On our website’s about page it looks like I have been with the Iowa City Babywearers continuously since the first meeting in January of 2007 — but in 2016 I resigned from the group and ended my involvement in all local parenting or community groups. Why? Bullying. It’s been one year since I returned to ICBW and I am ready to tell my story.
(Note: all names, save those of Jen, Kelsey and I, have been changed.)
What the ICBW meant to me:
I want to start by sharing what ICBW meant for me so you will understand what was taken from me. Stability is not something I have had much of in my life. On my way to early graduation from high school, I became a ward of the state. My parent’s physical and emotional abuse had finally crossed a line that was legally unignorable. Once declared an adult at 17yo, I worked very hard to put myself through school and to keep a roof over my head, though at times failing.
I learned about babywearing as a babysitter in high school, after realizing that the combination of scoliosis and lugging car seats was not going to work for me. I poured over any and all information I could find about infant carriers but as far as I could tell I was the only person I knew who was interested in them. Once in college, I found The Babywearer (TBW), the forum website in its heyday. Suddenly, I was surrounded by an online community of babywearers, I had “found my tribe”. In the autumn of 2006, Jen sent me a PM on TBW inviting me to the first meeting of the Iowa City Babywearers at a coffee shop in Iowa City.
Love at First Sling:
At that first meeting, there was a pile of baby carriers on a table and a room full of women, some pregnant, others with babes in arms, all silent and staring at each other. Heart pounding, I stepped up and asked if someone would like help with a wrap. It broke the ice. Soon the room was a hive of activity, babies laughing and crying, wraps being whipped into the air, and a group of parents encircling another who was bent over, baby curled up on her back as she practiced flipping up a mei-tai.
For the first time in my life, I felt like my hard work was valued, that my knowledge was respected, and my ignorance not held against me. It was a fantastic blend of teaching and learning about something that I genuinely loved. I was surrounded by positive role models, showing me what healthy families could look like; what healthy friendships could feel like.
While my life outside the group was still unstable the Iowa City Babywearers was something still that I could keep my eye on as I went through a divorce, was displaced by a flood, finished my undergraduate degree (after eleven years!), started graduate school, and dealt with increasingly severe chronic illness. By 2012, I had been the head of the ICBW for a couple years, the last original member– and I was diagnosed with lupus. The group was quite casual but growing exponentially. My failing health made it difficult to manage the administrative side, let alone actively teaching at the meetings. In 2013, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor which necessitated the use of a cane for my balance and random weakness. I had to stop working as a nanny. I had to stop running and doing dance. I went from the friend who was always there, super active, from childcare to home construction– to the friend who needed help taking out her trash. I had to drop out of graduate school. I had to give up my cats. I felt like I was losing my identity, save one area: babywearing. I could still point to the ICBW as say, “My life hasn’t been a monument to failure. This group is doing really well and I helped build this community.”
I was learning to be honest with myself about my abilities and to delegate. In addition to long-term volunteers (including Kelsey), I invited regular attendees to help moderate the group, a husband-wife team, Bob and Sarah, and another, Janet, who recently moved to the area, but who I had known for years. With so many volunteers to manage, I set up a secret ICBW volunteer-only facebook group to help with communication. We could discuss meetings, other events, and I could get approval for videos and photo projects. I focused on administrative work for the group, learning about social media management, and photo and video editing; things I could do from a hospital bed. I attended meetings and events as often as I could, while there I took photos and made videos for our social media accounts, online support, and for teaching materials. My photography skills were improving and our volunteers would often use my photos as their profile and banner photos on their social media accounts. I always did my best to make the subjects in my photos and videos look good (and ensured that they liked their photos) — after all, my goal was to promote ICBW in a positive light.
In January of 2015, Janet’s friend, Alyssa, very pregnant, moved to town and joined the ICBW mall walk. She was amazed at the infant carriers, having in her own words, “zero experience with any of this.” By June, she was a regular at our meetings and very enthusiastic about teaching back carries with wraps– a skill that intimidates a lot of new parents. She had an abrasive personality outside of meetings but I ignored my instincts, reminding myself that I don’t have to like someone for them to be a decent teacher.
