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Features

Amazons or Earth Mothers?

Kerry Kidd

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I'm recovering at home after an operation. A friend turns up at the door. She brings the children comics and buys them sweets, does some housework and has a friendly cuppa. The usual response of a good friend, or a fellow churchgoer. The difference is, we share no faith and I have never met her before. Our connection is through Mumsnet, the website with a million monthly users.

If you believe the media, the typical user of this networking phenomenon is more Amazonian warrior than earth mother. Earlier this year it publicised the plight of Riven Vincent, mother to a severely disabled child, who sadly announced her intention of putting the child into care due to cuts in local authority spending. Within 24 hours her story led the BBC news, and the same week her council announced their intention to provide more respite care.
Vincent's situation captured national headlines because less than a year previously she had welcomed the then-leader of the opposition, David Cameron, into her house, having argued with him about nappy provision during a webchat on Mumsnet. Such direct connection between politicians and mums reshaped the political landscape at the last election. The site's format of spontaneous, unscriptable chat left Gordon Brown pilloried for failing to talk about his favourite biscuit, while David Cameron had to admit his
ignorance of his own child's nappy entitlement (government policy on the latter has now changed as a result).

Then there was the Gina Ford controversy, when the baby guru sued the site for defamation after her methods were jokingly compared to strapping babies onto Lebanon-bound rockets. Such incidents have led commentators to describe Mumsnetters as 'bullies' and 'a nest of vipers.' Is Mumsnet, as Daisy Godwin suggested, 'the online equivalent of a gang of scary women waiting, talons bared, outside the school gate ... online bitches of war' from which Christian parents should run a mile? Or is its community strong and caring enough to be described as churchly?

STRAIGHT TALKING
Mumsnet became important to me when I was at home, pregnant with my second child. I was hooked by the fast pace of dialogue, the straight-talking and the opportunity to connect with other mums just like me: well-educated and sleep-deprived, desperate for more intellectual challenge than arguments with a two-year-old. Through it I gained friends, knowledge and an absorbing hobby which lowered my housework standards while improving my joie de vivre. One day I posted about my irritation at having to return a piece of loaned equipment that I still needed. A Mumsnetter sent me a replacement, express delivery, as a gift. Such acts of charity taught me that Mumsnet was not just a meeting point, but a community.

'Mumsnet proves that there is such a thing as society,' points out Justine Roberts, co-founder of the website. 'People are not only naturally social but more than that, they are naturally inclined to be communal. Mumsnetters go out of their way to offer support and advice based on their own experiences.' A Christian Mumsnetter agrees: 'It gives the lie to the suggestion that people online cannot care for one another.'

Companionship is central to Mumsnet. Many Christians post, and some of us ran a weekly worship and discussion thread. We named it jokingly 'Reluctant Worshippers', and it aimed to reach two groups: the non-churched but curious, and the many Christian mums of small children who feel excluded from church, or are bound to family services which offer little opportunity for serious theological reflection and adult growth. The internet was able to fill that niche, accessible both to those who wished to post and those who simply wanted to explore, read and reflect: a cell group in which outreach was an implicit part of the situation, personal reflection on an open forum. Many who joined our group admitted they would not have gone near a 'real' church - though several began attending local churches as a result.

CHURCH WITH NAPPIES
As well as highlighting the potential for Christian outreach, this experience showed me that Mumsnet itself had many of the same characteristics as a church: a strong and caring sense of community, a willingness to share at a deep and personal level, and an awareness that supporting others was a universal obligation. An Anglican Reader told me: 'The support I've received has been incredible - in terms of my ministry, it has supported me through selection, training and licensing. The best thing about it, is that when one of us struggles, all of us rally round to support. I think there is an atmosphere of love and peace  that encourages people to say I don't actually believe in God, but could you pray for...'

Some Christian Mumsnetters converse at length on spiritual themes; others prefer not to state their faith online. Christianity can also be divisive on Mumsnet, which is a home for campaigning atheists as much as for faithful Christians. However, the issue of social justice unites the majority: and so it was that atheists, Christians and woolly agnostics united in denouncing self-proclaimed 'Christian' BNP members when they began preaching hatred on the site.

SOCIAL CAMPAIGNERS
This passion for social justice feeds into the fiercely campaigning side of Mumsnet, which became vital to my family as my children were diagnosed with developmental delays. Like Riven Vincent, I sought out companionship and advice from other mothers in a similar position. Mumsnetters encouraged me to apply for educational statements, and gave me the confidence and expertise to argue with paediatricians and schools about their needs.

Practical help was given as well. At a time when we were struggling to make sense of the impact of diagnosis, a Mumsnetter offered us free use of a flat in London for a week. When my husband fell ill just before an important medical assessment, another came to the appointment with me and minded the baby while I talked to doctors.

