When I see what happens to me online, it really is just how society treats women in general, amplified.
Digital hate, harassment, and violence hurts so many women, girls, and Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people. Content creators who address gender justice like Libby Ward have a lot to teach us about it.
I’m Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What? a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder, “why is this still happening?” We explore systemic routes and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
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Whether you’re on social media, streaming platforms, dating, messaging and meeting apps, or on game sites, if you’re a woman, girl, or Two Spirit, trans, or non-binary person, you’re at greater risk of hate, harassment, and violence.
Kelly Odenweller’s research identifies common gendered stereotypes and assumptions about mothers and motherhood. They can easily make mothers feel as if they’re not living up to an ideal. If other people treat them poorly because of these stereotypes, they can feel isolated, anxious, and depressed.
It’s a sense of caring community and allyship that can make a world of difference. No wonder motherhood content and content about raising kids is so popular in digital spaces. Mothers may seek it out to find belonging, connection, and representation.
The trouble is that digital spaces also carry risk for diverse mothers and caregivers. They might find themselves targeted online based on their motherhood, as much as they’re targeted for other elements of who they are.
Over coming months, we’re delving into gendered digital hate and harassment with leading experts and content creators, releasing in-depth episodes every single week. We talk about the problem and what we can do to change it. We offer practical tips to help you in your digital life, and we talk about what it means to “take back the tech” for all of us.
Our guest Libby Ward is a digital creator, speaker, and mental health advocate. She’s known on Instagram and TikTok @diaryofanhonestmom and she’s committed to changing the motherhood narrative. She’s been recognized as a mental health advocate by TikTok, and has been featured on BBC, Good Morning America, Global News, and more. Her bestselling journal, entitled The Honest Mom Journal: The Struggling Mom’s Guide to Struggling Less, has helped thousands of mothers.
My name is Libby Ward and I am a mom of two kids, 7 and 9. I am married, and I live in a small town about an hour away from Toronto, and I am a content creator and a maternal wellness advocate which spans across TikTok, Instagram, my website, public speaking – a lot of different areas. And I came to be in this position in life by accident, completely. So, I grew up in poverty, being raised by a single mom who had undiagnosed and untreated mental illness and moved most years of my life. So, I went through a really turbulent childhood, and I made it my goal to really break that cycle as I grew up and became an adult and got married and had kids. It’s always been my mission to really live differently than how I was raised and try and impact other people for good with my story.
And I’ve always been really passionate about supporting mothers, but when the pandemic hit, I heard of this app called TikTok, started making videos about the hard parts of being a mom, the honest parts that I didn’t feel like people were sharing. And I realized that I was not the only one that didn’t enjoy every aspect of motherhood. And I wasn’t the only one that struggled with people pleasing and perfectionism and overstimulation and my mental health and so many other hard parts about motherhood. And it not only helped me to heal and feel more whole and more empowered to prioritize myself, but it really set me on this path of advocating for mothers in general and letting mothers and women know that we deserve to be whole human beings who are well and taken care of so that, #1 because we deserve it, and #2 so that we can pour that out on to our kids and affect the next generation and the next generation. And so that’s why I call myself a cycle breaker.
And so, I often make content that is funny or silly or heartfelt, but my goal is always to encourage and empower mothers and women to live as their true whole selves. And it is such a privilege to do so. And I love that I get to interact with and learn from and connect with and validate and curate and be a part of this community online that is so diverse, where I can hear so many stories of different women and different mothers and go and spread that message farther to hopefully change the narrative of what it means to be a good mom and what it means to be a mom.
So, there’s sexism and then there’s the particular brand of sexism mothers face. It must be challenging not only sharing your life as a creator but also sharing your struggles with motherhood.
