There are few places online where you can admit that motherhood is the greatest regret of your life. Two months ago, a Reddit user with the throwaway username "parental-regret" publicly confessed that she hates "being a slave to another human being" – her infant son. Over the course of 700 words, the 22-year-old wrote of the physical and mental exhaustion, daily anxiety attacks and "torture" of raising her child, who she described as "one of the worst things to ever happen to me".
Far from receiving the outrage, vitriol and death threats that would have arrived had she posted this confession to Twitter (or, God forgive us, Facebook), the anonymous woman picked up over 18,000 upvotes and a slew of supportive messages. "It really made me feel less shitty," the New York mother says now. "I was shocked at the support I received."
The support in question came from r/TrueOffMyChest, a confession-based subreddit with just under half a million subscribers. It is, like many Reddit subs, a spin-off from a larger sub that some users felt frustrated by. R/OffMyChest has nearly 2 million followers, but r/TrueOffMyChest's moderators claim the original sub bans any Redditors who have ever posted on controversial subs. As a result, each subreddit attracts very different confessions. The most popular post on the original sub is from a man who proudly describes his journey from poverty to a six-figure salary, while the top post on the "true" sub is a rant about the body positivity movement "encouraging" people to be obese.
"True" OffMyChest could be described as OffMyChest's controversial cousin. There are no holds barred in the rest of its top posts: users speak of being cheated on, hating Caitlyn Jenner, reverse racism, circumcision, abortion, PTSD, gender transitioning, creepy uncles, unpaid internships and Drake's propensity for texting young female celebrities. The one thing most posts have in common is that they express sentiments that would undeniably be difficult to express elsewhere. The same can't really be said of OffMyChest, where the top posts are about friends organising treasure hunts, babysitting, being a great stepfather, getting 98 percent on an exam and rescuing a cat.
Still, both subs have fostered supportive communities. "Even people who didn't feel the same way as me offered comments of love and wishing me the best," says the mother who authored TrueOffMyChest's 14th most popular post. "It definitely felt like a bit of a weight was off my shoulders. Like, I finally just blurted out what I've been feeling after so long."
TrueOffMyChest's moderators says it's difficult to know exactly who is involved in their community because they encourage users to post under throwaway usernames in order to be truly anonymous. They do know, however, that the most prolific user posted 194 confessions before deleting their account, while the top commenter has posted 2,696 comments. But overall, "the subreddit is made for people to come and go", explains one mod, u/ReBurnInator. "It's not an advice subreddit, so there's no reason for people to hang around. That said, we're gaining subscribers every day. People like the format, I guess."
It makes sense that anonymous confessions are popular internet fodder – social media can hardly get enough of r/Relationships and r/AITA, which offer similar windows into the intimate details of people's lives. Jacolby Goods, a 20-year-old computer science student from Texas, says he visits the sub multiple times a day. "I love hearing people's extremely personal stories and being reminded that everyone in our lives goes through so much more than we often realise," he says.
A couple of months ago, Goods also posted to the sub for the first time (his post is now one of the top 50 most upvoted on the sub). "I felt like I was getting something off my chest, because it's something only my girlfriend at the time knew about," he explains. His confession? That he laughed "for about three weeks straight" when he saw a post claiming Scooby Doo's real name is Scoobert Doobert, and he once cried tears of laughter at the mere memory of the name.
"It's cool that I have the one needle-in-a-haystack innocent post in a sea of dark, depressing stories," Goods says. He says he enjoys browsing TrueOffMyChest because "the moderators don't necessarily try to control everything [...] If I had posted to almost any other subreddit on the entire website, my post would've been removed almost instantly."
But of course problems arise when you have an "anything goes" reputation. The sub's supportive nature isn't actually that organic: the moderators say the most frequent issue they deal with is commenters being insulting or aggressive, and as a result they frequently have to issue temporary bans (between five to 30 days in length). "If a post reaches r/popular or r/all, it takes a lot of work to keep people from bullying the original poster into silence," says u/ReBurnInator. Another mod, who asked to be identified by the initials IC, says he issues between five to ten temporary bans a day.
IC also says it is often tricky to "determine if someone is really trying to get a thought/feeling off their chest, or just exploiting the sub as a platform for hate speech". While the mods pride themselves on providing a home for controversial posts, they do remove clear trolls. IC says he will look at a user's post history to determine if they are simply attempting to spread hate, but an example post he provides is somewhat surprising. It reads "Actually, most whites are racist" and has zero upvotes – IC says the user's comment history (anti-Trump posts on r/The_Donald, and anti-conservative posts on r/rant) "says a lot about him".
This user's beliefs wouldn't necessarily be controversial on other social media platforms, but they go down like a lead balloon on r/TrueOffMyChest. Due to the coming-and-going of users, it's impossible to determine the political beliefs of the subreddit as a whole, but the space naturally attracts conservatism and those who wish to rally against what they say see as a dominant politically-correct culture. There are multiple popular posts about anti-white "racism", and a couple of mods say the posts they spend the most time moderating are around gender and trans issues.
Still, on a day-to-day basis, the sub is so varied that discussions of its politics are largely irrelevant. Posts aren't just about the world at large, but also about individual struggles – at the time of writing, the posts on the sub's front page are from someone who discovered a friend was raped, someone whose wife told them they didn't love them and someone who was yelled at by a 911 operator.
"Too often I see posts about suicidal thoughts or mental trauma," says IC. "The community is generally supportive and offers words of advice and comfort... I feel like, in that sense, the sub serves a greater purpose. Sometimes, simply being heard and understood is very therapeutic, and I'm glad that we can support a medium for that."
For the anonymous mother, being heard and understood for the first time was a lifeline. Though she received her fair share of hateful comments, they were outnumbered by supportive messages – the top comments on her post are from users encouraging her to seek therapy.
"The best thing about posting to the subreddit was no longer feeling alone," the mother says. "On top of all the comments, I received hundreds of private messages from fathers and mothers telling me that they felt the same way but were too scared to say so publicly. Others told me they felt they could've written my post themselves. It made me realise that a lot of people feel this way, it's just that no one talks about it."