Such acts of fellowship and generosity are manifested on a national level in powerful campaigning on important social issues. Mumsnetters have argued that free nappies for disabled children should not be limited, that support for miscarrying women needed improvement, and that that shops should not sell highly sexualised clothing for young girls. They complained about offensive billboards and got them taken off the streets.

A DARKER SIDE
However, this group action can also have a darker side. In the Daily Mail, Sarah Chalmers described her experience of Mumsnet as 'smug, patronising and vicious.' 'There's a fair amount of bullying,' complained Janet Street-Porter. Certainly Mumsnetters can be harsh and relish the freedom of the internet to snipe at politicians or public figures such as Gina Ford. Yet Lucy Nicholls, author of the famous Lebanon rockets joke, points to the difference between critical polemic and abuse. 'We were robust in our criticism of her approach - both her parenting methods and her perceived suppression of discussion about them - and as a result of that, we started the tide turning: it became far more acceptable to question what had become the mainstream approach to parenting. We opened up the parenting debate.'

It's too easy to say that Mumsnetters are bullies, or that everyone who posts there is lovely. 'It's scary, it's judgemental, it's huge,' agreed a Mumsnetter. 'Yet it's full of passion, acts of kindness, generosity.' Another wrote: 'Mumsnet reflects my Christian perception of society. There are the "baddies", the ones whose opinions, often seemingly bitter, speak only of their own perceived sense of entitlement or lack of social justice ... But after ten years on Mumsnet I can think of only two people whose opinions I truly cannot understand or have some sympathy with. And for every voice preaching fear and dislike, there are ten promoting tolerance, acceptance and love. And for me, love is God.' And if the tone does sometimes slip, that's just another parallel with ecclesiastical life. 'It can be bitchy, cliquey and insular' another Christian Mumsnetter acknowledged. 'Arguments can occur over absolutely nothing. But then, that's the same in my church.' Lucy Nicholls agrees: 'Mumsnet can be robust, it can be outspoken, it can be offensive - but anyone reading the gospels could say the same about Jesus.'  

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HISTORY REPEATING
Part of the problem is perspective: just as one Christian's heresy is another's interesting theological perspective, so one mum's online vitriol is another's robust debate. And of course it's nothing new: history shows a reflexive distrust of most new organisations or clubs, particularly those that aspire to political influence. In 1675 Charles II (briefly and unsuccessfully) closed down coffee-houses because 'in such houses diverse false, malicious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majesty's Government and to the Disturbance of Peace and Quiet of the Realm.'1

And just as new communities and clubs have always been threatening, they are also inherently unstable and unpredictable. 'Real community is a self-creating thing, with some magic spark, easy to recognize after the fact but impossible to produce on demand, that draws people together,' writes the social networking theorist, Clay Shirky 'Once those people have formed a community, however, they will act in the interests of the community, even if those aren't your interests. You need to be prepared for this.'  Mumsnet is such an unpredictable and uncontrollable self-creating community, its members constantly arguing with management about ethos, corporate identity and campaigning direction. It changes the experience of parenting, locating identity not merely in geographical but also sociological and occupational community. In so doing, Mumsnet and other webforae also participate in a radical redefinition of the idea of community, shifting it away from place and towards a more nebulous, global sense of 'belonging.'

ONLINE CHURCH
This only strengthens the parallel between social website and church.  In a seminal 1986 study, McMillan and Chavis2 changed the sociological groundrules for identifying community by highlighting four non-geographical elements:  1) membership; 2) influence; 3) integration and fulfillment of needs; and 4) shared emotional connection. These four elements are very much part of a modern sociological definition of 'church,' where Roman Catholics in South America and Iceland share a sense of membership, integration, emotional fulfilment and mutual influence despite being  on opposite sides of the world. Similarly, Mumsnet has created a community which allows for sharing of parenting wisdom and worry from vastly different locations. Council estate single mums chat with city bankers and expat parents, from Norway to the Philippines.

Through church structures and national organisations, church members can campaign for social justice in a much more effective and unified way than as individuals on their own. Similarly, Mumsnet increases the campaigning power and political voice of parents. In the terms of social network theory, access to Mumsnet gives individual parents a vastly increased level of 'betweenness' - connection to politicians and other parents in a similar situation. That means that a parent struggling, as I am, with a local primary care trust claiming that they cannot provide enough nappies can question David Cameron directly on the subject, as I did last year. Or contact the Mumsnet campaigners for advice on how to challenge conflicting local guidelines, as I did recently. The 'betweenness' is twofold: parents are put into contact with other parents in similar or identical situations, and at the same time are given the opportunity of a collective voice, a chance to speak to the powerful directly about the issues that concern many: demanding that politicians justify their choices to use formula milk or disposable nappies, asking for disappeared children to be depicted sensitively in cinema advertising, or expressing their distaste at the recent sensationalist depiction of cot death in EastEnders.