Every single day I get comments and DMs from people who don’t understand my perspective on the world, either because they have a different lived experience or because they see a 10 second snapshot or one part of a story or experience that’s actually quite nuanced. They don’t know my history, they don’t know my past, they don’t know my traumas and my mental health and all of those things and because of that and because of the things that they are carrying, they project onto me these opinions and hate and harassment or just rude nuance things that can be hurtful but that I’ve learned to reframe in a lot of ways. And it can come anywhere from me sharing a real showing how much I appreciate my husband, my partner, for being an active participant in our household and raising our children and people saying things like, “well, that must be nice,” with that undertone of – that’s not what should be expected, and “you are so lucky.” And it’s almost this bitterness of that’s not how men are in the world and almost – “you don’t deserve that.”
And that’s also me reading into it, but I get a lot of these comments from either women saying “that must be nice”. Because of course, there’s so many women living in partnerships where they don’t have a supportive partner. They don’t have a partner who carries part of the load and so when I get comments like that, I have to remember that that is their perspective and it could be coming from jealousy or resentment, and they’re not necessarily trying to attack me, even though I might feel attacked. That’s really just their perspective and realizing that they’re at a different place of learning. They’re in a different place in their life.
I also get a lot of comments from men about the things that I talk about in motherhood and as a woman, you know, comments like, “well, you shouldn’t have had kids in the 1st place if you didn’t want to do everything.” Or comments about being a lazy stay-at-home mom, which is always so fascinating because I’m not a stay-at-home mom. I am a mom, who works full-time from home. But I get a lot of different comments from men and women in different and some similar positions in life who just make a lot of assumptions.
So, it’s perpetuated by the messages that we get in society. So, if the women that you’re surrounded by really buy into this narrative that if you choose to have children, it is completely the woman’s responsibility to give up her identity, her career, her passions, her need for sleep, her need for alone time, her need for quiet. And if you choose to have children, that’s on you to figure it out. It’s not on the partnership, it’s not on society, it’s not on our workplaces, it’s not on the cultural norms and how we interact with our grandparents and extended family. It is this individualistic idea, and this gendered idea that if two people choose to have a child, the woman, the mother, is the one that should have to give up all of those things.
And both men and women, perpetuate this idea for a variety of different reasons. Whether it’s because the people they’re surrounded by are saying those things, impairing those things, and their eyes haven’t been opened to a different perspective. Or whether it’s because it benefits them. I mean, why would a man in a heterosexual relationship who gets to go golfing every Saturday from 9:00 until 3:00 and gets to spend every Sunday afternoon watching football and gets to go to work – I say gets to go to work because when you’re a mom of little kids and you are exhausted by the needs of everybody else, it does feel like you would just love to go to work and be alone in the car for 20 minutes on the way to work. You know, they get to have this alone time and a chance to be autonomous and chance to have fun and a chance to connect with other likeminded people and have adult conversation and have both a family and a fulfilled experience.
Why would they want to change the social norm that women should do at all? It’s not a benefit to them. It is actually a benefit to them, but they don’t see it as a benefit to them that they would have to give up those things in order for their partner to live a more fulfilled human experience. And it’s a really sad reality that mothers feel as though they have to give up their identity when they become mothers. And it’s really sad and it takes a lot of internal work to realize that we’re worth more than that. And I personally see it every single day online, where women and men are just continuously buying into this narrative that we should – this quote “die to self” simply because we have had children.
And it’s really breaking a lot of women and affecting their mental wellness, and I believe robbing men of the experience and the wholeness that they can get and the fulfillment from filling a caregiving role and from being more than just a paycheck and that connection that we all so desperately need. You know, we all know that we’re dealing with this crisis right now of connection where people are feeling so isolated and so lonely, and it’s a benefit to all of us that we have a more equal society, where men and women and mothers and fathers can all live as whole human beings, regardless of whether they have children or not.
I think sharing my life online and hateful comments that I get is reflective of the broader experience of women in general being held to a completely different standard in our society that men are held to – that we should be able to carry the mental load and to be the default parent. Or even if we’re not parents, that we should be able to be the caregivers for the people in our lives and perform perfectly at work while having a baby and then coming back to work immediately and working like we don’t have kids and having kids like we don’t work.
