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Motherhood 2.0: It takes an (online) village

Women are not built to raise children alone, according to biological anthropologists. So in an age when moms are often isolated from family and friends, they turn to strangers online for help.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Jennifer Morais was a stay-at-home mother of three who was struggling financially but couldn’t afford the cost of child care if she went to work.

“Unfortunately, all the financial burden rested on my husband,” Morais said.

Nearly a year later, the Westchester, N.Y., digital photo enthusiast owns a successful photography business, with weddings booked for months and new shoots scheduled all the time. And she credits an online group of like-minded moms with making it happen.

Morais is just one of the millions of mothers who find community — as well as advice on every conceivable topic — in the digital world. From social networks to mommy blogs and message boards, the Web has opened up resources and connected women who never would have interacted if not for the click of a mouse.

It’s a much different experience than that of mothers of yesteryear, who mostly relied on family members and friends to guide them through the choppy waters of parenthood.

“You had a closer nuclear family. People stayed in neighborhoods longer and got to know their neighbors,” said Laura Fortner, senior vice president of marketing and insights at online community CafeMom. “In our busy society, getting actual physical time to get in touch with those people face to face can be difficult.”

Online resources allow connections, even with strangers, for “people who aren’t able to walk across the street or have that cup of coffee across the fence like moms used to be able to do 20 years ago,” Fortner said.

According to one expert, we weren’t meant to live this way. “Mothers really were not built to raise babies not only by themselves, but with only a partner,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist with Rutgers University. “For millions of years, a woman had much more than just her husband to help rear her young. ... This whole idea of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is exactly how we’re supposed to live.”

Fisher spent time with a group in Africa that lives much like the hunting and gathering bands did millions of years ago — in groups of about 25 individuals. She found the babies were passed from woman to woman within the group, and older children cared for younger ones.

“Their local community was so intact,” she said. ”We still have community, but we don’t seem to have local community. Even in a small town where you know your neighbors and your mother’s down the street, they’re not in arm’s length. ... We spend an inordinate amount of time building something that for millions of years was done naturally.”

Welcome to Motherhood 2.0
Luckily for the modern mom, the Internet has made forging those bonds possible from any place at any time. And moms are doing so more often. A study conducted by CafeMom and Razorfish earlier this year found that moms spend 18.5 hours a week online, and four out of five moms surveyed said social networks have had a positive impact on their lives. In addition, they look to social networks for advice on life issues as well as buying decisions.

The options are as varied as the Web itself. From community sites such as, and for working moms, to blogs that chronicle personal experiences such as Chefdruck, MomintheCity and Baby on Bored, the perspectives and diversity of opinion are seemingly endless. There are countless topic-specific message boards and content-rich niche sites like SavvyAuntie, a community for “cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.”

For many moms, the first step into the online sisterhood begins during pregnancy, when questions abound and answers are hungrily sought. Melissa Rappaport of White Plains, N.Y., is expecting twins in January and has found a lifeline through an online BabyCenter birth group for people expecting multiples around the same time.

“It’s just a great source of support,” Rappaport said, “and it’s nice that it’s anonymous because you feel like you can say anything and not be judged.”

It’s comforting to hear the other women’s pregnancy symptoms and ideas on how they will manage with twins, she said, and she even met two women who live in her area and they have become e-mail friends.

Facebook can also be a resource for moms beyond just a means of staying in touch, as Sharon Coey, a former New Yorker now living in London, has learned. Among other things, Coey posted a recent status update about her 3-month-old not adjusting well to her switch from sleeping in a Moses basket to a crib, which was met with advice ranging from swaddling her baby girl to putting the basket inside the crib until she was used to it.

Coey said she finds the feedback reassuring and usually helpful, and it helps her stay connected with faraway friends who have yet to meet her daughter. “I'm mostly surprised at the amount of responses and that people care enough to write back — or just to look at my 8 million photos of my baby,” she said.

Jennifer Kislin of Westchester, N.Y., a mother of three, regularly reads several of her friends’ blogs, as well as larger ones including Dooce, My Charming Kids and The New York Times’ Motherlode. She gets different things out of all of them, from information to humor, and she said reader comments are usually informative.

“Parenting advice is personal, so if people are judgmental it does not bother me,” Kislin said. “The more kids I have, the more I realize that there is no right way. I find that moms with larger families may have strategies but rarely feel like they have answers.”

No boredom on these boardsWhen it comes to seeking advice — whether it’s how to treat a kid’s fever at 2 a.m. or where to get a good haircut — perhaps nothing has more impact than the innumerable conversations happening over online message boards.

Jill Mendelsohn Lam, a mother of two from South Orange, N.J., belongs to Mothers and More, a national non-profit group whose local chapter has more than 500 members, most with children under 8. Most of them participate in an e-mail loop, with questions on everything from recommended painters and doctors to kid-related topics.

Lam recently posted a question to the group: “What do I do with my crazy 3-year-old when we go out to dinner because he’s really impossible?” She got about 20 suggestions from people, with comments ranging from “3-year-olds are famous for being difficult in restaurants” and advice to have a special set of games and toys reserved for dining out to make it more fun.

But even better than the suggestions, Lam said, was the support. “One of the best things is that I don’t feel alone,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m the only parent in New Jersey that can’t go out to dinner with my 3-year-old.”

Lam also likes the anonymity the Web affords. “I don’t know a lot of the people giving me responses and they may not know me, so there’s no relationship involved,” she said. “It’s just here’s my question, here’s my suggested answer. It’s unbiased.”

In Los Angeles, moms in the know follow the same credo: don’t Google, Peachhead everything. Kid have a weird symptom? Need a local babysitter? Selling a toaster? People who use the site — part chat room, part classifieds site Craigslist and part consumer reports site Angie’s List — have come to rely on it for quick answers to almost everything.

Founded by Venice, Calif.-native Linda Perry when her first daughter was born in 1997, what started as a group of 15 women making plans and sharing advice on an e-mail list has grown to 10,500 members who connect through Yahoo! groups.

“It’s really instant gratification for answers to moms,” Perry said.

Many of them have taken their relationships offline, whether they’ve met through message boards or picked up an item for sale at someone’s house. “A lot of people have said their best friends are people they met through Peachhead,” she said.

Benefiting without posting anythingFortner said CafeMom has more than 70,000 mom-created groups whose topics range from “hot tattooed mamas” to “moms who watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ together” to health issues, which moms may not be willing to discuss with friends and family. In other cases they turn to specific groups because they simply don’t know anyone with similar experiences.

That was the situation for Tracy from Falls Church, Va., who asked that her last name not be used. She found the boards on the site to be helpful when looking for information on topics that her friends were not dealing with.

“It is nice to read posts from other moms and realize that there are so many other families going through the same things that we are,” she said. “I liked feeling a part of a community even though I never posted anything. I often found the advice online more helpful than much of the advice I received in person.”

For Morais, joining the PhotoMoms group on CafeMom was truly life-altering. In addition to learning what it would take to start her business, Jennifer Morais Photography, she found help through the opinions of the other mothers, “wonderful photographers that taught me and were there to encourage me when I needed it. Or to say, ‘That picture needs to be deleted completely.’ ”

Her entire family’s life has improved — just in time as she is expecting a fourth child. “I went from wondering how we were going to pay the current month’s rent to paying months in advance, and soon we’ll get a bigger place.”

But also important are the women she has met online: “I’ve made irreplaceable friendships for a lifetime.”