It's been about two and a half years since I've written for TidBITS, and that lapse corresponds to my pregnancy and then the birth of Tristan - Adam's and my first child. As a "stay-at-home" mom, I've slipped easily into the role of a normal Macintosh user with my iBook and an indispensable AirPort wireless network. I continue to use the Internet extensively, though I'm no longer exploring the ins and outs of Macintosh software; instead I'm researching the facts and opinions underlying parenting decisions. In this article, I aim to tell how I got hooked on using the Internet in my role as Mom Lady, share my favorite sites, and show how the Internet is changing the way people cope with parenthood.
Begin with Birth -- My first forays in finding parenting information online began with researching some of the more intimate aspects of childbirth, details I was embarrassed to ask about and which few books covered in depth. With just a little looking, I stumbled on huge repositories of birth stories.
A birth story tells how a woman experienced birth, usually with personal details of how labor progressed. I began reading these a few at a time. This raw material, not at all edited or summarized, allowed me to understand better why people chose different birthing locations (home, birth center, or hospital) and to realize the range of different strategies (hypnotism, water birthing, medication, cesarean, and so on). I read about births that went as planned, births that became terribly difficult, and births that ended tragically. I synthesized these primary sources into a powerful understanding of how I wanted my labor to go and what I could do (and when I should do nothing) to help it happen. Without realizing it, I began parenting with intention, that is, making parenting choices for carefully considered reasons.
If I'd realized the importance of intention, I wouldn't have put off researching parenting styles until my 37th week of pregnancy (in the U.S., we consider 40 weeks to be the normal length of pregnancy; some other countries don't count the first 2 to 4 weeks). Tristan was born in my 37th week, so Adam and I came home from the Puget Sound Birth Center with an almost-six-pound baby, a box of diapers, and roughly one-tenth of a clue between us. After solving the basic input/output problems associated with successful breastfeeding and diapering, we realized that we weren't sleeping much.
Taming the Sleep Crisis -- The full extent of our sleep crisis hit hard one morning. Tristan woke at 3 AM, I took him downstairs to nurse, and - after nursing for a while - Tristan fell asleep in my arms. To test whether he would sleep without me touching him, I set him in a padded baby seat and watched intently. He looked restless, so I figured there was no point in returning to bed; instead I hopped on the Internet and looked for information about if babies ever slept through the night. Two hours later, I had a head full of ideas, and Tristan was still asleep. So much for my good night's rest!
But I discovered a huge range of approaches to how, when, and where babies should sleep, several of which I hadn't previously understood or seriously considered. I have yet to find a book about baby sleeping that so thoroughly offers up the pros and cons of the different possibilities as I found in surfing a handful of Web sites.
Is This Normal? In the first few months, Tristan spent a lot of time nursing and snoozing in my arms. To pass the time, I began catching up with email and tuning into what I call the "January List." Pregnancy Today runs numerous mailing lists for parents (usually a mother) corresponding to the month of the baby's due date. I joined my list around my third month of pregnancy and found it a source of support - I didn't know many pregnant women, so I found it helpful to read about what others experienced. However, the list volume was high; it had long, inflammatory debates; and a number of the participants were email newbies.
But, as I began catching up after Tristan's birth, I found that the list had mellowed and matured, and people were writing about dealing with parenthood. For me, first-time parenthood was like sailing out to sea, only to realize that I was lost and I didn't know how to navigate. The instructions I had read didn't work, my boat had minor leaks, and provisions were running low. The people on the January List helped me keep my courage high and sort out how to live at sea. The women were frank about all sorts of personal details, and loaded with advice and anecdotes.
So, the January List became a place where I go to receive and give empathy and advice, and I hope to meet some of the hundred-or-so women on the list. Over the months there have been a number of meetings, but none in my area. The list also helps me see what is normal. With so many mothers on the list (representing a wide range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds), I can obtain a better sense both of what the range of normal is for any given topic and what the kids on the edges of those ranges are like. For me, knowing what is normal (or at least common) has proven extremely comforting.
