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Virtual Motherhood

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.

I subscribed to Parent-L, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was on Parent-L that I first "met" many of the women who were to become some of my closest friends. And it was on Parent-L that I first learned just how powerful internet friendship among mothers who have never seen each other's faces can be.

Bonnie Bedford, a Canadian writer, artist, Web designer and the mother of four young children, was one of the charter subscribers to Parent-L when the email list was launched on Christmas Day, 1994. She quickly became one of the most beloved list members, known for her acerbic humor, thoughtful parenting, and love of old Cadillacs. As Parent-L grew in size, Bonnie's wise advice to nervous new mothers left a profound impact on hundreds, possibly thousands, of families from around the world. Her much-visited Radical Mother Web page (which can be viewed at http://www3.islandnet.com/~bedford/bonnie.html) provided support for her belief in gentle, instinctive parenting practices.

Parent-L members were shocked and saddened when Bonnie revealed her discovery of a lump in her breast. Shock morphed into fear when the lump proved malignant and doctors informed Bonnie, who was still nursing two of her children, that she would need an immediate mastectomy. List-members laughed and cried with Bonnie as she allowed them glimpses into the painful experiences she and her family were undergoing. And, although very few of the hundreds of mothers on Parent-L had ever actually met Bonnie Bedford in person, they decided to do something that would boost her spirits, show their love and appreciation, and encourage her as she faced the toughest battle of her life.

Private emails flew fast and furious as Parent-L members secretly mobilized to create what Bonnie later dubbed her "medicine quilt." Fifty-six women from seven countries worked together via the Internet and postal service to design this special, handmade gift. Each quilt square represented one Internet friend's hopes for Bonnie. There were children's hand and foot prints, skylines, maps, and encouraging messages. Some quilters included pieces of special family heirlooms: buttons and thread, ribbons and symbols . . . even pieces of wedding gowns. Finally, several women traveled to gather together at one Parent-L member's home in the Pacific Northwest for a "tying party," in which the quilt was pieced together and lovingly prepared for mailing to Bonnie's home. The beautiful quilt arrived on Bonnie's doorstep on April 3, 1995. She opened the box and saw, inscribed in fabric, "To Bonnie, From Your Parent-L Friends."

Bonnie later wrote about her quilt and the faceless, but real friends who made it for her:

" . . . that quilt is like a safety net, a big hug, a medicine quilt. I can never express how much I love it and the women who did it, or planned to do it but couldn't. I often look at it; I always find something new. I memorize the quilt. I see the names on messages and I don't picture "brown hair, tall." Instead I picture "yin yang" or "map of Tasmania" or "tiger" or "dove, heart, and handprint." You get the idea."

Bonnie Bedford died on July 11, 1997.

The story of Bonnie's quilt is merely one dramatic example of the way women, particularly mothers, are forging a meaningful new relationships via the Internet. Online friendships can provide a deep connection with other women--a connection that's often lacking in today's casual playground or water-cooler encounters. Suburbia, the work-home split, and the frantic pace of women's daily lives have conspired to prevent mothers from enjoying the female assemblages common in past cultures: everything from quilting bees to birthing gatherings to shared domestic chores. However, as more and more parents discover the Internet's bulletin boards, newsgroups, and email lists, mini-communities of women, albeit virtual ones, are reemerging and becoming common once again.

Cindy Miller, a forty-two-year-old professional doula from Minnetonka, says the women she's "met" online have kept her from feeling alone during her first years as an at-home parent, despite the absence of women nearby with whom she can share her daily joys and sorrows.  

"[Cyberspace] decreases the isolation that comes with being a mom," explains Miller. "In my neighborhood, I am the only stay-at-home mom anywhere within walking distance. The days of the neighborhood coffee klatsch are over. Online, I can sit down with my herbal tea and have the same thing our foremothers had with their neighbors."

Online friendships with other mothers who work outside the home have been especially important to Martha Rollins, a thirty-four-year-old banker from Houston, Texas, and the mother of two.