And when I see what happens to me online, it really is just how society treats women in general, amplified. I am seeing, in my DMs, in my comments every day, the little microaggressions that women who never share their lives online face every day. When they go to a work party or they show up to work 10 minutes late because their kid had a meltdown, or when they go to a family get together on Sunday and all the dads sit around having a beer while the women are taking care of the kids and cooking and then Grandma Sandra comes along and says, “well, I did it just fine when I was raising seven kids, don’t you complain.” But I no longer take it personally, because I really just see it as a reflection of what is happening everywhere in society.
One of the good things about social media is that it can allow people to voice the unvoiced and share the under-shared. I imagine your followers must express gratitude for that in what you do.
I would say that 98% of the comments and DMs I get are positive. It has changed my life in a multitude of ways, and it has given me the drive to do more and share more. When I initially started receiving hate for sharing about these hard topics, it knocked me back and I thought, I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I can take this on. But the more women that reached out and said, “you’re the first person who has shared this experience that I’ve had and I have felt completely alone in the world, you’ve changed my life or you’ve changed my perspective or you’ve given me the confidence to see a therapist or you’ve given me the confidence to have a hard conversation with my partner, you empowered me to go back to work, you empowered me to stay home and not care what anyone thinks” – that is what drives me to keep going and realize that by sharing about the hard things, that’s what’s changing narrative for women. That’s what’s empowering us to say: “You know what, I am not crazy for being overwhelmed. Any human being would be overwhelmed with what I’m carrying. I am not needy for having emotions and sharing those. That is a normal human experience, and those emotions should be validated and maybe it’s not that there’s something wrong with me, maybe it’s that there’s something wrong with society or with my partnership, or how people treat women in general.” And to look outside of their own experience and say, “it’s not just me.”
Because as women, we tend to self-blame, self-shame and the more shame we have, the more we sit in isolation, the more we don’t want to share because goodness forbid, we’re the only one who’s had that experience and what does that say about me. And it really puts us into this dark corner.
What I want to do is allow all women, all mothers, to see their individual needs and in their individual circumstances, how they can be empowered. There’s no one way to be a good mom. There’s no one way to be a good woman, to be a good person. There’s no such thing as perfection, and we’re sold this idea in society that if you tick all these boxes and do all these things, then you’ll be good enough. And I just want to empower each individual woman to step back and say, “What do I want? And how can I get that?” While having to navigate a society that might tell them they’re doing it wrong or that they’re bad.
As a creator, what tips or words of wisdom would you share for anyone trying to get safer online?
Just because they say you’re wrong, it doesn’t mean that you are wrong.
So much in my life I have looked to other people to validate that who I am, what I believe, what I say, what I share, is right, that it’s enough, that it’s perfect, that it makes me good enough. I had to do some really deep work to not only ask myself who I was and what was important to me, but I had to use that to build my confidence in order to share so that when people say things to me, I’m not taking it all at face value. I’m saying, is this coming from someone that I trust and that I would go to for advice anyway? Or is this coming from some weird guy in a basement who has no idea what he’s talking about and I wouldn’t even ask his opinion on what jacket I wore today? I’m not going to take that feedback in the same way, and I also am not going to take feedback that misaligns with my values or is coming from someone with a different set of values.
So, I had to really figure out who I was in order to put up a shield to the things that could be really painful to me. I never want to give the impression that I have arrived, but something I continuously have to do is realize it’s not my job to save the world. If I constantly put all of my energy into advocacy and changing the world and changing the narrative and sharing my life and putting myself out there, there’s going to be nothing left for me to give, to have, to enjoy, to be … to enjoy life, right?
I think as women, we often feel tasked with not only carrying our households, fixing everyone’s problems, fixing boo boos, taking care of our mental health, taking care of all the different things, and then on top of that, we task ourselves with changing the world. I only have so much capacity to impact other people, and that’s not a reflection of me not being enough. That’s a reflection of me being a human being. So, I may have a massive impact on a certain demographic of mothers who may be empowered to take their lives into their own hands. I am not going to have the same impact on corporate working mothers or on teen girls. I’m not going to have the same impact on aging women or empty nesters. I’m not going to have the same impact on a board room of men who need to change their opinions.
