Illustration: Jos? Luis Merino
Josť Luis Merino
Gymboree and Kindermusik used to be our cover-ups. Carefree, child-centered tumbling and music-making served as our smokescreen for the real action: moms forging friendships with other moms. The babies were our ticket of admission to the ultimate mom pickup joint. Once inside, it was up to us to work the room. Effectively executed, the mom schmooze routine (casually compliment another mom; drop the name of a pediatrician or local resource; share a parenting tip; repeat) landed us one step closer to the bond we craved.
Today's moms are dispensing with the pretense altogether. We brazenly beeline toward other moms via countless organized mothers' groups and Internet parenting communities. The first generation of 21st-century parents, we're shameless in our need to talk about the at-once daunting, empowering, and humbling experience of being a parent. And dads, more forthcoming than ever before about their commitment to their kids, are also forging new alliances.
The anonymity the Internet offers makes it appealing to people seeking candid, thoughtful conversation. Tina Anderson, a 33-year-old benefits-office administrator from Provo, UT, has been posting on the "April 1999 Babies" bulletin board at BabyCenter.com since she first learned she was pregnant in 1998. "I tell the women on my board things I would never dream of telling people in real life," admits Anderson, who now facilitates the discussion as board host. "When a doctor prematurely -- and mistakenly -- suggested that my son might be autistic, I was a wreck," she recalls. "But I had a hard time sharing my feelings with my 'real' friends." So Anderson turned to her virtual friends, confident that they wouldn't tell anybody else and that they wouldn't judge her.
At ParentSoup.com, Monica Hixson, a community producer, keeps parents of toddlers and preschoolers informed and active through weekly newsletters, message boards, and chat events. The Denver-based 26-year-old stumbled on a "Pregnant After Recurrent Miscarriages" bulletin board that became her lifeline during a difficult time. "To be able to connect with people who statistically aren't supposed to exist and who understand what you're going through is amazing," she says.
Some people bond more easily, immediately, and intensely on the Web, and the convenience is incomparable. The fact that, at the click of a mouse, at any hour of the day, parents can find virtual parenting companions who share most any circumstance, no matter how obscure, can be comforting.
Hixson thinks of her Parent Soup chats as the "cyber park bench" because she views the experience much like that of meeting moms at the park. In cyberspace, though, the bench is kept warm by parents from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. "We may be different," says Hixson, "but we come here for the same reason: to be better parents."
And the number of people seeking these types of supportive relationships is growing. According to community manager Mollee Olenick, more than 2 million parents are registered participants at BabyCenter.com, where the online community boasts 8,000 bulletin board postings every day.
Fathers today, more involved than previous generations of dads yet uncertain about how to balance their responsibilities, are also forming online friendships.
"The old adage that men don't share their feelings isn't true," says Bruce Linton, Ph.D., father of two and founder of the Fathers Forum (www.fathersforum.com). "Men often don't have the opportunity to share their feelings." But that's changing, thanks in part to the continued efforts of Dr. Linton.
He facilitates 10 "Becoming a Father" classes a year for expectant dads in the San Francisco Bay area. The classes give future fathers the chance to discuss their child-rearing philosophies, explore the effects of their relationships with their own fathers, and share strategies on how to connect with their wives. Hundreds of men post messages on Dr. Linton's online Father's Club bulletin board as well.
Up Close and Personal
The importance of the bonds formed in parents' groups can't be underestimated, especially with the majority of parents working outside the home and having little or no time to comb the neighborhood for company. Such groups also lend support to the many people who live far away from the usual parenthood "experts": sisters, grandmothers, and mothers.
My local mothers' group, with whom I've been involved since my son, now 2, was 6 months old, knew before my husband did that I was considering quitting my job to be a work-at-home mom. I've debated the virtues of public, private, and home schooling with these friends, cried on their shoulders about a miscarriage, and groaned about stretch marks. We've also gotten involved in a variety of community outreach programs, from raising funds to renovate a playground to helping a family whose home was destroyed in a fire.
From these groups, parents derive what they can't get anywhere else -- not from their partners, families, friends, or doctors. "You receive practical experience and objective advice from people who have gone through it," says Richard L. Saphir, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "You also learn a number of options for dealing with a problem, which can help you realize that there's more than one correct way to do things."
Furthermore, you're likely to find the kind of information that's going to work for you, says Barbara J. Howard, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "And you may get it less judgmentally from your peers than you do from your relatives. Your mother-in-law might add a little jab at the end of her advice that you may not want to deal with. Or she may very well be out of step with reality."
"These days, people come to the task of parenting with more experience in the work force, where they're used to being proactive and strategic, and they apply those approaches to networking as a parent," says Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More, a nonprofit organization based in Elmhurst, IL. With 8,000 members and 180 chapters around the world, Mothers & More supports "sequencing" women -- the increasing number of mothers who altered their careers to care for their children by choosing a variety of flexible work arrangements. "If they're lonely, they consciously set out to find like-minded men and women rather than just hoping that the next-door neighbor will be a good fit."
And we are lonely. Many parents, regardless of our circumstances, are caught off-guard by how much we need the company of fellow parents. Many of us are alone on our adventure, or we find ourselves out of sync with our existing friends. "The choices that I've made in balancing working and parenting have seldom been the same ones, at the same time, that my friends and family have made," says Brundage.
The trick is finding the right group for you. "Because so many of us are currently working, we're able to relax and not feel the need to defend the decisions we've made," says writer Pam Rosenzweig, 40, of her New Jersey based mothers' group, which is made up of professional writers. She adds, "It's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the mom issues from the work issues, since they're so closely interconnected. If you've had a bad day at work or your babysitter quits, it can start a chain of events that only people in a similar situation can appreciate."
Virtual vs. Real
Today's parents don't have to choose between face-to-face groups and online communities. We can -- and do -- embrace both. Mothers'-group maven Sherry Reinhardt, who has organized groups for more than 5,000 moms in Berkeley, CA, over the last 23 years, recalls the first gathering of one of them: "We went around with introductions, and after one person told about herself, another one screamed -- they realized they were intimate friends in an online pregnancy support group. This was their first face-to-face meeting!"
Many online mothers' groups, my own included, often joke about how well we "know" each other, and yet we wouldn't even recognize one another at the grocery store. One such group can't make that claim any longer. Sporting newly designed "Momfriends" T-shirts, 25 moms who had been corresponding by e-mail since 1997 (when they first became pregnant with their January 1998 babies) gathered together in July at Sesame Place in Langhorne, PA. Though sprawled across the world, the group's members say they couldn't feel closer.
Whether you find it over the water cooler, the back fence, or the wires, it's a great comfort to know that parent-to-parent support is available whenever and however you'd like it. "I could reassure someone endlessly," says Reinhardt, "but it makes all the difference in the world for the parent to hear it from another parent."