Mothers stuck at home know one place they can go where they will be guaranteed plenty of fun, friendship and advice, says Deany Judd
How do you hold a cordless phone in place whilst you talk on the phone and get on with jobs around the house at the same time? What celebs could you easily punch in the face? Does your bra always match your knickers? Anybody want to buy a Burberry checked trouser suit for your dog? How often do you change your bed sheets?
Answers to these and every conceivable question you can imagine are available in the talk section of the parenting website Mumsnet. Not run of the mill parenting questions, granted but then Mumsnet isn’t a run of the mill parenting website. Browsing through a few of the many other parenting websites that were set up in the wake of the technological boom, it is quickly apparent that these have resulted in serious parents taking their role even more seriously. They’re all a bit, well, worthy. Log on to the talk section of Mumsnet and not only will you be there for hours but you will in turn shriek with laughter, cry at people’s day to day problems and marvel at the very strong sense of community that exists between its 17000 members.
In 2000 journalist Justine Roberts, 36, spent a miserable holiday in Florida where the child care on offer was appalling, “It was such a waste of precious time and money. I started to think that it would be wonderful if there was some kind of forum where mothers could share their experiences of holidays. Then I thought that if it worked for holidays it would work for other products.” She set up Mumsnet with fellow ante-natal class members, television producer Carrie Longton, 38 and radio producer Rachel Foster,37. Although it is not yet and may never be a great financial success, it’s something they’re all very proud of.
“We very quickly realised that the chat element was the key focus, what people want is advice from other mothers, people going through the same thing. Experts are all very well but they tend to give you only one piece of advice whereas on Mumsnet within minutes you’ve got you get twenty peoples’ advice. Even if someone can’t tell you how to get your child to sleep 12 hours a night they can say they know how you feel and sympathise with you and that’s invaluable,” explains Justine. The chat element of the board has all but taken over and now accounts for 80% of its traffic.
The beauty of it and perhaps the key to its success, is that everyone posts under anonymous names and so you might find yourself getting advice from Melsy, Tigermoth ,Soupdragon or wickedwaterwitch which seems somewhat strange at first but that anonymity means that there is no subject that can’t or indeed hasn’t been discussed. “What I love about it is that you can go online and find really serious conversations or threads as they’re called, entitled “Well it’s finally happened, he’s left and I feel like shit” or “Mum is dying and I feel so helpless” beside “Has anyone got an epilator and is it any good” to “Chlamidia is the new Kylie” a current thread about what people have called their children,” says Soupdragon, a Mumsnet member. On a Friday or Saturday night a thread will often appear entitled “the bar is now open” which conjures up a lovely image of women all over the country, kids finally put to bed, on a virtual night out.
“Funnily enough I don't see mumsnet as a website but as a kind of 21st century equivalent of the extended family and community which modern lifestyles have eroded,” says GillW
The membership is made up almost equally of part-time , full-time working Mums and Mums who stay at home too, so the whole spectrum is there and that brings a balance and civility to the whole community. “it’s not unusual to read a post asking about what steriliser to buy and someone will post a response saying “this type and incidentally I’ve got one you can have, what’s your address?” The spirit of Mumsnet is very much of giving as well as taking.” Roberts explains.
The members agree. “I love the diversity, seriousness and also banality of the threads. I have posted on everything from "Shall I go to see Mum's body at the Chapel of Rest" to "Am I Dirty?" a thread about laundry habits which provoked much comparing and confessing. I've made some real friends here and being anonymous helps enormously - no one judges you by your dress sense, weight, or the size of your house,” says MO2 , “Above all it makes me laugh because over half the women on here are hysterical.”
Whether the subject of the thread is serious, lighthearted or controversial, the wit of the women online can be startling, “Purely by dint of their postings, not any research we’ve done, I would say our members are highly educated” says Roberts. Looking at some of the threads which start off as serious postings “do you let your child eat unpaid for grapes as you go round the supermarket?” which very quickly degenerates into a Monty Python-esque sketch with contributions of a calibre that would put many a comedy writer to shame no one would disagree with her. Mumsnet Rhapsody, a take on Bohemian Rhapsody, where a dozen or so members contributed line by line at startling speed is another example of the intelligent wit in board:
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy..
