Message boards can bring out the worst in us.
If you’ve ever used an online group to glean pregnancy or childcare information, you’ve met this person. She weighs in every day on most topics and her opinion is unflappable, even when faced with credible opposing evidence. You wonder how she could be so incredibly involved and, let’s face it, prolific. Secretly you think that her spouse must neglect her and that she must be a bad parent – really bad, the kind about whom studies are done. My online nemesis came in the form of a pro co-sleeping, breast feed ‘em until they can ride a bike, veg mom whom I’ll call Eleanor.
“Eff the mommy wars,” I had always thought. My girlfriends range from stay-at-home to working, breast to bottle, and we all know that everyone must come to their own conclusions about crying it out. So how did I wind up in an online war that sapped time and energy that could have been better devoted to, say, teaching my baby sign language?
I first took notice of Eleanor as one voice in a larger group in a good old-fashioned neighborhood drug war. I came down on the anti-drug, and therefore anti-fun, side of the argument, since I wasn’t crazy about the idea of having crack dealers on my block. Eleanor sided with the legalize-it crowd, who also suggested opening up a nice methadone clinic in order to make the junkies harassing our children more comfortable.
While I also took note of those members whose opinions I would now view with a jaundiced eye, I noted that my inbox was most often filled with posts from Eleanor. She had something to say about everything. Don’t get me started on her “suggestions” for mothers who were looking for help as they tried to stop breastfeeding.
As is the case with most great rivalries, at first I peacefully co-existed with this haughty mommy, even exchanging tips and information with her and other parents on the listserv. I adored this new online community; my participation was harmless, helpful even. I met great moms who set up meetings for those of us who had no clue what you did all day with a five-week-old baby. I learned about all the neighborhood daycare centers and local sitters. I got great restaurant recommendations. I even picked up a free Exersaucer when my tot got big enough to sit up and demand entertainment. It was a utopian dream – not entirely unlike the early days of Jonestown.
Liz Schnore is a pioneering list owner of one of the first neighborhood online parenting communities, Fort Greene Kids. Schnore has watched men and women with varying parental styles express themselves online in good and not-so-good ways every day for the last seven years. She acknowledges that what began as a means of providing resources to new parents in her neighborhood has grown into something she can’t, and won’t, control.
“There are people who like to be instigators on listservs like this. It’s sort of the fun of pretending to be somebody they’re not and causing lots of arguments and fights among people,” explains Schnore. Still, she insists that as a list owner, not a moderator, she won’t step in to save someone from his or her own bad judgment. “If you’re going to make statements, you’re going to have to defend yourself,” Schnore says. Which is probably why, early on in my online community involvement, I stayed out of the fray when fights erupted, congratulating myself on not being one of those people.
Eleanor, not so much. When any topic popped up on the screen, she would inevitably follow with an authoritative declaration. Question about noisy neighbors keeping your baby up? Eleanor had something to say. Elimination communication? She was there. And tons and tons of posts about cats. Found cats, lost cats, how to keep your cat:many cats! She was constantly looking for things, information and advice. Which, granted, is what the list is for, but even her repeated requests were hostile. She didn’t just want a good pediatrician in the neighborhood; the doctor had to be vegetarian-friendly and vaccine-wary. When she was looking to pick up items she didn’t get at her two (yes, two) baby showers, she looked to the list again. And it wasn’t like she was asking nicely for some used baby swings and toys: she needed organic, Oeuf and Seventh Generation. Her quest for the perfect bottled water service made me momentarily question whether I was slowly poisoning my daughter with my Brita.
Normally I’m not averse to anyone’s choices in food, clothing or shelter as long as they don’t infringe on others’ right to eat burgers and wear polyester. But I When I jumped in to defend my friend, Eleanor attacked. was bound to lose it at some point under the constant barrage of absolute authority. That point came when Eleanor went after me directly.
A friend of mine was looking for advice on how to handle vacation with her part-time nanny and was admonished by the liberal-guilt folks in the group because she didn’t pay social security taxes on those ten hours a week and then give her nanny a monthly foot massage. When I jumped in to defend my friend by explaining that not all our neighbors were million-dollar homeowners, Eleanor attacked.
The truth is, I somehow knew she would. When I posted, deep down I knew it was like dangling a T-bone in front of a tiger. And the minute I put myself out there, I got a momentary, very smug high. This was followed by an immediate anxiety that made me refresh my email every five minutes in search of a reply (ideally, a conciliatory “Oh, my God, you’re so right – I am psychotic!”).