SHARED INTIMACY
Although Mumsnet is a large website, the sense of joint concern about major parenting and social issues helps foster a sense of very intimate community. It is this sense that draws total strangers to share their experiences of the most intimate experiences of life: potty-training, pregnancy piles, conception or marital rows. Not much is left to the imagination. A recent thread was lightheartedly entitled 'For Those Too Tired For Friday Night Sex.'

This intimacy changes the relationship between personal and public. At times the insistent concerns of Mumsnetters during a webchat can seem prurient to outsiders. Does it matter what biscuits Brown liked? Should David Cameron be asked about his deceased son? Such personal questions make sense in the context of a community that is used to frank discussion about the domestic minutiae, but reported in the national media they can seem insular, trivial - silly female domestic trivia. Journalists are quick to depict Mumsnet as a bunch of vacuous women, chattering about nothing. While many serious questions were asked of politicians in the run-up to the election, it was Biscuitgate that made worldwide headlines. Many Mumsnetters regretted being stereotyped as biscuit-scoffing chattering women, uninterested in the finer details of public debate, because nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the film Jam and Jerusalem turned the old-fashioned image of the Women's Institute on its head, so the wit and ferocity of Mumsnet debate challenges the stereotype of mothers as staid, dull and uninteresting.

It also challenges the stereotype of online dialogue as socially risqué. Most of Mumsnet's debate is fiercely moral. It reflects the fact that parenting inevitably demands the engagement with a greater value system: how to bring your children up not just safely or healthily, but 'well.' That is the driving ethical force behind Mumsnet's sprawling web presence. The arguments over formula versus breast, or stay-at-home versus working mothering, spring from the desire to do the best one can for one's children and to influence others towards the same goal. This is why Mumsnet is more than networking. It is a social project, an attempt to make parenting easier but also to raise standards. That can lead to hypocrisy, hectoring, unrealistic expectations of self. Mumsnet can make me feel guilty that I haven't fed my children ten pieces of fruit and vegetables a day, like pious Christians frowning on eating chocolate in Lent.

A PARALLEL WORLD
Most of all, though, Mumsnet is a lot of fun. There is something of the spirit of the secret society, the invisible friends we had as children. Logging on can feel a bit like escaping into a different world, walking through the back of a metaphorical wardrobe. Rather like Narnia, chattering online is both a welcome escape and teaches us valuable lessons about the land we must return to.  Just as writing as a teenager to a foreign penfriend made me see my country with new eyes, so Mumsnetting gives me insights into my own family by comparison with others.

Women have always sought escapes from the demands of domesticity. As the book Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenny Bailey3 reminds us, the women's correspondence club provided a similar escape from geographical and familial location. Other clubs - the Women's Institute, the Mothers' Union - linked parents across the world. Many of these societies have had a religious flavour. Not surprising, therefore, that religion flourishes on Mumsnet. One's neighbour in cyberspace demands loving just as much as the one next door. Love also demands that we see outside our own surroundings. Just as Christians raise their eyes from the humdrum in contemplating the divine, so a Mumsnetter logging on can forget the dirty washing in favour of a more global view.

This escapism has downsides. Cyberspace is a land where every story could be invented, where much has to be taken on trust. Some people take advantage of this unaccountability. They take extreme political positions, writing offensively to create a stir. Others exaggerate, invent whole personalities or terrible victim stories. These are the 'trolls,' the ones who want an online audience at any cost. The surprise with Mumsnet is not that they exist, but that they are so few and far between. As a Christian online, I often recall Christ's injunction to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, aware of the 'trolls' and yet aware that they are few among the good-hearted rest.
On a bad day, Mumsnet irritates me. On a good day, I am reminded of the invisible cloud of witnesses in the letter to the Hebrews. Mumsnetters can be raucous, argumentative, sanctimonious and dismissive. They are exhausting.  But in terms of their passion for parenting and social values transmitted safely to the next generation, they are second to none. In terms of their commitment to emotional support and the rights of the voiceless? Look at what they did for Riven Vincent, demanding that David Cameron's government respect the personal promises he had made to her before the election. In terms of direct action, the Christian community could learn a lot.

NOTES
The Coffee House: A cultural history, Markman Ellis, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London 2004 p.86.
2 Chavis, D.M., Hogge, J.H., McMillan, D.W., & Wandersman, A. (1986). 'Sense of community through Brunswick's lens: A first look'. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 24-40.
3 Faber and Faber, 2007

Other references are taken from Kerry Kidd's personal email correspondence with Mumsnet users.