The Doctor Isn't In -- Adam and I are lucky enough to have a relationship with a family practitioner who we like, and who knows how to use email. This proved useful when we were in Florida last spring - Tristan developed a rash on his wrist that quickly turned into purple blisters. Although Tristan wasn't bothered by it, we sent a digital photo of his wrist to our doctor, who suggested something related to playing in the ocean and told us to keep it clean and not worry about it if he wasn't scratching.
Still, when I found a nursing-related hard spot in my breast on the morning of Christmas Eve, I didn't call our doctor; instead, I visited the La Leche League Web site and ParentsPlace, which recommended hot showers and massage. And, just this evening when a friend called to say Tristan might have been exposed to hand, foot, and mouth disease, I checked out my two favorite pediatrician sites to determine if he should go to play group tomorrow.
The Inevitable Shopping -- What I like best about using the Internet as a parent is finding support and primary-source information. Those benefits don't come into play when shopping as often as I would like, but there are exceptions. For instance, although we bought Tristan's toddler car seat locally, we used the Internet, and particularly a Web site created by SafetyBeltSafe USA to figure out how to balance the contradictions between what Consumer Reports recommended, our car's physical constraints, and which seats we could test locally.
Other attempts at research - particularly with toys - have provided variable results. Popular toy sites like eToys and Amazon.com include product reviews, but my experience is that not enough parents have participated, so marketing people have written most of the reviews. Moving slightly away from the mainstream, I've enjoyed Lakeshore Learning Materials, a site based on a chain of brick-and-mortar stores that sell toys and educational materials, sometimes with a multi-cultural emphasis, and with little in the way of commercial characters. Another fun toy site, SmarterKids.com, offers a test you can take to determine your child's learning style and then shows toys geared to that style. Finally, Hedgehog Farms has a lovely collection of toys for dress up and imaginative play.
As a parent, I use our local library more than ever. When Tristan shows interest in a topic, I use the Web to connect to the online catalog and request books about it (our local library is small, but we have access to a huge library system through the catalog). We had a brief dinosaur stage, then trains, and - for a number of months now - the hot topic has been airplanes. Recently, we narrowly avoided a domestic crisis in which a pair of books, The Airplane Alphabet Book and The Jet Alphabet Book (both by Jerry Pallotta) had been renewed once and needed to be returned. Amazon.com claimed they were out-of-print, so I located the publisher on the Web and ordered the books, and they arrived before the library's copies were due.
If I lived in a more rural area, I'm sure I would use the Internet even more for buying baby gear. However, as a first-time parent, I've found trips to real stores important for getting a better idea of what I want, and also for evaluating quality. For clothing, I tend to frequent local sales and used-clothing stores - I've yet to find an online clothing store that consistently offers inexpensive, colorful cotton clothing, and I can walk out of a used clothing store with maybe ten one-piece outfits for $30.
If I used online auctions, I'd write about them here. In fact, I have a closet full of items that I hope to someday sell on eBay, but I have yet to start auctioning. I have heard many stories about mothers who buy baby gear at great prices using auctions. Of course, eBay isn't the only auction site, and my mother wrote this about a recent success: "One site I have used somewhat gleefully is eWanted, where I managed to obtain a Big Boggle set [a word game]. I had tried eBay and found that this game has turned into a collector's item with bids going way beyond what I consider acceptable. At eWanted, you list what you want and people actually bid lower and lower prices to satisfy your longing."
Finally, not all the shopping I've done online has been specifically for Tristan. La Leche League's Web site is a must for nursing mothers - on top of answering nursing-related questions and linking to local La Leche League resources, its gift shop has reference books, breast pumps, and even children's books that show nursing in a positive light. Nursing mothers might also get an energy boost from a visit to One Hot Mama, a Web site that dishes out attitude along with sales of maternity and nursing clothing.
Toddlers Online? I suppose I should take a brief side trip to answer a question some of you may be wondering about - does Tristan use the Internet? Have I stumbled on any great sites for toddlers? Frankly, I have mixed feelings about kids (and adults, actually) and the immersive qualities of Web sites, computer games, and television. The American Academy of Pediatrics, a generally recognized mainstream authority for American pediatricians and parents, recently came out against television for kids under the age of two, so I put off seriously thinking about the subject until Tristan is at least two. Further, an article I stumbled on recently (while surfing links on the Web site of a local Waldorf school) lends further weight to my still-amorphous concerns.