So I put her promotion up to a vote in the secret group. When the others agreed I sent her an invite, explaining that she would be a volunteer teacher at our meetings. Just a few weeks later, at a non-ICBW social event, she started complaining about Kelsey, who wasn’t present. One of the abrasive elements of her personality from the beginning was the fact that she “bad-mouthed” people who weren’t there to defend themselves but, not knowing those people, I never spoke up. This time, however, I did speak up, after realizing that none of the other ICBW volunteers were going to say anything to defend Kelsey.
Alyssa argued with me, emphatic that Kelsey, should not be allowed to talk about parenting issues that didn’t apply to Alyssa during meetings. For example, Kelsey had talked to another mom about being done having children– when Alyssa was intending to have more– and that was offensive to Alyssa. Additionally, that Kelsey should not be allowed to socialize with other ICBW volunteers outside of meeting times unless Alyssa was invited too. I remained calm and explained that Kelsey had the right to discuss whatever she wanted during meetings so long as it didn’t involve politics or religion and that Kelsey was free to do whatever she wanted, with whomever she wanted, in her own time, assuming it’s legal. But Alyssa still wouldn’t drop the issue, even as her partner was trying to take her home. She said she would PM Kelsey and give her “a piece of her mind”.
“A passive-aggressive or covert bully, however, behaves appropriately on the surface, but takes you down with subtlety… Examples of passive-aggressive and covert bullying include negative gossip, negative joking at someone’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, the invisible treatment, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success.” (Ni, 2016)
I was stressed out. For nine years, ICBW had existed without any internecine drama and by some coincidence, within weeks of promoting Alyssa it began. I worried that Alyssa was going to start a fight with Kelsey– a volunteer who showed up, early, to every. single. meeting. for the last five years ready to teach even though she lived an hour and a half away and had three children. When I got home I found myself tagged in a photo from the event. Kelsey had liked it, commenting that she wished she could have been there. Alyssa had already liked Kelsey’s comment and replied, “Yes, we really missed you! I hope you can make it next time!” complete with a smiling emoji. I chose not to tell Kelsey what happened that night because I didn’t want her feelings to get hurt. However, having witnessed Alyssa complain about Kelsey and the other volunteers from ICBW fail to defend her, I was aware that I was likely a target for abuse in social situations that I didn’t attend. Social situations which were increasing as Alyssa made “friends” with the other volunteers and members of the community, even as she started rumors about them behind their backs– including her “best friend” Janet.
The Breaking Point:
By January of 2016, I was getting used to my identity as an “invisibly disabled” (save the cane) person. I learned to value my work with the group even if it wasn’t actively teaching at meetings. We had all agreed to do a community dinner for our members and I was working on the advertising for it but I was having a bit a hard time making it to look right. So I posted in the secret group for some feedback. It featured a photo of Alyssa’s kid, which wasn’t unusual, as she was always volunteering herself and her kid for photos and videos for the group. But it was Janet who commented, clearly upset, she didn’t want her baby’s photo in the logo anymore because she was not letting any photos of her children be public. I was surprised at the sudden change– just two weeks prior at the Wednesday meeting, she had held the live stream camera on her baby and told another volunteer to post to Facebook so everyone would come watch her adorable baby.
However, I was aware that she was going through some personal issues and quickly went around our social media platforms swapping the four-month-old logo that featured her baby’s photo, for the prior one that was plain. Once finished, I let her know that I took care of it, and the plain logos were back up. I was worried about her and her kids. Then another reply from her, she was pissed at me for removing the logos featuring her baby’s face. Not sure what to do, I asked her what she would like me to do. She said she just wanted me to ask her permission before using the photo. Realizing it was probably going to make her more upset but feeling the need to defend myself I reminded her that I had asked permission before taking the photo, showed her the photo after it was taken, asking if I could use it for ICBW, then showed her the edited photo asking if she liked it (she used it as her profile photo). Then after it was added to the logo, I asked her again if I could use it. She agreed to it all and I had audio, video, and screenshots to support this. I had asked permission and she had given permission multiple times– and when she asked me to take it down, I did so immediately.
Then Alyssa commented, she said she felt railroaded into having her kid’s photo used and wanted permission before I used it. Again, I defended myself with supporting evidence. She argued that she gave permission under duress. This concerned me. A lot. As an extremely camera shy person myself, I would never intentionally use photos of people who didn’t want to have their photo taken or who didn’t like the photo once it was taken. I needed to ensure this never happened again. Acting as a photographer and videographer at events, editing, and creating content was a lot of work only to find out the people featured didn’t want them to exist– and wouldn’t tell me for months.