"I always used to envy my real-life friends who are stay-at-home mothers. They get to see each other during the day at the park or the library and talk over all the important 'mom stuff' like toilet training and when to start solids," says Rollins. "I was missing all of that at my office every day. Since I subscribed to an email list for working, breastfeeding mothers, I can read my email during break times at work and have those same kinds of conversations with my friends on my list."

For parents of young children, for whom personal time is at a premium, email can provide a uniquely perfect medium for developing and maintaining friendships and for having real conversations with other adults. While a new mother may not have time for leisurely political debate with friends over a glass of wine anymore, she can subscribe to the email list designed for feminist mothers at home and engage in lively discourse whenever time permits, including during baby's midnight feeding.

"It's much easier to have a dialogue in writing than in person when you have kids running around and interrupting all the time," explains thirty-two-year-old Deborah Taylor of Baltimore, the mother of a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old. "I sometimes think my email conversations are the only ones I've been able to complete in the last three years!"

Online friendships provide an antidote to the restlessness of modern-day family life. It's no longer necessary to leave friends behind when a job transfer or other move takes a family to a new home in a new location. Cyber-friends can come along as easily as email, thus providing a stable and welcome day-to-day presence. This was the case for Cindy Miller.

"My husband was transferred from Texas to Minnesota when my daughter was only four months old, so I had left my friends and support network behind just when I needed it most. Here in Minnesota, I did attend La Leche League Meetings and a stay-at-home moms' group, but it took about eighteen months to find like-minded mothers to start a play group. So, during those months, my connection with my online moms was my major support network. They encouraged me to keep working at establishing local connections," explains Miller.

Countless special interest parenting lists, newsgroups, and message boards now exist on the Internet. Gay and lesbian parents have their own message boards and email lists, as do parents of preemies and homeschoolers. Christian, Muslim, and even Pagan parents will all find groups designed just for them. Mothers and fathers interested in discussing specific issues, such as discipline for toddlers, parenting children with specific disabilities, or living on one income, can access message boards set up for these topics on the parenting forums hosted by commercial Internet providers like Prodigy and America Online. Similar message boards are also available on the World Wide Web through the many large commercial parenting Websites, including Parentsplace.Com and ParentSoup.Com. According to many online parents, the ability to find and connect with others who share what may be a fairly unique concern in one's "real" community is one of the best things about the Internet.

Joylyn Fowler, a thirty-two-year-old employed mother from Fountain Valley, California, discovered this aspect of online friendship after suffering a miscarriage in June of 1997. When Fowler became pregnant again, she subscribed to "SPALS," an email listserv for pregnant women who have experienced previous pregnancy loss. Due in July of this year, Fowler is grateful for the special support her online friends have been able to give her throughout her current pregnancy.

"My SPALS list has been especially helpful because, even though my other friends and family are supportive and caring, very few of them have suffered a loss and they can't really know how difficult it can be. But those on SPALS have suffered losses and do know how hard it is, and they have provided support I can't get elsewhere," says Fowler. "My real-life support group meets twice a month and sometimes I need support between those times. SPALS is always there."

Internet friendships can also provide comfort for those mothers who find they face criticism in their daily lives for what might be controversial parenting choices, such as a family bed or child-led weaning.  

"I felt like I had come out of the closet the first time I scrolled down the list of message boards on one of AOL's parenting forums and saw that there was one for 'nursing older children,'" remembers Anna, a Chicago systems analyst and the mother of two daughters. " . . . I now know that there are lots of families with older nurslings and there isn't anything wrong with it."

One of the most popular special interest Internet resources for mothers today is the "due-date list," an email list or parenting message board set up for pregnant women who are due during the same month of the same year. New due-date lists start up each month, so a woman can join in one of these uniquely nurturing online mothering communities as soon as she learns she is expecting. Over the course of nine months of shared morning sickness, expanding bellies, first kicks, and stretch marks, pregnant email pals forge a strong and powerful sisterhood. Recently, on my own January '98 due-date listserv, one of our list members suffered the loss of her unborn son in the sixth month due to a catastrophic auto accident. The rest of the still-pregnant women on the list organized a collection effort and purchased the right to have a star named in memoriam of our friend's lost child. With bonds such as these, online due-date groups usually stay together through the exciting month that list members give birth and beyond, with some groups still chatting every day via email years after the arrival of their babies, despite the fact that they have never met in person.

