Virtual Motherhood

Is the Internet an amazing conduit to communities of like-minded parents, or a low-fare trolley ride into the Land of Make Believe? You just might be surprised.

January 13, 1998: A critically ill newborn baby boy lies in a Tennessee neonatal intensive-care unit on a frigid winter's eve. Hovering nearby are his frightened parents, separated from their son by the oxygen tent surrounding his tiny bassinet. Outside the nursery are worried grandparents, aunts, and uncles, pacing nervously, silently hoping for a bit of good news. And all over the world, from Australia to Florida to Canada, are scores of families, each lighting a candle at an appointed hour, each speaking words of encouragement, blessing, and hope that this tiny boy might heal. And he does.

Today, Elliot--my son and that baby--is a hale and hearty three-month-old, perfectly well in every way. But on that night last winter, he was struggling to overcome persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn, a life-threatening condition in which the heart does not receive sufficient levels of oxygen. Born three weeks early on January 3, after a completely normal pregnancy, Elliot surprised everyone when he arrived so very sick. He was rushed to the NICU within hours after his birth and remained there for two terrible weeks. But on the evening of January 13, something amazing happened. As people all over the world gathered in their homes to meditate and pray for Elliot's recovery, he began to improve. By the morning of January 14, his neonatologists informed my husband and me that they felt our son had "turned the corner" during the night.

Just who were all these far-flung individuals who, I am increasingly convinced, called upon the power of love to heal our Elliot? Old college friends? Neighbors from years past? Scattered relatives? Not quite. They are my favorite people whom I have never actually met: my online community. Internet friends, email pals . . . call them what you will, these many dozens of women and their families joined together on Elliot's behalf that night in response to an email message sent out by two members of an Internet listserv for mothers to which I belong. They asked everyone in our group (and other parenting email lists to which they requested the post be forwarded) to light a candle and think of Elliot at ten p.m. Eastern Standard Time. All around the globe, entire households stopped what they were doing to heed that call. And that's not all. During Elliot's illness and recovery at home, various online friends from all over North America sent toys for my two older children, baby clothes, homemade muffins, meals, fruit baskets, and flowers. One ad hoc group of email buddies from every corner of the country even found and hired a local maid service to come and clean my house.

For those unfamiliar with the World Wide Web, this story might sound surprising. After all, isn't the Internet that wild, woolly new frontier, chock full of child pornographers and cultists? Aren't newsgroups, mailing lists, and chat rooms the sole domain of uber-nerds and lonely hearts who have no "real" friends with whom they can talk? That was certainly what I thought before getting online myself almost four years ago. I'd heard of the World Wide Web and email, but my understanding of cyberspace was limited. My husband Chris, who preceded me into this brave new world by six months, raved continually about its possibilities and urged me to check it out.

"I can't believe I found an email group for Fiat lovers!" he would shout with excitement from inside our home office. "Wanna know the weather report in Thailand?"

As a technophobic Luddite, I resisted. I considered the Internet too darn complicated and unworthy of my limited time as a grad student and the pregnant mother of a three-year-old. Ultimately, however, parenthood itself lured me online: when I developed a pregnancy complication, Chris was able to track down all the information we needed on the Web, and I, inspired by his example, took my first tentative steps onto the Net by "lurking" on misc.kids, a general interest newsgroup for parents.

Newsgroups are a type of cyber-bulletin board. Thousands exist on the Internet, each with its own topic, ranging from Japanese cooking to urban myths. Anyone on the WWW can access these groups and join in the discussion, posting their own messages and reading those left by others. Transmission is often instantaneous, so the give and take can feel much like a real conversation.

For several weeks, I read hundreds of daily posts from other parents discussing everything from natural childbirth to Attention Deficit Disorder. I watched in silent awe as "flamewars" erupted among posters debating such controversial issues as circumcision and school choice. After a while, I genuinely liked many of the personalities that emerged in the daily posts from other parents. And finally, one day, I jumped into the fray with my own first post to the newsgroup--on the topic of discipline, as I recall.

Not long after making my debut on misc.kids, another online parent told me via private email about Parent-L, an Internet mailing list for breastfeeding mothers. Mailing lists, or "listservs," are another vehicle for Internet communication. A mailing list exists for almost any interest or issue imaginable and anyone with an email account can subscribe. Messages to the group are sent to a central location and then disseminated via a computer program to everyone subscribed to the list. Members, often from all over the world, can then read and respond. A sense of camaraderie and group culture usually emerges.

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