I made a new post with a generic photo release form, asking that those volunteers who were okay being in photos or videos for the promotion of the group to sign, and that if I didn’t have releases I wouldn’t take any more photos or videos of them. Now Bob and Sarah commented, they weren’t okay with this. They wanted me to do all the work of photography and editing because I get really cute photos of their kids and of them babywearing– but without any guarantee that I can use my work for the group. Alyssa agreed with them. Janet, meanwhile, had already left the group. Kelsey tried to find a compromise but the three of them weren’t having any of it. I was getting stressed out and didn’t know what to say or do. Of the long-term volunteers, everyone having “seen” the conversations, only Kelsey defended me while trying to be a peacemaker.
I tried to sleep it off but I as I went to check my phone before bed I had a warning from Facebook. Photos on my personal account were being flagged as inappropriate photos of children by Alyssa, Sarah, Janet, and a bunch of their friends (that didn’t even know me). Login attempts were being made on my Instagram account. Then I received an email that the ICBW Instagram account was being shut down for too many flagged photos. I moved quickly to deactivate the twitter account before it too was attacked. I went back to the secret moderator group to find that between flagging photos Alyssa had commented that we should “all be adults and talk this out in person”. More photos were flagged. Sarah replied to Alyssa claiming I had blocked her so clearly I wasn’t being an adult about this. I felt like I was paralyzed, things were happening too fast for me to react. Facebook sent me an email warning me that my account was under “cyber attack”: the users who were flagging my photos en masse were the ones who tagged themselves in them months prior. Facebook provided me with a list of people to block from my account and instructed me to change my password. Another one of my Facebook groups, a sewing group, a group I had co-managed with Sarah was getting flagged (she had started a sewing group years back but told me she couldn’t keep up with it, so I made her co-manager of mine). The sewing group was reported so often that it was shut down as promoting hate speech. Soon after, one of Sarah’s friends sent me a PM blaming me for kicking her out of the sewing group. I tried to tell her I was “kicked out” too but she had already blocked me.
“Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.” (BullyingStatistics. com)
Then I started getting login attempt notifications from my google account. That is when I stopped eating. For 36 hours I couldn’t sleep or eat (which is super awesome for people with lupus). I had blocked five people from my FB account and still the flagging continued, friends of friends of bullies, cyber bullying a woman they did not know. I felt like the entirety of Iowa City must hate me, including people I had been friends with for years– those who knew what was happening and said nothing, or even helped. I assumed my reputation must be trash. I had no idea what had been said about me but I assumed Alyssa was the source of it. And to be sure my introverted and very private personality made it easy to paint me in whatever shades she wanted, especially since I was medically disabled and less visibly active in the community. When the next meeting rolled around I had already decided I wasn’t going, in fact, I was resigning. If my work wasn’t valued, if I wasn’t valued by six of the seven other volunteers, and if I was legitimately hated by four of those six, then it was time to move on. I felt like this precious thing had been snatched from me and smashed.
“One very big result of this kind of behavior that I see in my community is lack of participation. People just don’t want to get involved when that is going on – then they get called apathetic because of it. (Great cycle!) We are really losing out on some great ideas and great minds by tolerating bullying behaviors from a select few. Our whole community loses.” (Klien, 2009)
At the meeting, Alyssa made it clear to the others that she felt that she, more than anyone else in the group, should run the group. Unlike the other long-term volunteers, she didn’t live out of town or have an accent, and she could have biological children. Those were her qualifications: personal attacks on the other volunteers. This, strangely, provided me with a bit of closure. The entire thing had very little to do with my photos, it had to do destroying my visible role in the group. Alyssa, and possibly the others, didn’t see the paperwork, the networking, scheduling, private messages, phone calls, and all the other work that goes into running a community group. And to be fair, I didn’t bother the others about any of that because I felt it was my responsibility as the group owner. But that was all over now, I just wanted the bullying to stop and if that meant giving up the last shred of my identity and self-worth, so be it.