Instead, Eleanor sanctimoniously ripped into me, explaining that I had a choice in my career that offered no benefits, but these poor nannies – who came to this country through underground barbed wire tunnels, surviving on rat excrement because they were escaping torture for being political dissidents – did not have any other choice except to love and care for our children. But I paraphrase.
I felt horrible, like I had wronged someone from a disadvantaged country andI wasn’t even the one not paying for my part-time nanny’s vacation. The truth is, these boards can make us feel like we’re doing things wrong just because we’re not doing them the same way as “goodmommy919.” And that is more screwed up than the innards of a Diaper Genie. I picked my fragile mommy shell up off the ground, and raged: How dare anyone judge my parenting skills without ever being inside my home, knowing my family, knowing my bank balance? I seethed all day until my husband came home and found me abusing my keyboard to generate a brilliant response (I was leaning toward “You Suck!!!”), while my daughter sat beside me, eating the television remote.
I know I’m not alone in obsessively talking about and participating in bad behavior in the confines of an online parenting group. Emily Nussbaum outed the New York City moms of UrbanBaby in her now infamous (among the procreating set, anyway) New York magazine article, “Mothers Anonymous.” Take a scroll through the BabyCenter forums and you can find all kinds of sweetness and light side-by-side with borderline abusive pro- and anti-circumcision declarations. So how does a nice list like ours turn into a minefield? Are we fighting battles online so we don’t have to fight them in our homes? Or do our online rivals make us so angry that we wind up snapping at or neglecting the children for whose welfare we were supposedly going online in the first place?
Dr. John Suler, author of The Psychology of Cyberspace and Professor of Psychology at Rider University, calls this particular brand of mommy meanness the online disinhibition effect. “Some people may say or do things online that they wouldn’t say or do in person. Being judgmental might be one of those things.”
Still, I felt my group should be different. After all, we all live in the same zip code with our children and share a love for our eclectic and colorful neighborhood. We should be on the same team. But once I knew the inner thoughts of these neighborhood parents, I didn’t trust them at all when I encountered them in real life. I couldn’t help but wonder: would the mom at the Farmer’s Market who smiled down at my baby (who was repeatedly ripping off her stocking cap and throwing it on the ground) go straight home to her computer and start a thread about the bad mom she just saw letting her daughter go outside without a hat?
Amanda Wiss is a new mother who, like me, went online for advice about her daughter, who was born last year. But she decided to use the internet for good, not evil. Wiss organized new moms in her neighborhood online, then got them together once a week for coffee or a hang in the park. “It was very much like, ‘I’m new in the neighborhood and I don’t know a single person that has a baby,’” Wiss explained.
But the parents’ group that got together at coffee shops and at the local park was very different from the online group Wiss participated in. She elaborated, “I think people tend to be a little more supportive in person and there is an actual dialogue. If someone plops down and This angry justice was only making my new-mom adjustment more difficult. makes some outlandish comment . . . you can question them over it. You can also say ‘Wow, you seem stressed.’ Or ask for some more context. You know the amount of times people post something and they don’t give you any background?”
It’s true that I didn’t know Eleanor’s background. If I did, perhaps I would be more sympathetic and less convinced that our neighborhood listserv was Eleanor’s raison d’être. But Dr. Suler says that for some people, online is reality. “It (the online community) becomes a lifestyle that is no less important or real than what people create for themselves in their ‘real’ life. It isn’t just about physical presence with a person. It’s about psychological and emotional presence, psychological and emotional relating. That can happen just as powerfully online via text communication, as it can in person,” Suler explains.
I certainly made it personal by creating an imaginary me vs. Eleanor scenario that she, of course, knew nothing about. My realization that I was over the edge came when I refused to sell her baby gear I was hawking, even though it meant I had to lug it to the Salvation Army that weekend. Because when someone starts more than one post with “I’m not trying to offend:” when that’s exactly what they are doing, they’re not getting my gently used baby sling for $10, OBO. Eventually the tit for tat became exhausting. Seeing as the first year of baby raising is marked by dramatic sleep loss, this level of commitment to angry justice was only making my new-mom adjustment more difficult. I decided to get off the online junk and back into healthy internet usage. And since online parenting rehab has yet to be invented, I asked my panel of experts for their advice.
