When I got pregnant in 2019 with a due date in March 2020, I knew I lacked support but wasn’t worried. I didn’t really have family or friends who were at the ruin-my-free-time-with-a-kid stage in life nearby, but I would find my own community! How hard could it really be? There are apps for that, right?
I had daydreams of strollers parked in a circle around us at an Instagrammable cafe. A group of women bouncing similar-aged babies on their legs, lovingly laughing at our sleep-deprived selves. Complaining about partners and correcting each other when one of us starts a sentence with “I know I’m a bad mom but …” A mom group. No, a Cool Mom group. Becoming a part of one seemed like a rite of passage into parenthood, and I was so excited to find other like-minded moms (or dads!) whom I could commiserate in the trenches of child care with or turn to for support. Look, it was March 2020 — you know what happened next.
Discord, the self-proclaimed “No. 1 app for gamers,” is almost the exact opposite of a cafe surrounded by strollers, but the Animal Crossing Discord “Critter Keepers” for March mamas was where I found my people.
I’ll admit, when we first went into lockdown, I was slightly thrilled. Oh, no one will bother me while I heal and bond with my child and I’m not missing out on anything? Great! But then the scary reminder of what we were avoiding would rear its head. Like the one-parent rule at the pediatrician — I stayed behind in hopes of getting some rest, but instead I paced the apartment worried. Or crying over breastfeeding woes because I didn’t want to Zoom a lactation consultant and the classes at the hospital were canceled. Or when neighbors dropped off food, which we scarfed down graciously and then made ourselves sick worrying if it was safe.
Somehow, throughout all this, I committed myself to being hopeful, and I set out to find some sort of parental community that worked for me. This was more of a challenge than I thought.
The local neighborhood parent forum was tough to read (mostly because it worked like a website from the ’90s) and was so serious. There were no reaction GIFs or jokes about babies being *ssholes (which they are). I did try to do a couple of socially distant outside meetups through the group. A turning point came when a maskless mom helped herself to my blanket while her baby crawled over to my child and sat on her. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for in-person yet.
Facebook groups destroyed new parents like they were our democracy. Members were toxic, constantly fighting, putting others down, and dividing into like-minded subgroups.
I joined a Slack channel, which seemed promising but then it became focused on a few moms who rarely let others have their time. Oh, and I made the mistake of mentioning my daughter (5 months old at the time) enjoyed sippy cups. A group called Momerinos, moms who enjoyed True Crime, was promising, but I had trouble connecting because most of the members had older kids, plus cold cases and serial killer stories, things I used to anxiously devour, no longer soothed my new-mom brain.
Reddit Bumpers was thrilling when I was pregnant (Pregnancy updates! Nursery photos! Pets wearing baby clothes!) but slowed way down once everyone posted their birth stories. I continued to lurk and occasionally post until I saw a post inviting moms to join an Animal Crossing group on Discord.
It was a way to interact with people safely. I can’t tell you how many times I visited the clothing store in the game just to pretend I was in a Target in real life.
Desperate for some sort of interaction while I spent hours breastfeeding, I had finally purchased Animal Crossing New Horizons right at the tail end of its popularity, when my daughter was around 4 months old. The only thing I knew was that it had animals and that it was basically a never-ending chores list. What more could a girl want? While the game can be played solo, it’s more enjoyable when you can interact with other users by visiting their islands to exchange items, make money (bells), and hang out while communicating using minimal avatar reactions. There’s a reason some joked that Nintendo planned the game’s release with the pandemic. It was a way to interact with people safely. I can’t tell you how many times I visited the clothing store in the game just to pretend I was in a Target in real life. After four months of grinding out (catching bugs and fish) and finally getting all the rooms in my house (paying a mortgage to a raccoon… it’s a fun game!), I started to find other people to play with by searching Twitter to see who would open their island to strangers. I once went to a 13-year-old’s treasure hunt birthday party. (I found some socks.) So I was thrilled, when my two pastimes of trying to connect with other parents and decorating a fake island were merging.
I joined Critter Keepers, a private, invite-only Discord group, six months ago, and it’s one of the most joyous things in my postpartum life. Groups on Discord are mainly for communicating with other gamers through chat, streaming, and voice message. It’s set up a lot like Slack since you join groups and communicate on different channels within them. Kamielle, the group’s creator, worked hard to organize topics into two channels: Animal Crossing (design inspo, tips, flying invites) and parenthood (food, rants, tears, and of course, pictures). Critter Keepers is her favorite of the several Discords that she runs or admins. She is naturally warm and maternal even through the same lifeless screen you’ve been staring at for months, especially to people like me who stumbled onto Discord for the first time. As a second-time mom, Kamielle has provided sage wisdom to us first-time moms without being condescending, plus she’s the hook up if we ever need anything for our islands. (She has her ways.) I don’t know how she’s managed to collect a group of strangers who not only get along but are fun and supportive as well. We all seem to be what we were looking for.
Michelle is the group’s fierce cheerleader. She’s the first one to tell members they are awesome, gorgeous, smart, or whatever we need to hear someone say. And is quick to post one of my favorites of the group’s emojis, a blob with a knife, if someone’s partner isn’t being supportive enough. She found soap-making as a hobby and sent us all some. Through the group’s encouragement, she’s launching her own soap store. We helped her come up with a name and are some of her first customers. One member very graciously designed an incredible, probably award-winning new logo for her. (It was me.)
On Tuesdays, another member, Sara, streams Japanese teen dramas for us to watch together. We celebrated the new year in Animal Crossing at 8 p.m., all gathered on one island. I was devastated to learn I missed the hot dog party where everyone dressed their avatars up as hot dogs and danced. Next month we are doing another island-hopping event. The first one happened soon after I joined and was one of the first “mom” events I ever participated in.
If I need to talk, they are always in my pocket. They’ve made me laugh and cry tears of joy, helped me be a better mom to my baby, and helped me feel less lonely in this long time of isolation.
A few weeks ago, we all took pictures of the heaviest thing our new breasts can hold underneath them. We’ve done gift exchanges, vent sessions, discussed The Bachelor, and begged each other for more baby photos. If I need to talk, they are always in my pocket. They’ve made me laugh and cry tears of joy, helped me be a better mom to my baby, and helped me feel less lonely in this long time of isolation.
Months later, I realize why an Animal Crossing mom group was what I needed. The game naturally lends itself to having you help others and making you ask for help in order to succeed. People who play and seek out others seem to be naturally generous. If any of us needed materials to make furniture or had hard to get items we were pining for, all we had to do is ask each other. Soon, asking for materials turned into asking what kind of solid foods we should feed our babies or tips on how to get a breastfeeding clog out. And while we all had the same tools and islands to start off with, it was neat to see how others created their own paths. Same with parenthood. We just want to help each other create happy things.
Oddly enough, my gratitude for finding a mom group that is as supportive and loving as this one has helped me find my way back to the optimistic woman I was a year ago. Friendship as an adult is tricky enough without the bonus societal hurdles we place on parents to get everything right. You just have to be open to finding it in seemingly unlikely places, like from a fictional woodland creature on an imaginary island, while breastfeeding at 3 a.m.
Header Photo Credit: Future Publishing, Sara Monika/Getty Images, Animal Crossing