"I remember the month last year when everyone on my list was due," says Rebekah Frenzel of Seattle, a stay-at-home mother who is still actively involved with her own pregnancy due-date list, which now refers to itself as the "December '96 Playgroup."

"I would get up early each day to log onto my email and see what birth announcements would pop up. With ninety of us on the list, it was a pretty exciting month. I took my laptop to the hospital with me when I had my son so I could fire off my good news to the group within a couple of hours after he was born. My nurses and even my husband thought it was a little weird, but I didn't care. I wanted my friends who had been through so much with me over the past nine months to be the first to know!"

Frenzel's husband's reaction to her online relationships is not uncommon. Many women who have developed meaningful Internet friendships report that their spouses, other family members, or friends have difficulty understanding the significance of these connections or the amount of time spent logged on. In some cases, this concern may be well-founded: what should be a healthy new medium for talking with other parents can become a compulsive behavior. According to Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for On-line Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, Internet Addiction Disorder is an increasingly recognized psychiatric malady. Dr. Young has reviewed of more than 400 cases of the disorder, and says the relative anonymity of Internet communication, which allows a person to escape from reality, has great potential for compulsive behavior or misuse. However, many enthusiasts of Internet friendship say that spending time each day with cyber-friends in front of a computer screen shouldn't be considered any more "addictive" than spending the same amount of time each day with other friends on the phone or in person.

Cecilia Mitchell Barfield is a forty-three-year-old accountant from Florida and the mother of two who participates in several parenting listservs. She says that her online friends are among her closest and that she draws no distinction between her friends with whom she has physical contact and her cyber-friends.

"I have met some [online friends] in real life too, and our friendship is even closer now," says Barfield. "But I have many online friends I haven't met and may never meet whom I consider good, close friends and with whom I desire frequent contact. They make me laugh, cry, think . . . they have had a strong influence on the way I live my life, in some cases."

Meredith Jones, a single mother from Ithaca, New York, resents it when people trivialize her online relationships.

"I hate it when people talk about my 'real' friends and my online friends," says Jones passionately. "My online friends from my email list for single mothers by choice are my real friends. You don't have to see someone's face to care for her or appreciate her as a human being."  

However, many cyber-friends do make the effort to get to know the faces behind the email addresses. Some listservs and newsgroups organize annual "photo albums": group members mail photos of themselves and their children to one participant who agrees to collate, bind, and copy the album for distribution to everyone who contributes to the effort. In other cases, online parents host a password-protected group Web page, with photos and biographical information for each member-family. And often, online friends even meet one another in person. When you have cyber-friends living all over the United States and in a number of other countries, it's easy to plan trips integrating visits with Internet buddies. In the case of larger online parenting groups, there are almost always several group members who live in the same city or area, making group get-togethers possible.

"I've discovered local friends from my email lists," says Cindy Miller. "I have developed face-to-face friendships with several women around the Twin Cities whom I see fairly regularly. We get together with our children at various child-friendly places like the zoo and the Arboretum. I have also participated in picnics coordinated by online list members in the Twin Cities."

However, once the veil of email anonymity is pierced with real-life encounters, cyber-friends may prove a disappointment, if they don't turn out to be the people they presented themselves to be. But generally, over months or years of corresponding about the highly personal and emotional issues related to parenting, Net users develop a pretty accurate sense of who their online friends really are.

In my own case, as I think back to the loving care and thoughtfulness demonstrated by my online parenting community during the frightening early days of my youngest child's life, it isn't difficult at all to know who these women are. They are my friends. My real friends.

Katie Allison Granju is a Knoxville, Tennessee freelancer and the mother of three. Her article about cohousing communities appeared in the December issue of Minnesota Parent, and her once-frequent contributions to our publication are resuming now that Elliot is three months old.


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