Today I have an article in the Telegraph Weekend Section about parenting websites. You can read it on their site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/main.jhtml?xml=/education/2008/04/19/famums19.xml
Or by continuing to read here:
Internet mums: help's within site
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 19/04/2008
The internet is proving invaluable for isolated mothers, discovers Sarah Ebner
Ellen Kirkby was nervous. The birth of her first son, Matthew, had not been easy and as the due date for her second child loomed, she realised she didn't want to be alone.
Fortunately fate - in the form of parenting website, Mumsnet - intervened.
"I posted a thread saying I was worried. DaisyMOO came on and said she would like to be there for me," says Kirkby. "It was a week before my due date and I knew nothing about her. But we chatted and I thought: 'Go for it.'?"
DaisyMOO (who's also known as Caroline Newey) was indeed there at the birth, and Kirkby says her presence made all the difference. (Her second labour was far better than her first.)
"She gave me the confidence to have the birth I wanted, to turn down drugs I didn't want and to help get Joe to breastfeed. She even went to get my ex-partner so he could see the baby, while making it as stress-free as possible for me."
To those not familiar with the astonishing growth of parenting websites, Kirkby's story may sound unusual. But to the hundreds of thousands of devotees, these sites fulfil a very real need, and one which politicians have heeded. David Cameron recently made his second appearance on Mumsnet, while the Department for Children, Schools and Families has just awarded a £500,000 grant to Netmums.
In a world where the extended family has often disappeared, parenting websites provide support and friendship 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They offer advice from other parents who have "been there", an emotional outlet and the opportunity to chat about anything from global warming to what to cook for supper.
Mumsnet stands out because, with 75 per cent of its users having a degree, much of the talk is caustic, argumentative and some might say intimidating. "They are honest," says Kirkby. "Maybe people in real life aren't brave enough to tell you to snap out of it. They will on Mumsnet."
"We have 20,000 posts a day so it's any question you may want to ask," adds the founder of the site, Justine Roberts. "It's not just sleeping and breastfeeding."
Parenting gurus have been around for decades. Dr Spock, Penelope Leach and more recently Gina Ford have told parents how to bring up their children, but these days many parents want more than the one point of view they get from a single expert.
"I've read so many books, but they seem almost dictatorial," says Suzi Shaw, who credits Mumszone for helping her through the loneliness she felt when her husband was diagnosed with depression.
"It was really hard being on my own, but knowing other people were going through the same thing really helped me," says Shaw, who adds that she loves getting "15 different points of view, instantly".
Linking people up, wherever they are, is definitely one of the websites' main attractions. The cloak of anonymity probably helps too - there are some questions parents don't want to ask face to face.
"I can be the person I want to be, not necessarily the person other people think I am," says Shaw, who adds that she constantly asks, and offers, advice to her friends online.
Chrissi Hudson, a Netmums aficionado, does likewise. "I don't want to be labelled a bad mum by someone in a white coat," she says. "I meet people in the same boat as me and we support each other. If I had a problem I would go on Netmums first."
It's that instinct, of going to a website rather than a professional, which prompted the huge grant awarded to Netmums. It's intended to help more than 50,000 parents in 18 months and Siobhan Freegard, founder of the site, hopes to employ some expert advisers.
"When we set up the site, we weren't expecting to get the number of serious cases that we did, from postnatal depression to domestic abuse," she says. "We have mums at their wits' end, some suicidal, but we don't have any specialists, just one counsellor behind the scenes. We told the Government that we had the mums and the problems, so the money should come to us. We're filling a gap in the system."
Freegard initially set up the site on a local level, with information for mothers in Harrow, where she lives. Soon emails came in from elsewhere asking for similar sites. There are now 152, which are all tightly moderated to provide what Freegard describes as a "safe and friendly environment".
But parenting sites aren't all about anonymity and computer screens. Many of those online have now met up with their friends offline and found a real connection. Perhaps one reason for this is that unlike mother and baby groups, websites allow you to meet other parents without children being present. You don't need to talk over, or even pretend to like, someone else's wailing toddler. Instead, you have the time to discover shared interests.
"It's like lonely hearts in effect," says Chrissi Hudson. "I've made so many friends."
www.mumsnet.com: witty, acerbic, with a huge range of topics. Just signed six-figure deal for a series of "modern, funny" parenting books.
www.netmums.com: vast membership, lots of support and advice. Also has publishing deal.
www.badmothersclub.co.uk: set up by Stephanie Calman to reassure mums muddling through.
www.supernanny.co.uk: advice based site based on the TV show
www.gurgle.com: newest site, backed by Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre.
www.mumszone.co.uk: supportive forum, section on mums who work from home.