My demographic and my calling in life, I believe, is to empower and advocate for mothers, and that’s OK. It also means that I don’t have time to volunteer at my kids’ school as much. And it means that I don’t have time to chitchat with my neighbors much because I am running a full business that takes a lot of my time – that actually a lot of people don’t understand how much time goes into it. And I’ve learned it’s not my job to prove to other people how busy I am and why I can’t do everything. It’s my job to remind myself that I can’t do everything. And to stick to my lane.
And when I think about myself as a new mother and maybe the microaggressions I experienced when I wasn’t online and when I wasn’t receiving the level of hate I was receiving, my corner of the world was pouring into my children and teaching them the values that I had and reading them diverse books and exposing them to diverse people and sharing diverse perspectives and TV shows and different things with them.
I wasn’t talking to a million people on the Internet. And me talking to a million people on the Internet is not more valuable than a woman at home reading her child a story about diverse people and shaping their minds to change the next generation. And so, the advice that I would give to anyone that’s navigating the weight of making all this change is like just one step at a time. You’re literally a human being. No one person is going to change the whole world. We all have these different seasons and maybe you have a different lane than me. Or maybe you have a different season than me or the person next to you or that you see someone else on social media making big impact. Maybe they’re not making the same impact as you’re making with the little old lady next door to you, who you make her day every day when you talk to her. It’s really hard as women to feel like you’re carrying everything, and you see all the problems and you also want to fix all the problems.
Let me ask you this – any words for those who may go online and get tempted to lash out at others? How can they take a step back?
First of all, we need to remember that we all have so much more in common that we have in differences. The unfortunate part about social media is that we often just see one slice of someone’s experience or story, and it is so easy to cast judgment when you only see that one slice.
Number one, remember that every single person who is sharing something online is a human with human emotions and human experiences and human faults. That that person maybe is not perfect and they maybe don’t have the words to articulate what they actually mean. And so, when you pick apart the way they’re saying it, it’s not actually helping anyone. And I’m not saying that you should never disagree with somebody online. There’s definitely a time and a place to say that’s not cool, that’s discriminatory, you are harming people by sharing that in that way. But we will never make progress if all we do is attack people with different perspectives and other them and silo ourselves into: here is one way of thinking and here is another way of thinking and we are completely opposite people.
Ask yourself, why do I want to make this comment? Is the comment to educate or empower or share a perspective that might help them not post harmful things? Or are you sharing because it triggers something within you, and you are projecting some of your own pain? Unless you are contributing to the conversation in a positive way, all that’s going to do is be negative for the person who’s receiving it and for you. Who actually feels better when they leave a mean comment on somebody’s post? It doesn’t make you feel better. You just get riled up and you go back and forth and then who changes their mind? Literally nobody. But if you can find the commonality in the common ground and if you actually want to change something, you need to see them as human first and you need to connect with them.
All of the change that I’ve made in my life and how I see the world has come after I have connected, truly meaningfully connected, with someone with a different lived experience. I have not changed my perspective simply from facts or simply from hateful comments or simply from something someone told me. It is me having an interaction with someone on a very human level and hearing their experience.
What do you think needs to change to end gendered digital hate and abuse?
That’s a big question cause a lot of things need to change, of course, and it’s really easy to come up with solutions and not have an actionable plan for how to implement them. And maybe this is an ambiguous answer, but I truly believe that connecting with people on a deep level – whether it’s in social media, outside of social media – who live diverse experiences, is what is going to lead to social change. Part of the issue with the algorithm is that as soon as they figure out what you like, they just keep showing you the same thing over and over and over again.
