting any sleep.

She had recently had her first daughter, Bess, and was struggling with what she'd later discover was postnatal depression (PND), severe anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress after a traumatic birth.

image copyrightKate Dyson

On the UK's biggest online community for mums she didn't get the support she was hoping for.

"I went on to Mumsnet to find people like me, who would tell me it was going to be OK and that the way I was feeling was totally normal," she says.

Instead she was greeted by a wall of harsh judgement.

"People said I was ungrateful and didn't deserve to have children," she says. "I was told Social Services should take my children away."

She'd scroll through the comments in the dead of night and feel like a monster.

"It was so awful and very nearly led me down a very dark path."

image copyrightKate Dyson

Mumsnet founder and CEO Justine Roberts said she was saddened and shocked by Kate's account.

"Mumsnet users are incredibly supportive of women with PND," she said. "Our large, professional moderation team only sees posts that are reported to them. If Kate had reported any posts like those she describes they would certainly have been removed."

By contrast, Kate says, the Sandpaper Eyes Club acted as a supportive sanctuary, and as it developed into The Motherload, she wanted it to be the same for others. She knows that even mums who are not depressed can be isolated, exhausted and stressed-out.

As the group grew, a smattering of petty Facebook groups were set up to bitch about Kate and dissect screengrabs of her personal posts. Occasionally her name has cropped up on gossip forums like Tattle Life and she's felt the sting of having her appearance, and parenting, ripped into by strangers.

But it's the abuse that crescendoed after the pandemic arrived that has been the hardest to handle, she says. It mostly takes the form of "abusive, demanding and entitled" inbox messages, criticising the way the group is run and angrily questioning why a post hasn't been approved, or why a post has been taken down.

"It is this continual, consistent messaging which starts from an aggrieved point and becomes a barrage of venting," she says.

"It feels like we are their punch bags - like we are the portals for all of their anger."

The original poster had asked for the good, the bad and the ugly - but didn't like hearing the ugly
Kate Dyson
Founder of The Motherload

Not all posts can be approved - because they don't meet the group's guidelines perhaps, or because too much has already been posted on the topic, or simply because there are too many posts for the moderators to stay across on a given day.

Some mums have been taking this perceived slight very personally and sending lengthy voice notes or emails. It is only a minority of members, but in a group which is tens of thousands strong, it still has a big impact, says Kate.

The final straw came earlier this year, when Kate approved a post which asked other mums for their experiences of leaving a baby to "cry it out" - a sleep training strategy called the Ferber method.

Kate knew the topic had the potential for heated debate. "We will keep an extra close eye on 'controversial' posts that might upset people," she says.

"For example, anything to do with sleep training, breastfeeding versus formula milk, weaning, and whether to use disposable nappies or cloth ones."

Sure enough, people in the comments didn't sugar-coat what they thought of the Ferber method.

"People became very vociferous in their opinions," says Kate. "The original poster (OP) had asked for the good, the bad and the ugly - but didn't like hearing the ugly."

If things turn nasty, the moderators will step in with a warning, close the comments or extinguish the debate altogether by removing the post in question.

Moderating the Motherload

  • Fourteen volunteer moderators pitch in any time between 7am and 10pm every day - among them ex-social workers, two ex-police officers, a therapist and a health visitor - while Kate herself puts in up to 10 hours of screen-time daily
  • As well as moderating posts they have a rising number of requests for help dealing with domestic violence and mental health crises - the team checks the person is safe and tries to put them in touch with local support
  • Despite its size, The Motherload generates at best a couple of hundred pounds per month through sponsored advertisements, Kate says

On this occasion it was the OP who, in Kate's opinion, had crossed the line by swearing at other commenters and telling them to get off of her post.

"That wasn't within the group's ethos, and I took the post down," she says.

"At that point she [the OP] became very angry and sent me private messages," says Kate.

The first one came in just as her two daughters returned from school.

"They were bouncing around telling me about their day as the anxiety grew and I was split between talking to them and making their post-school snacks, and dealing with this anger and rising adrenaline from my phone."

The messages continued at such an intensity that it all became too much, she says.

"Inevitably, I snapped at the girls to give me a minute because the messages had put me on edge so much - that happens, or used to happen, an uncomfortable amount of times."

In a tearful Facebook Live, Kate said: "The Motherload has become a place that is causing me a lot of anxiety, where I am nervous to open my messages because 99% of the time it is anger I am met with, and that's become really bad.

"When you message me I am not in a customer service unit, I am on my knackered Ikea sofa, with my family. You are coming right into my life."

As the pandemic has worn on, Kate has noticed that people's thresholds for irritation have lowered and they're more likely to lash out.

"I know that the mental health of parents has plummeted with all the stress and intensity of the pandemic, and a large proportion of the behaviour I am seeing is because people are at the end of their tether," she says.

"But so am I. I am also a mum living through this pandemic, and so are my moderators."

After a long chat with her husband, who is a breakfast radio DJ, Kate decided not to close the group down, but make some changes instead.

The team no longer personally reply to The Motherload inbox using their own accounts and anyone who continues to directly contact the team will be warned, and then removed from the group. People whose posts are declined still get feedback, using the feature Facebook provides.

"We will prioritise our team's mental health above all; please respect this boundary," reads the announcement about changes posted on the group.

image copyrightKate Dyson

There's another reason Kate has kept The Motherload going, even when the task has felt thankless.

When she was struggling with her mental health as a new mum, there was a woman who ran a parent and baby group in a church near to where she lived at the time, in London.

"She used to welcome every mum to it with the kindest smile, and would clasp your hand in hers and look you in the eye to say hello," she says.

"I was struggling with the loss of my identity and she made you feel 'seen' for maybe the first time that week."

It felt like such a rare thing at that point, and she's never forgotten it.

"I've always wanted to extend that warmth that she showed me when I was struggling the most.

"And honestly, when I was at the point of giving it up this voice inside of me reminded me of that wonderful woman and how important it is that mums have that kindness and support, like I was shown by her."

The group is, hands down, the only thing that has got me through the toughest year of my whole life
Toni Rhodes
Member of The Motherload

Mums like Toni Rhodes, who gave birth in the pandemic for the first time, are pleased the group still exists.

Her baby boy Curtis was only seven weeks old when he tested positive for Covid-19. He caught it in March 2020, just as the pandemic was tightening its grip on the UK.

Toni was terrified, and in the absence of real-life contact with other mums, turned to The Motherload, for help and comfort.

"The group is, hands down, the only thing that has got me through the toughest year of my whole life," says Toni, who lives near Basildon in Essex.

"Not only for baby advice but for making me laugh and definitely for feeling less isolated. I got more support here than I did from any health professional."

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