On the hit video app, people discuss the pitfalls of parenthood with brutal honesty
Broaching the issue with her family and friends went nowhere, Hibbert said. But on the social app TikTok, she saw young moms talking frankly about loneliness. She started making videos about her experience and quickly made friends on the app that felt “more genuine” than her real-life ones.
The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory this month drawing connections between social media use and loneliness. But for some people, social media is the only place unfiltered conversations about loneliness can play out. Although loneliness and other mental health challenges are the most common complications associated with pregnancy, mothers say judgment and stigma often keep them from discussing these issues with their families and health-care providers. TikTok, for example, with its bustling sub-communities and algorithm, has become a hub for both young parents and the child-free to talk candidly about the role loneliness plays in reproductive choice. But the platform can also be a dangerous place for struggling parents: Abuse and harassment pile up in the comment section of videos that express doubt or frustration about motherhood, creators say.
“If I had watched more TikTok motherhood content before having kids, maybe I could have educated myself,” Hibbert said.
Moms have long used online spaces to discuss the realities of parenthood. In May, influencer Heather Armstrong, who started her own blog more than 20 years ago about her struggles with postpartum depression and conflicting emotions about parenthood, died by suicide.
Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram have also housed active parenting communities. But TikTok’s design makes it an ideal place for discussing stigmatized topics like reproductive health since users can make a video and trust it will reach people who resonate, said Emily Winderman, a professor at University of Minnesota who specializes in the rhetoric of health and medicine. Interacting with one post on the app — whether that’s leaving a comment or simply pausing to watch — signals to the algorithm to show you more videos like it. That means that if you engage with videos about parenthood, child-free lifestyles or loneliness, you’ll soon see more content discussing those topics.
TikTok’s signature unpolished style makes it easy for new creators to jump in, users say, while the app’s stitch function lets people cite each other’s videos and have back-and-forth conversations.
For Farrah Parris, a 27-year-old from West Palm Beach, Fla., she said she was too afraid to go to the doctor during the worst phase of her postpartum depression because she didn’t want her children taken away. So she started talking about depression and loneliness on her TikTok. She feels angry that no one briefed her during pregnancy about the mental heath risks of parenthood, she said, but glad she eventually found a community that wasn’t scared to discuss it.
“When I was growing up, it was, ‘Mom does what she does, and she does it without complaining,’” Parris said. “But today, people are speaking up about how we’re feeling.”
Moms aren’t the only people using TikTok to discuss parenthood and loneliness. Kierren Garcia, a 28-year-old from Tacoma, Wash., uses the app to make videos about her decision to remain child-free, she said. Garcia started keeping a list of the reasons she doesn’t want children after seeing a similar trending list on TikTok. No. 1 is the expense, Garcia said — her sister paid $30,000 out of pocket to have a baby and even got an upcharge for “skin-to-skin contact” after delivery. The threat of loneliness comes in at No. 12, and Garcia adds new entries every week.
“You can get something called ‘postpartum rage,’” she said. “And I had no idea that was a thing until a week ago because I saw a TikTok from a woman who had it.”
Maternal loneliness is a pressing but little-talked-about problem, said Wendy Davis, executive director of Postpartum Support International (PSI), which runs helplines and support groups for struggling parents. Health providers often skip mental health topics during prenatal appointments — and even after delivery — so millions of people each year experience postpartum mental health conditions with little preparation or support, Davis said.
For some parents, loneliness is a result of isolation, said Michelle Kennedy, founder and CEO of Peanut, a friend-finding app for moms that saw its users triple during the pandemic. Moms get little time to spend with friends when their partners don’t contribute equally at home — women in heterosexual relationships still do the bulk of child care and domestic tasks, even when both partners work full-time — and more parents today are raising children far away from their support networks.
Feeling misunderstood by friends, families and health-care providers is another cause of loneliness for moms, Kennedy added. She and others spoke of widespread attachment to an idealized version of motherhood — one where moms are always happy and children are an eternal antidote to loneliness.
On TikTok, people with and without children interrogate those ideals, often for a broad audience.
Maelen Sallee, a 28-year-old in Los Angeles, said she turned to TikTok after a conversation with her grandma left her frustrated.
“She was like, ‘If you don’t have kids, then you might get lonely when you’re older,’” Sallee said.
Sallee, who connected with other folks on “child-free TikTok,” posted a video asking child-free people in their 40s, 50s and 60s to share their experiences — do you feel like you made the right decision, she asked. More than 19,000 people commented, along with more stitches than she could count, Sallee said. Old people, young people, parents and child-free people all responded to her question, discussing the best and hardest parts of raising children or living without them. Some said they were lonely; others said they weren’t. But having children didn’t seem to protect people from loneliness, Sallee said, nor vice versa.
TikTok’s design helps mothers connect with each other and feel less alone. But for some parents with mental health conditions, who are vulnerable to judgment and negative messages, the content could make things worse, PSI’s Davis said. A viral list of pregnancy risks may be informative for one person, but it can be devastating for another, said Davis, who struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter.
“Once I had the baby and I was plunged into this depression and anxiety, had I seen a video like that, my suicidal thoughts would have increased, I just have to say that,” she said.
“We’re proud to be a platform that offers a safe place for moms and parents to comfortably engage in open dialogue, share resources, and find community,” TikTok spokesperson Jessica Allen said. “Our community guidelines make clear we do not allow content that violates our policies, such as harassment, abuse or bullying.”
About a quarter of the United States’ relatively high number of pregnancy-related deaths are caused by mental health conditions such as suicidality or substance abuse, according to 2022 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the start of the pandemic, PSI’s calls with mothers have in general included more distress, anxiety and suicidal ideation, Davis said.
Davis urged creators to consider how their videos about parenthood affect struggling moms and to link to postpartum resources such as PSI.
For Hibbert, who felt forgotten by friends and family after giving birth, TikTok’s popularity among young people is a hopeful sign that more will enter parenthood with an understanding of the risks and responsibilities. She was blindsided by how little support moms receive from society and families — and who knows how her reproductive decisions would have changed had she known, she said.
Understanding postpartum mental health challenges, even in hindsight, makes her feel empowered, she said. When other moms reach out on TikTok saying they’re not sure if they can go on, they talk freely, unencumbered by the cruelty moms encounter in real life.
“When I have a conversation with a mom on TikTok who feels like she just can’t do it anymore, I feel like we can actually talk and express ourselves to each other,” Hibbert said. “When you talk to family or friends, they really judge you for saying certain things.”