That said, although Tristan has had extremely limited exposure to television, he will often toddle downstairs to Adam's office and ask to see airplane pictures on the Web. He also likes to sit in a desk chair, pound on a spare keyboard, and announce that he's "working." It's cute, but scary. One site that I have surfed briefly and that has been recommended on the January List is Sesame Workshop. It features activities based on Sesame Street characters, along with advice and ideas for parents.
Parents Who Think -- My musings over the appropriateness of electronic media for young children may give you some insight into the kind of Internet information that fascinates me. In those first few months of parenthood when I had hours to surf the net while Tristan slumbered in my arms, I discovered several parenting Web sites worth bookmarking. Along with sites I've already mentioned, I happily recommend Breastfeeding.com for everything you never knew you needed to know about nursing; the Natural Child Project for thoughts about kinder, gentler parenting techniques; and the Northwest Attachment Parenting site for an introduction to the attachment parenting style of raising children.
Another site of note is Salon's Mothers Who Think, which posts new essays about parenting topics most days. You won't find facile advice about diagnosing rashes, nor will you find chirpy suggestions for surviving a family vacation. You will see some light essays, but for the most part, you'll encounter provocative topics like drug addiction and date rape. Often Mothers Who Think did make me think, though my criticism of the site - and the reason I stopped frequenting it - was that all too often the writers spent a lot time thinking and not much time concluding, and for me, being a parent is more about making decisions than wallowing in confusion.
Making concrete decisions feels especially important since there are so many to make: Toy guns allowed in the house? How explicitly should we teach body part names? Child-led weaning? Vaccinations? The list has no end. I have found wonderful real-life people and programs that mean a great deal to me as a parent, but nothing else equals the Internet for its historically unprecedented panoply of support, advice, and information. The Internet helps me identify my options, figure out what I want to do, and then have the courage and know-how to do it.
Internet Parenting for Everyone -- Although history paints the late 1960s as a time of rebellion and returning to nature, my mother - who was twenty years old and pregnant with me during the summer of 1967 - tells me that she could find almost no help for learning how to breastfeed that fall. She also described a world where parenting resources were few and far between, and where parents relied much more on intuition and the advice of close family and friends, plus maybe a few books that spoke to them. I imagine that in earlier times, before the rise of mass communication and printing, friends and family - plus perhaps the local midwife, teacher, religious leader, or doctor - represented parents' only sources of advice.
What mass communication and speedy travel started in terms of allowing people to exchange parenting ideas and customs, the Internet is completing with style. Combine that with a growing body of scientific research and many minds interpreting that research, and you have a completely revolutionary system for generating and disseminating parenting ideas. That said, the Internet's rich information and communication resources in part create their own need for them. Now that information is so readily available, it seems reasonable to research topics that in the past might have remained unknown or been taken for granted. Even so, our society is growing increasingly complex and time-sensitive, and as much as the Internet contributes to that, for this generation of parents, I believe the Internet is more a help than a hindrance.
The rate of change on the Internet is speeding the evolution of our culture's parenting techniques - suggested changes that might previously have taken generations to be assimilated can now be evaluated by many parents within a matter of weeks. Further, I believe that these resources serve to make the current generation of parents more confident and more effective (even parents who don't use the Internet themselves benefit from the knowledge of other parents, plus experts, like doctors and teachers who do).
Also, parenting resources on the Internet are maturing - in the last two years, the sites have become better edited and organized, with increasingly detailed, varied, and thoughtful content. I hope that parents ten years from now will use the Internet less to research mundane topics (since that data will have been distilled into must-have FAQ lists and easily searched databases), and instead use it more as a tool to answer the questions behind the questions: Am I fully adult now? Where does patience come from? How do I parent my children to be ready for soul-shaking events like birth, love, and death? However, despite all the successes of the Internet, I'm guessing that in ten years it still won't offer the holy grail of parenting: a universal technique for - intentionally, kindly, and with no regrets - helping babies sleep through the night.
[Tonya Engst's schedule is usually packed with play dates, library outings, and jaunts to look for pine cones. She occasionally replies to email, but since it took two months to write this article, she asks that readers not expect a timely or lengthy reply, though she will eventually read everyone's comments.]