I have online friends.
Normally when I say that, it elicits one of two responses. People either do that weird sucking-air-through-their-teeth reaction ('Online friends? But they could be an axe murderer/sexual predator/loner living in his mum's basement!'), or they snort and smirk and write you off as a weirdo who makes online friends because they don't have any in real life.
With the advent of social media, and everyone pretty much living their entire lives through the internet, you'd have thought these attitudes would die out a little. Unfortunately not. Despite the internet providing us with seemingly-endless ways to meet people from all corners of the globe, it's still looked down upon to have online friends.
Fair enough, I suppose. After all, they're just pixels and words on a screen, right? They're not real friends.
I have two groups of online friends - not that I call them that. I refer to them as my 'postnatal groups', my 'mum friends'. You could be forgiven for thinking I met them through the NCT or at the school gates, rather than on a parenting forum called Mumsnet.
When I found out I was pregnant in 2013, I didn't have any "mum friends". At 19, my friends had no plans to get pregnant any time soon, and I needed company and reassurance. I joined two antenatal threads on Mumsnet, and now I was surrounded by women who were experiencing the same as me. We were from all across the UK and beyond, of all ages and lifestyles. I was the youngest, but didn't feel patronised or pushed out. At that point, they were just names and words on a screen.
As our pregnancies progressed, some of the women I'd spent the previous six weeks talking to; sharing details of sore boobs and sickness and spotting, unfortunately suffered miscarriages. I found myself crying for women I'd never met before. I was crying for pixels on a screen. As a group we celebrated every good scan; supported each other through morning sickness and commiserated over a sober Christmas. How was it possible to develop such a camaraderie between a bunch of faceless names on a computer?
Eventually, we migrated to Facebook, setting up groups of our own. These usernames could suddenly be connected to actual names. These weren't words and pixels, they were people with faces and lives. Even still, they weren't friends, right? I'd never met them; I didn't know them - these 'online friends' were just strangers I spoke to occasionally.
Time passed, and we had babies. When I was taken into hospital to be induced three weeks early, they were the first people I turned to for advice and support. They cheered me on through a gruelling induction. When my daughter was born, after telling immediate family, these groups were the first to be told that she had arrived. Every new arrival was celebrated. We shared pictures of our newborns and asked for each other's advice on breastfeeding, stitching and bleeding. No subject was off-limits.
We may have been sharing seriously intimate information, and exchanging pictures of our babies, but they weren't really real friends, just online ones. Everyone knows that online friends aren't real friends.
Every trial and tribulation encountered along the way, I knew they had a wealth of advice to offer. When I felt like I wasn't going to finish my degree, they encouraged and motivated me. Most of them even contributed towards my dissertation performance. When someone else struggled, I wanted to help. If someone achieved something, I felt genuinely thrilled for them. These women from all walks of life were helping me to be a better parent, but it's not like they're real friends.
Our children will be three soon. I talk to these amazing women every day. I vent to them, I ask for advice, I share pictures. They all do the same. We laugh together and we cry together. One minute we'll be ranting about public tantrums; the next we'll share advice on potty training, then we'll laugh at a funny story or drool over Tom Hardy's Cbeebies bedtime story together. I can be honest with them in a way that I can't be with people I see every day. I can talk to them candidly about trying for a second baby, setbacks along the way, the days where I feel so frustrated and think I'm doing everything wrong, and I hope they know that they can do the same, and I'll always be there to listen - because I care about these people so deeply.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it also takes a village to make a mother - and no-one ever said these villages have to be 'real'. I have confidence in my abilities as a mum, thanks to my incredible online village.
So scoff and smirk away. When I tell you I have online friends, I'm talking about my sisterhood, my village, my inspirations. I'm talking about two groups of women I don't know what I'd do without, because in every sense of the word, they're real friends.