So let me make that concrete – there are posts that keep coming up on my feed and I save them because in my mind I have the intention of “stitching” that, so that means taking a piece of it and then sharing my commentary on it or sharing another perspective on it. And these videos that I’m saving sometimes are opposing to my beliefs, right? So, it could be a mom sharing about how moms who go to work are abandoning their children for the state to raise, and they’re essentially not good mothers, and our highest calling in life should just be to mother. And if they are not your number one priority 24/7 that you are not a good mother. And so, I saved these posts because I want to stitch them. But what happens is it tells the algorithm: Libby likes these posts.
On an individual level, we need to be following and interacting with different types of people who live different ways, and I’m talking about myself as well. If I only saw content that aligned completely with my values, I would be blind to a lot of the struggles that these other people, other mothers might be facing – how to even reach them, because I wouldn’t understand their perspective and the people they’re surrounded by.
So I think we all need to be better at not just following things that completely align with us so that we can understand others. And on a broader level, the algorithms need to change so that if you decide to follow someone, you see their content and they don’t just push certain types of content to certain people because somebody paid them a lot of money to do it.
What I take from you is that we can do things to curate our digital experiences. In a better way than just accepting what we get “out of the box” in platforms.
It takes time and it takes intention and it takes effort. It’s not something that just happens overnight. It is intentionally opening your eyes, looking for people who live different experiences and truly engaging in what they’re saying and trying to put yourself in the shoes that they are in and the stories that they are sharing. Listening to their stories and just imagining for a second what it might actually be like to be in their shoes and experience the world how they experience it – recognizing our privilege. I mean, I say that as like a white woman who’s middle class and I have access to so many resources and forms of media and different types of people that have a large network.
If you have more power to use that power, you know to use that to make connections with people you wouldn’t normally make them with and to give a voice to people who don’t normally have a voice. If we’re talking about how to do that on social media, it’s finding people that are different than you. It’s truly interacting with them, showing them that you see them. And maybe sharing them with people in your circle as well, because we all have limited circles, and if we can just expose one another to different people and build those connections, it really makes a big difference.
I like what you’re saying – we can put on our empathy hat in social media with an active approach. Even in the risk and unsafety, we can take steps that make our time online quality time on a human-to-human level.
Let’s break it down really simply and practically. If you see somebody’s content that you appreciate or that you want to learn more about or you think is interesting that you want to learn more about, interact with it. The algorithm knows to show you more of the things you interact with so it’s not enough just to follow someone who’s different than you. When you see their post, you need to like it, you need to comment on it, you need to send them a DM and say, “thank you so much for sharing, I can imagine it might be really hard to get some comments you get, but I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with me”.
Even if you don’t completely agree with them. Even if you don’t completely understand, to even say, “thank you for taking the time to share your perspective with me, it’s helping me to grow, it’s helping me to learn”.
Reach out to people with diverse experiences and say, “hey who would you recommend I follow if I’m trying to learn more about x, y, z.” It doesn’t just stop at checking the box. It really goes into engaging with people in a meaningful way and an intentional way, and then sharing the love to maybe others in our life who maybe aren’t as tuned in to wanting to change the world or changing their perspective or making social change.
Some of the biggest change I’ve made in my personal life is simply by sharing the stories of people I know with other people I know. You know, when I think of a friend that I know who has lived a pretty sheltered life, and you know her parents are married, and her partner’s parents are married, and they haven’t struggled socioeconomically, and they live in a small town and their circles are relatively small… And if I hear one of them make a comment about a new group of people moving to our small town who are of a different culture, is it going to be more impactful that I shame them for having that perspective and cut that friendship off? Or is it going to be more impactful to say, “I met this person at the grocery store the other day,” and sharing the humanness? And sharing the stories of people who are different is what makes those micro changes in people’s perspective about other people.
Alright, now what? Check out Libby Ward on Instagram and TikTok @diaryofanhonestmom and visit her website: diaryofanhonestmom.com.
Get the facts on gender, digital hate, harassment and abuse by visiting our fact page on canadianwomen.org.
While you’re there, read about our new Feminist Creator Prize to uplift feminist digital creators advocating for gender justice, safety, and freedom from harm.
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