Growing up, Laura had a tumultuous relationship with her parents, in particular her mother, who was emotionally abusive. As an adult, she would weep after every one of her mom’s visits, and in January, she began distancing herself, seeking advice through Reddit support groups for people in similar situations.
Laura — who, like others in this article, has been granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of their stories — came across a subreddit called r/MomForAMinute. It was through this 140,000-member community that she found online what had evaded her IRL: a caring family.
On r/MomForAMinute, people post thoughts that they can’t or won’t share with their real mothers, and strangers reply with advice or affirmations. Messages run the gamut, from “How do I tell my professor I can’t show up to the final when I haven’t been in class for half the semester?” to “I’m doing okay, mom.” Some r/MomForAMinute members post memorials to lost loved ones in public posts. Others, like Laura, are no longer connected with their parents. Whatever the reason, if someone needs a comforting parental message, someone else answers.
When she first joined in February, Laura mostly lurked on the forum, reading what others wrote. At one point, she reached out for motherly advice. But in June, the child-free twentysomething decided to start writing daily posts to her “internet family” in the tone of an older, wiser 60-year-old mother. “I remember telling you jokes when you were little just to hear your beautiful laughter. I love you, sweetheart,” she’ll write. “I’ll talk to you later. I love you too, mama,” comes a reply from a random anonymous account.
Laura’s online mothering involves her playing a character of sorts but one that’s an extension of herself. “When my mother had good days, I would sit with her in the mornings and listen to her talk,” she says. “I wanted to give that hurt little girl a better version of that.”
And it’s not just moms. There’s also r/PepTalksWithPops and r/DadForAMinute. A handful of members from across these subreddits choose not to become a faux parent but opt to be a cool brother, wholesome grandma, or the grandad who bores you with stories of how it used to be.
During shutdown, these spaces have become messageboards for those airing Covid-19 anxieties. Stories are shared from people who’ve experienced their loneliest year ever or worried children scared for their hospitalized parents — “I want you to know that I will never leave this Earth without a fight,” comes a reply. A Christmas set to be spent apart from family is only making these messages more earnest.
“They are not always happy experiences, but to see people helping others, if only by listening, is a good thing when we’re all feeling far apart.”
To those on a similar journey to Laura’s, these communities can provide comfort in that when a person “speaks” to a parent they’re grieving, someone speaks back. “It may be 10 years since their parents have died, but when people really want to say ‘I miss you, mum,’ they have a forum to do that,” says Debra Bassett, a researcher at the University of Warwick who specializes in death and virtual afterlives. “They know these people aren’t their parents, but they still want someone to say how proud they are of them. That can be cathartic.”
Stand-in internet moms and dads can be any age and come from any walk of life. Some are twentysomething university students acting as moms to people double their age. Others are middle-aged “internet dads” like Stephen.
In the summer of 2017, Stephen was having problems with alcohol. He discovered a form of therapy in Reddit, finding communities of recovering addicts who understood his problems and listened without judgment.
Earlier this year, Stephen began to fall back into old habits. He says he felt “disconnected” from everyday life but could not figure out why. So, he thought back to those days on Reddit and how they helped him through the rough times. He stumbled across r/PepTalksWithPops. The stories there, of people who’d lost parents and parents who’d lost children, resonated with him more powerfully than he expected. A few years ago, the last of his four daughters left the family home. “I thought I dealt with them leaving well,” he remembers. “But apparently I had some more feelings around that.”
On r/PepTalksWithPops, he came across children who’d lost fathers to illness or who had recently become dads themselves. “I couldn’t leave them alone in their struggles. I had to respond,” he remembers. “That is when I realized I have much more dad-ing to do.”
Like Laura, Stephen now starts his day with a good morning post on r/DadForAMinute. He makes his readers virtual coffee, microwaves imaginary bacon, and is there to tell them everything will be okay. “Think about the last time you could do something for someone you love. How did that feel?” he says. “This feels the same. If I can help these people even a little bit, how nice would that be for both of us?”
“This group is very much the opposite of what the rest of the internet feels like to me,” says r/DadForAMinute moderator u/forefatherrabbi. “It’s nice to see a place where people support each other and share their experiences. They are not always happy experiences, but to see people helping others, if only by listening, is a good thing when we’re all feeling far apart.”
“Since I started writing these posts, I’ve felt it easier to be more compassionate and loving towards myself and others.”
Moderating a group like r/DadForAMinute has challenges. Sometimes, u/forefatherrabbi says, the group is mistaken for a fetish community by people looking to be dominated by “daddies.”
“[On r/DadForAMinute], you get to say things you’ve been holding back and have others support you. Kink and fetish posts really take away from that,” u/forefatherrabbi says. “We don’t judge; this is just not the place for it.”
But most interactions are aboveboard. Some members treat the group as a personal diary, albeit one that’s read by thousands of people. Others want to vent their frustrations, telling the group what they could never tell their parents. Engagements announcements are made, pictures of new pets are shared, coming out stories are told.
Laura says she keeps those she speaks with at arm’s length for her own well-being. “People see my posts and think I’m someone they can confide in,” she says. “But to respond to comments every day takes its toll when I’m already on my own recovery journey.”
This Christmas, many people will be isolated from their families thanks to quarantine measures stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. Parents will Zoom with their children, and grandmothers will meet grandchildren through closed windows. Many of those on r/MomForAMinute will spend this period alone, but outpourings of Christmas messages are already flooding the group from people proudly announcing their sobriety to members asking how to cope with spending their first Christmas without a mom.
With the world disconnected, role-playing as fake parents may not be so surreal anymore, and what exists on niche internet forums isn’t confined to that. “Since I started writing these posts, I’ve felt it easier to be more compassionate and loving towards myself and others,” said Laura. In Stephen’s case, he rejected the typical timeline of a dad, waving children off to university before the inevitable midlife crisis. Instead, when Stephen’s children no longer needed his fatherly advice, he found others who did.