Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Fertile Communities of Practice

No, I'm not writing about educational technology, I'm writing about online communities focused around fertility. I have been participating in these communities for seven years, since I became pregnant with my first child. If you are a man, you may not know they exist, or you may wonder why your wife or girlfriend is hopelessly attached to the computer. Your partner may be one of many who have made tens of thousands of posts in just a few years.

In the early days, these started as groups of women supporting each other through pregnancy and parenthood. Signing up with a "due date" club provided a group of ladies to compare symptoms, complain about dear husbands (DH's) and discuss all the things your mother never told you. I believe these groups were healthy and fun and beneficial. Any unusual symptom was greeted with a "go call your doctor!"

Now, the Web is populated with an unlimited supply of medical advice, both real and suspect. There are massive (membership in the thousands) communities surrounding conception or trying to conceive (TTC). Ladies post messages several times a day describing every potential pregnancy symptom in hopes of confirmation from other TTC'ers. Everyone shares their similar symptoms until there is almost mass hysteria pushing each other to "TEST!TEST!TEST!" Community members frequently post that they "know" the other member is pregnant and that this is "their time."

Women waste hundreds of dollars taking early pregnancy tests. When their monthly cycle (AF) arrives, they are extremely discouraged, often "taking a break" to get away from the boards they once found so supportive. Then they begin the same cycle the next month. Some of these women have medical conditions that prevent them from becoming pregnant, yet they still fall into the trap of checking for symptoms and testing early.

If they do become pregnant, they move on to their due date groups and compare symptoms along the way. Rather than contacting a doctor, they will first post unusual symptoms to their boards and wait for responses from others to tell them everything is okay. Other members will search the Web and post quotes from "medical" sites with what the symptoms may mean. Sometimes this prevents the group member from seeking medical attention.

Once the baby arrives, they move to baby clubs where they compare every baby milestone. Again, unusual baby symptoms are posted in hopes of getting a response confirming the baby is developing normally. Advice from other mothers is taken before the advice of medical professionals. Some mothers begin to feel their babies are not progressing normally, even though there is nothing wrong.

If you've read this far, you probably wonder why I care. I'm not trying to condemn these communities, I am expressing valid concern for a culture that has gotten out of control. Here are the reasons why I care.

  1. Seeking medical advice online from people unqualified to give advice and unfamiliar with your unique medical history is dangerous and irresponsible.
  2. Conception is a very personal process usually between two people who love each other and want to start a family. It is more healthful to your relationship to discuss challenges with your partner before placing your trust in a group of strangers. (I have nothing against those who choose to single parent.)
  3. There are very few reasons to take an early pregnancy test, let alone 10 of them. The mob mentality of those encouraging early testing is out of control. The test makers are making a killing off products that are poorly made and frequently inaccurate. Wait until your cycle is late and buy a single test or go to a clinic! (I acknowledge in some cases it is medically necessary to learn this information as early as possible.)
  4. There is a shady commercial industry blossoming around these groups taking advantage of the competitive nature of the members. It is a race to ovulate, conceive, have a first ultrasound, find out the sex of the baby and bring the baby home. Women spend thousands of dollars on ovulation prediction kits, pregnancy tests, books, software, even psychic advisers. There are companies ( and who claim to be able to tell the gender of your baby as early as five weeks after conception. These are not real! They are taking advantage of the fact that they have a 50/50 (or better if they use sophisticated software and demographic data) chance to make a guess at the sex of the baby. There are also commercial ultrasound facilities offering a "first look" at baby. Women rush to these early ultrasounds so they can post photos and compare. I personally do not believe these are always safe. Ultrasound in the hands of an untrained technician is very dangerous. I believe ultrasound will eventually be linked to autism or other neurological problems. It just can't be good to bounce sound waves off a developing brain.
  5. These communities inspire a competitive desire for more "stuff." They encourage materialistic ideals. Women are pushed to create baby registries. They post about multiple baby showers. They have to have every new baby product. Babies don't need all this stuff. Your friends and family don't need to buy you all this stuff.

I am not suggesting these communities be disbanded. I acknowledge they spawn genuine friendships and provide support to people in times of need. I recognize the potential power of these groups to influence buying decisions. I have been an active participant in these communities and have only come to realize the negative side of things by taking a few months off. If you are also a member, I encourage you to take a step back and think before your next post. Think about whether you are pressuring someone to make a personal decision. Think about whether you are bowing to peer pressure.

If you aren't familiar with these communities and would like to do some research, here are some links.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow....nicely said!

10:44 AM  

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