But it didn’t stop. The cyberbullying continued, slowly tapering for around three weeks. Most of the login attempts were traced via IP address to the town where Sarah and Bob lived. I left all the parenting groups I had participated in. I retreated into myself. I discovered that Sarah had scheduled sewing group meetings having made a new FB group and that Alyssa started another babywearing group in town. I tried to be okay with long-term friends who wanted to remain friends with my bullies, but the damage was done. I actively contemplated suicide. Running the Iowa City Babywearers and the sewing group was how I kept myself active now that I couldn’t work or attend school. I felt like I had nothing left and far fewer people that I could really trust. I often wondered how long these people had hated me– months? years? Did Alyssa start something or did she just give people permission to demonstrate their hatred of me? Sarah was the biggest shock, a week before the cyber attacks she’d taken me to lunch, discussing plans for a babywearing video series she wanted to create.
“The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker. So, as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. Many bullies are also cowards: When their victims begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, a bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.” (Ni, 2016)
My bullies chose their target well. I was the weakest link and the one that happened to be holding the group together. Kelsey was left alone to run the group, the other long-term volunteers stopped participating consistently and often failed to respond to Kelsey’s PM’s asking for help. Without a social media presence, no one was attending the meetings. After the other volunteers formally resigned, Kelsey was ready to shut down the group entirely in November of 2016. After we talked about it I decided to come back. It would just be the two of us. I was scared of what might happen if I stuck my neck out again, but she hadn’t heard anything from the bullies, none of them contacting her in any way since that February meeting.
ICBW Relaunch: Bully Bait
I was still traumatized by my experiences ten months prior. I avoided putting my name on anything related to ICBW for fear of retaliation, not just on me personally but on the group itself. We’d lost thousands of photos when the Instagram account was attacked– I couldn’t even use the same email or name on Instagram to start a new one. I deliberately hid my involvement, no one save Kelsey was aware that I was back until I attended the December 2016 meeting. That night Kelsey received a message from Sarah. She heard that I was back and demanded that her likeness be removed from all of our old videos. Kelsey finally blocked her. Bob, Sarah’s husband, posted that we were Nazis. She blocked him too. Mustering all my strength, knowing now that retreating into hiding or meeting her demands (which were effectively impossible) would only encourage her to escalate. We responded to her professionally, from the group email so as to not make this personal. Her response was to threaten to attend our events, which are publically posted online, in order to intimidate me. And I was intimidated. Very.
“Some victims of adult bullying remain quiet about their experience, and hide their suffering within… However, being a quiet victim is not only mentally and emotionally unhealthy, it can encourage the bully to repeat and intensify their aggressive behavior.” (Ni, 2016)
But I wouldn’t back down. Not this time. As Kelsey said, ICBW is too important to let bullies win. I got an attorney. After reviewing my case, he explained it was harassment, which has a penalty of $10,000 fine and/or two years imprisonment. I told him I didn’t want her to go to jail over this, she has three children, he said that was entirely up to her. Bullying and harassment are not a joke. It’s illegal. Whether in the form of slander, libel, intimidation, or cyber attack. Sarah was sent a letter warning her to stop her harassment or I would be filing a restraining order and the legal consequences should she continue. The local police departments were notified as well as the libraries where we hold our events.
I am happy to say that standing up to my bullies was not only effective but liberating. It’s a small town. I see them from time to time, screaming at their children in the grocery store, usually in a cluster. Had I not returned to ICBW or had I let Sarah bully me out of staying once I had returned, I don’t think I would be able to handle seeing them in public. I would be scared. I would avoid going back to those locations. I would limit myself to the point of not existing, which is exactly what their goal was. But screw that. I want to teach babywearing.
Update (11/19/17): Since sharing this post I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for ICBW, Kelsey, and I– as well as by the stories from others who were (or are being) treated like I was by “Alyssa”. Many of you have sent me PM’s because you are too afraid to publicly “like” or comment on the post on social media. Please, know that you are not alone and you do not deserve to be treated like this. If you believe that you are the target of the bully/ bullies described in this post (whether they are the same person or not), learn from my mistakes: trust your instincts, sever all contact (IRL and online), and ensure that you, your family, and, if applicable, your business is safe.
Resources, Further Reading:
“Adult Bullying.” Bullying Statistics. (n.d).
Areu, Cathy. “‘I’m Cathy and I’m the victim of mom bullying’: 5 tips for surviving mom bullies.” Today: Parents, 2016.
Hendriksen, Ellen. “9 Ways to Deal with Adult Bullies and Mean Girls.” Scientific American, 2016.
Klein, Jen. “Mom bullies: How to deal.” She Knows: Parenting, 2009.
Ni, Preston. “8 Keys to Handling Adult Bullies.” Psychology Today, 2016.