Condemn me if you like, but in our house Dr. Ferber is a bit of a guru, the czar of bedtime. So imagine my consternation when I consulted my dog-eared, Scotch-spotted copy of his book only to find that Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems does not include a chapter entitled, “How to get two kids, 3 and 1, to sleep in the same bedroom when one makes strange gurgles in his sleep that wake up the other, who is concurrently going through a 2:30-4:30 a.m. fear of shadows, monsters and ‘sparkles.’” Fortunately, I knew where to find answers: my beloved neighborhood parenting listserv, Park Slope Parents. Though none among the 37 near-instant responses to my bleary 4:35 a.m. post addressed or solved my problem precisely, they all agreed on one thing: You will get through it. That was enough. And indeed, we did.
Of course, my beloved neighborhood doctor, or even my beloved less-local mother, could have told me some version of the same thing, but not at 4:35 a.m. When it comes to my preferred parenting go-tos, I’m not alone – and that’s the point, as shown by the success of the top 12 parenting listservs as picked by Babble. While parents haven’t exactly burned all their copies of Sears and Spock, a small virtual revolution has taken place. Call it “parenting by listserv,” in which the online hive-mind – often in the form of Yahoo or Google groups – has in some sense toppled the “expert” as the highest authority of all. Parenting listservs are, in many ways, our new neighborhoods, complete with friendly park-bench advice and local crazies. (In some cases they’re even better, with relative anonymity meaning that we’re not airing our poopy laundry at soccer pickup.) Beyond the obvious appeal of its at-your-fingertips instant-advice convenience, listserv parenting represents something timeless – and a particular moment in cyber- and child-rearing culture.
Liz Gumbinner of Mom101.com explains: “Moms simply trust other moms. And now, with the Internet and message boards and listservs, we have more access to a wider range of parents than we had. As a society we’ve literally moved away from the extended family where our mothers and grandmothers were down the block, ready to tell us how to treat an ear infection or how long to heat the casserole. We’re looking for ‘people like us’ to relate to, in parenting and beyond, and today’s technology lets us do that.”
Karen Fox, a mother of two in Washington, DC, says even though she has read “all” the books, she “trusts lots of women, as a collective, more than I trust a single expert – even if that’s my doctor, whom I love. I could call him and say I have a blocked milk duct, but will he tell me anything better or different than the women on DC Urban Moms or the Kalorama or Dupont Circle listservs, who tell me I just need to get the baby to suck with the bottom of his mouth pointed directly at the duct? Women know, and they talk, and I trust them.”
Parenting listservs are not brand new: just ask mother of three Allison Kaplan Sommer, whose e-list, September Moms – which grew out of her search for a peer group when she moved from the States to Tel Aviv – has been running since 1996. (“We started with bottles and breasts and strollers and now we’re doing dating and acne and menstruation and college savings accounts,” she says.) But the more recent explosion of childrearing by crowd-source may – as Karen Fox hints – also represent a bit of a backlash against “experts.” Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., author of Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and How They Learn, has studied what sources of advice people today tend to trust. “Overwhelmingly,” he says, it’s “peers” rather than experts – someone who is “like you.” Today’s hardcore commercialization of expert advice may be a factor, too, where parenting experts – regardless of the nuance and detail that closer reads of their work may reveal – are packaged and promoted as “My Way or The Highway (to Juvie)” or “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do It Like That Guy.”
Books, likewise, give you data, but they don’t hold your hand. “Most of the time, what I sought from my listserv was a sense of what ‘normal’ was,” says Nikki Maxwell, a mother of three in North Hills, CA, who formed an e-list when she was pregnant. “Books tend to say ‘this is the gradient of normal’ and ‘see a doctor’ for most things. I needed genuine feedback about my experience at that moment. When you are in a mommy crisis, a book is cold comfort. Other moms don’t just give you information; they also talk you down.
Many parents of kids in special medical situations – whether acute or chronic – say they don’t know where they’d be without the support of listserv e-tribes.
“We discovered shortly after our daughter’s birth that she was born with a cleft palate. We were clueless, and I felt totally alone and depressed about it all,” says Rebecca Bell Sorenson of Minneapolis. Her best friend in Brooklyn placed a request for advice on her listserv and presto: fifty responses in twenty minutes, sharing stories about breastfeeding issues and surgery options. “Knowing so many others were going through the same thing put me at ease. Connecting to this group – vs. our doctor, who called it a ‘birth defect’ – took the stigma out of it and gave me a comfortable language to talk about it.”
The same goes, of course, for parents of kids with autism and other ongoing special needs; listservs provide advice specific to navigating education and services in one’s own community. “You get to ask [questions] from, ‘Who knows a good dentist who can deal with sensory issues?’ to, ‘What’s an IEP?’” says Beth Arky of Brooklyn, NY, whose son is on the autism spectrum.
Of course, not every listserv is one constant group hug; seeking out “people like me” does not mean finding total agreement or unconditional support. But while this heterogeneity can be refreshing, the occasional debates are daunting – especially when relative anonymity trumps civility. “I once posted a query about letting kids go under the table at restaurants,” says Leta Hamilton, a Seattle mother of three and author of The Way of the Toddler. “I was completely unprepared for the extreme vitriol that came my way and had to stop reading replies – along the lines of ‘People like you shouldn’t go to restaurants, period.’ I have been shy of parenting listservs ever since.”
Another con: Other parents are not always right. “I have seen women ask medical questions and get downright bad or wrong advice,” says Angelique Uhlmann, a physician and mother of one in Boston, who belongs to a local parenting listserv.
That’s why some listserv diehards reserve specific medical stuff for the pediatrician, but also say their online groups are just what the doctor ordered – for them. “If I’m truly concerned, I want a professional. If I’m confused or aggravated, I want another mom,” says Mary Alice Carr, a mother of two in Maplewood, NJ, who has been a member of her local “e-loop” for 6 years. “More than solutions, I want community.”