Schnore suggests doing what she does when an online member pisses her off. First she takes a deep breath.”I’ve learned not to act immediately. If someone is doing something that is really inappropriate on the list, I’ll say okay, that was really bad and I’ll write an email that will be really crazy and then I’ll save it and sit on it until the next morning and I’ll delete it and say something much more appropriate.”
Not surprisingly, Wiss believes that my conflicts may be neutralized by a meet and greet. “There is a level of appropriateness that changes when you can look at someone in the face and realize that what you’re starting to say is not coming across so well. There is body language and a level of understanding that you’re also talking to an individual.” I conjured up the visual I had created of Eleanor: tall, thin and schoolmarmish, she stares down at me, her pointy eyes disgusted with my baby’s plastic toys off-gassing in her air space.
Dr. Suler agrees that the lack of context and body language make for most misunderstandings in an online community. “There certainly is a lot of ambiguity in text communication, due to the lack of vocal cues, facial expressions, and body language, all of which enrich in-person conversations but are missing online. As a result, it sometimes is easy to misinterpret what people are typing online. It’s easy to project meaning into a person’s message based on one’s own expectations, fears, and wishes.”
I wished that this irritation could be solved in another way than actually understanding Eleanor more. But I knew I had to give it a shot or She said anyone who said anything bad about the Bugaboo was just jealous. I was doomed to smuggling my laptop on vacations and to parties just to feed my unhealthy obsession. So I bit the bullet and emailed Eleanor to see if we could meet in person. We settled on an early morning coffee klatch.
It was a beautiful day and I was feeling optimistic. Peace would be restored to the list! Never again would I tense up whenever I saw a RE: from Eleanor. In hindsight, perhaps I was setting myself up for failure. As Eleanor greeted me, I thought she seemed sweet – maybe a little too energetic for 8:30 in the morning, but sweet. I began explaining my side of our initial squabble. Her response: “You know, a lot of people wrote to me saying ‘thank you’ after I wrote that email.” We weren’t off to the best start.
Eleanor went on to explain that all the members of our group were probably property owners, the only distinction being whether they bought before or after the real estate boom. The implication being: everyone on our list should be able to afford organic baby clothes and to offer their nannies $15/hour plus vacation, meals and travel. She also said that anyone who said anything bad about the Bugaboo was just jealous. It all started to become a buzz in my head after she told me she didn’t vaccinate her kid. All I could think about was getting home and washing my hands. Her reaction to everything I said was a patronizing “Well, we all make our choices.”
I had to hand it to her; Eleanor brought her A-game. She faltered only once: she admitted that, as she spent more time on the list, she had learned to temper her opinions, as not everyone would take them “the right way.” But she quickly pointed out that on another list, she had recently been forced to slap someone down over a call to take the family cat lest it be euthanized. Eleanor said she absolutely had to address the offender, chastising the woman with an email that read, “What kind of values are you teaching your children?” Again, with the cats!
I started to feel short of breath sitting across from Eleanor. Her harsh tone could not be attributed to an online faux pas; this was full-on verbal assault, under the guise of concerned citizenry. I found myself wanting to euthanize that cat just on principal. And I couldn’t believe that my get-me-out-of-here body language didn’t affect her: she was just as bossy and unpleasant in person as she was online. We ended the meeting with tense small talk about vacationing with children.
On the angry walk home, my hostilities toward her and the doomed cat began to wane. I recalled my love for pets and all living creatures, my preference for organic milk. I realized our values were actually quite I’ve learned my lesson about trying to get her, or any other parents, to see things my way. similar. Eleanor and I share a community and the jarring experience of new parenthood. When I sent out a call for donations to a non-profit a few days later, Eleanor was the first to respond.
Convinced that being a good online community member could not be as difficult as I made it for myself, I ask Dr. Suler to give his definition: “Good community members are those who have an intrinsic empathic ability, or who can develop an empathic ability, to understand and anticipate how other people online are thinking and feeling.”
I realized that even in person, what I really wanted was for Eleanor to see why she was wrong, and, I was, um, right. I now know I’m just as judgmental about Eleanor’s classist, aggressive, anti-vaccination kind as she is about those of us who want to protect our babies from the local crack head. But I’ve learned my lesson about trying to get her, or any other parents, to see things my way. Now when I see someone post about anything more controversial than a used umbrella stroller, I simply hit delete. And when I see Eleanor walking toward me in her eco-friendly hiking boots, I duck into the nearest big box store.