Dear VFN WhatsApp Group,
It’s been several years now since I joined this group, at which time I was just over halfway through my first pregnancy. Like many of us, I was far away from my family and friends. I felt thrust into an exceedingly complex and bewildering system and was overwhelmed by a language that seemed to mock my attempts at learning it. I was beginning to realise that maternity leave might turn out to be quite lonely and I was anxious that the most challenging moments I was certain to face would be without the support system on which I had always counted before life made other plans.
My great luck is that at just the right moment I met a woman who threw me a rope. We had been working at the same company for a few months and I remember one day casually wondering aloud what on earth I was going to do with all that time when it was just me and the baby and she turned to me and said simply, “You should join a VFN Baby Group”. And so I did.
This isn’t especially original or controversial, but WhatsApp can be both a blessing and a curse. Prior to becoming a parent, I was a reluctant member of a range of groups, some of which I enjoyed more (family photo-sharing) and some less (hen party-planning), but I was genuinely excited to be part of my first WhatsApp group for parents and hoped it would be my gateway into coffee mornings, play dates and hopefully some new friendships. I’m happy to say it was all of those things, but it was also something else entirely, something which I did not expect at all.
Now I cannot claim that all such VFN WhatsApp groups are the same, my experience being limited, but in the wider context of WhatsApp groups this one is special. I could say many things about you all: how brilliant and talented you all are, what amazing and diverse lives you lead, my own luck in having the opportunity to be in touch with all of you. But more than that, with all of our babies due within weeks of each other, how comforting it was to be in the same boat together, comrades-in-arms so to speak.
Of course, there are the first-time mums like me, trepidatious and unsure, each having our own notions of what our lives would be like after B-day without actually having any idea at all. Lucky for us that every step of the way there were the second, third or more-time mums, offering reassurance and advice, understanding our fears and listening without judgement. What a difference your guidance made and I will always be thankful for it.
As the babies arrived, the group time-line picked up speed with a steady stream of questions and answers, a rapid exchanging of ideas and tips tried and tested over the many years and many countries represented by the women. Every topic you could possibly think of and more, from feeding, sleeping, the best nappies, bottles, cribs, bibs, strollers, recipes (I utterly failed at the much raved-about muffins, my fault for sure!) and all-round everyday hacks for mum-life. If it had been on Mumsnet, it would have been the top parenting thread by miles and probably worth a fortune to market research!
Beside the useful information, jokes are told, funny pictures shared and milestones celebrated. Smaller groups spring off like shoots, such as the ‘foodies’ or the ones with kids at the same Kindergarten. Women organise together to arrange picnics and parties. Help is often offered and always welcomed. Sometimes, a voice will cry out in pain or fear and the response is swift, hands reaching out in the darkness to comfort and calm, the message clear: you are not alone.
In the end then, the WhatsApp group became an ethnography of our first precious days, weeks and months with our children. A memoir of what was on our minds and how our brains were working (or not!) throughout those endless reality-bending, sleep-deprived hours. It began as a single thread, then many, and eventually developed into an intricate tapestry that tells the story of mothers taking their first steps with their new babies and doing so shoulder to shoulder, side by side.
With love and thanks to my fellow seamstresses,
Natasha Kendall is a British National married to an Austrian and living in Vienna since 2018. They have one daughter, Elisabeth, who was born in July 2021. Natasha works in category development for a global food company and enjoys reading, writing and exploring Vienna with her family.