1. Home
  2. Science
  3. Health
  4. news
  5. Parents turn to Facebook's Buy Nothing groups to purge items. It's mostly moms handling it all.

Parents turn to Facebook's Buy Nothing groups to purge items. It's mostly moms handling it all.

Sonia Weiser   

Parents turn to Facebook's Buy Nothing groups to purge items. It's mostly moms handling it all.
  • Buy Nothing groups on Facebook are where people share things for free for others to pick up.
  • They are especially helpful for parents since kids outgrow stuff quickly.

Before Radie joined her local Buy Nothing group, the mom of three watched her husband bring bags full of old clothes to textile recycling or throw them in the trash, knowing that along with the pieces that had grown threadbare and tattered were items she loved and would have wanted to see go to someone who would understand their sentimental value.

But once Radie, who prefers to use a nickname as a safety precaution due to her job as a therapist, found the hyperlocal Facebook group associated with the international movement devoted to exchanging goods for free within a participant's community, she watched her possessions get the second lives she felt they deserved; for every item she posted on the group's discussion board, she was able to hand select its new owner from those who commented with their interest and personally pass on a piece of her family's history. "I don't know if parents care, but when I drop stuff off, I can say, 'This is the dress she wore on her first birthday,'" she told Insider.

But the desire to remove the anonymity of donations resulted in a different dilemma: The onus for decluttering the household fell entirely on her. If she wanted every piece to land with the "right" owner, she would have to take care of it herself.

And she is not alone. According to Rebecca Rockefeller, one of the founders of the Buy Nothing Project, women vastly outnumber men as both participants and self-appointed administrators in Buy Nothing Groups, and the executive functions required to successfully facilitate exchanges add to the list of household tasks that tend to land under a woman's purview within heteronormative partnerships.

In an informal survey I conducted online of New York City-based Buy Nothing group participants who are partnered and have children, 33 out of the 36 respondents who are in heterosexual relationships and live with their partner full-time said that the mother was either solely or mostly responsible for Buy Nothing labor with reasons including husbands not having social media accounts or just not liking or even knowing about the group itself. Only one man said he was the sole executor and two women noted that responsibilities were shared fairly equally with their spouses.

Regardless of their reason for joining Buy Nothing in the first place, whether it be to reduce spending or minimize waste, moms were getting it done.

Moms are getting it done

In my particular Brooklyn-based Buy Nothing group, which has nearly 9,000 members from three neighborhoods, multiple cribs, crib mattresses and bedding, electric breast pumps, nursing bras, bottles, and toys were up for grabs in February alone. For a new parent, basic household goods could rack up a bill of $3,956 within the baby's first year, and for those on a budget, the opportunity to get everything free of charge, especially higher-quality items than what they could have afforded, means being able to allocate that money to rent or other necessities.

Rockefeller attributes the gender imbalance in Buy Nothing groups in part to the long history of women acting as a household's index, encyclopedia, and day planner rolled into one. She explains that "all of the knowing who needs what and when and why and how they like it and what day it needs to be available" is just one component of what is traditionally expected of mothers, and she views these groups as "a point of illumination," showcasing the ongoing gender disparities in heterosexual relationships.

Pilar Gonalons-Pons, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that despite shifts toward egalitarianism within different-sex couples, women are still "performing gender" in the household and shouldering the cognitive labor, what Allison Daminger, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison defined as "anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress."

Men do the physical transactions

In the context of Buy Nothing group participation, cognitive labor includes everything from identifying goods to offer, taking photos and writing descriptions for Facebook posts, picking recipients, and coordinating the time and place of the exchange. For Bekah Friedman, a Brooklyn mom of two who works full time, this is her domain. And though her husband, who also works full time, appreciates it, "It's never like, 'It would be great if we could pass this thing on, what do you need me to do,' or 'I could do this,'" Friedman said. "I'm the one who spends the mental energy and the actual time on it. And this feels true on the other person's end also."

Friedman noticed male partners may be the ones to do the physical components of a transaction, but even then, it is a task their wives assigned. "It's always like, 'My husband is going to come pick this up at the time that you and I arranged,'" she said.

Although she's aware that the role is historically gendered, Friedman doesn't assign herself the Buy Nothing labor because she's a woman but because she knows that if she doesn't start the project, it won't happen at all. That said, she also enjoys giving back to the community and sees decluttering her house or finding things her children may enjoy as accomplishments.

Similarly, Radie takes responsibility for Buy Nothing giveaways because she's sentimental about her possessions and wants to ensure that they are given to someone who will appreciate them. "My belongings mean more to me than they do to him, especially clothing or kids' things that I have a lot of memories attached to, because I was only working part time and was with the kids a lot," she said.

Women are not more altruistic

Daminger would likely argue that the division of labor in these circumstances has been degendered and reconfigured as a product of personality traits or value systems that just so happen to correspond with traditional household gender roles. In her 2020 journal article "De-gendered Processes, Gendered Outcomes: How Egalitarian Couples Make Sense of Non-egalitarian Household Practices," she wrote that even when men held jobs that required the same kind of high-level executive functioning that's necessary to manage household cognitive labor, they were let off the hook after-hours. Once they clocked out of work, their responsibilities aligned with their perceived "nature."

In a study conducted by Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, and Lise Vesterlund published in the American Economic Review, they found that women were more likely than men to volunteer or be asked to volunteer for "non-promotable" tasks in coed work settings, but when men and women were separated into groups based on gender, just as many women volunteered for a task as men. They argued that it's not that women are more altruistic or risk-averse, it's that they bear the weight of societal expectations — even when they don't want to be responsible for a "non-promotable" task (in this case, clicking a button on a computer), they are more likely to be the "reluctant volunteer."

In the private sphere, it's no different. "Both men and women might be equally perceiving that doing less housework is more advantageous to them. But one of them is more able to dodge it than the other one," Daminger said.

Unlike on Craigslist marketplaces, where posts are anonymous, on Buy Nothing groups, all participants post through their Facebook profiles, giving other users access to at least a name, if not a face, behind each interaction. While there are a number of upsides to this — community building, safety, accountability, and the opportunity to earn social capital and recognition for work generally seen as invisible — the ability to identify group participants comes at a cost.

As Gonalons-Pons explains, a man may feel unwelcome or self-conscious in a group if he sees it's dominated by women and opt out of joining based on the assumption that the space isn't for him despite no one turning him away. In fact, multiple people told me that due to the lack of men in their groups, those that were there were treated like local celebrities for their participation.

Ironically, Radie uses her husband's Facebook account to access the Buy Nothing group. "It's never him. It's me," she said.