Caught in a school run
No escape from domesticity
Force open your eyes
Look up to the skies... and Scream
I see a little silhouetto of a brat
Scaramouch scaramouch will you drink your bl**dy tango
But it’s not just a laugh, many serious issues are dealt with too- child abuse, domestic abuse, marriage breakdowns, alcoholism; the whole gamut of life’s problems has been dealt with but always where possible with humour. There has even been a virtual birth as one mother went into labour on line and the midwife was two hours away. After lots of advice the thread went quiet and then her husband came on saying he’d delivered a baby daughter and both were well. Recently the Mumsnet community rallied round a member whose thread read that her estranged husband failed to show up for his daughter’s birthday leaving her distraught. For the rest of the week the girl was opening presents from the birthday fairies.
The sense of community and caring it engenders is a recurring theme for all members on what it is about it that makes them so devoted and addicted in some cases .On one recent thread a woman posted that her marriage had become routine, the sex was boring, she’d met someone she fancied and she was thinking of having an affair. Everyone gave her lots of advice, largely along the lines of think twice you may regret it. A couple of days later she posted a message saying “Oh God, my husband’s read it, what will I do?” Two hours later she came back on and posted that they had just had the best sex they’d had in years. Virtual cheers all round. “Sometimes it feels like I'm playing a part in, or reading a novel with so many interesting and funny characters,” says MO2
Many Mumsnetters have taken things a stage further and gone from a virtual night out to a real night out and meet ups have taken place all over the country and in as far-flung places as Geneva, Spain and Auckland which seems ironic in light of the fact that its biggest appeal lies in the anonymity of its members,. For Justine , Carrie and Rachel these meet-ups are truly amazing, not only because it seems somewhat ironic that people use the internet because they’re so short of time and then they want to meet up but because they have taken on a life of their own, “I’ve been along to a couple and after the initial awkwardness of introductions with these nicknames, everyone talks away like they have known one another for years. I think you always have something in common with another mother, that’s the point” explains Roberts. .
Of course initial trepidation is natural and something every mother attending a meet-up for the first time feels, “When I went to my first mumsnet meet-up my husband called me about 10 minutes after I'd got there to ask whether I had in fact discovered a bunch of lorry drivers with a fetish for mothers... Luckily I had just found 7 like-minded mums, we had a great time, had a load of drinks and I found two new friends within half a mile of my new house,” explains Countessdracula who says that Mumsnet is the fourth most important relationship in her life .She has real friends but they don’t have the answer to everything nor are they involved in her day to day life.
It must be quite a risk to go to one of these meetings, the expectations must be enormous, wasn’t she a bit worried that it would change things? “It was great and no, it didn't change anything for me, except for the better in that I now know what some posters look like .When I've met people there's an immediate intimacy, since we've all revealed so much of ourselves here; the conversations are just real life extensions of threads At one meet up a woman leant over the dinner table and said "so, should I sleep with this guy at work?" I'd never met her but she felt she 'knew' me and vice versa.”
For others the experience was a bit odd to “At a meet up I was talking to someone about my dog, they said "what sort of dog is he" and someone else chipped in "no, her dog is a girl!" says Mumsnetter Marthamoo “Whilst I enjoyed it, there's something about the net that means you can get down to the nitty gritty of what you need to ask when that might be more tricky in person.”
The reasons for attending are as varied as the Mums who go with one Mum admitting that she’d gone along to the arranged venue but hadn’t joined the Mumsnetters, instead watching from afar, revealing that she’s much shyer in real life than she is on Mumsnet; that her mumsnet postings are the person she’d like to be. Whilst another Mum explains “ I was just naturally curious to meet people I knew so much about, however going round this pub realising I didn’t know where the mumsnetters were meeting and saying hopefully to random groups of strange women ‘Hi, I’m squirmyworm’ has to rate amongst life’s more ludicrous experiences.”
That and walking about the house wearing your baby’s tights on your head, which is, incidentally, how you keep a phone strapped to your head.