Virtually a Neighborhood

Moms find the Internet is exploding with sought-after contacts

When Camille Peri dreamed up a new magazine section called "Mothers Who Think," she knew she had a hit on her hands. But she wondered whether an Internet-only publication, called Salon Magazine, would reach her intended audience.

Do moms really have time for cyberspace?

She needn't have worried. Since the launch of the section in June, readers have flocked to the magazine. The section has spawned some 70 online discussions and lots of e-mail from online mothers.

"I don't know if people do it in the middle of the night - between feedings," says Ms. Peri, editor of the section and a mother herself. But "obviously people do it."

Finding less time to interact with other mothers in their own neighborhood, mothers are going online to build virtual neighborhoods. While their discussions center on family and parenting, they often stray beyond these traditional topics.

"Our goal is to nurture the whole woman, not just the parent," says Catherine Carbone Rogers, publicity director for FEMALE (Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge), a national nonprofit organization for women, based in Elmhurst, Ill.

Some groups, such as FEMALE (members.aol.com/ femaleofc/home.htm), use the Internet as an adjunct to their traditional outreach activities. The group sends out a quarterly electronic newsletter to as many of its 5,300 members as have Internet addresses. But the core activity remains the regularly scheduled, face-to-face meetings within FEMALE's 140 chapters in the United States and Canada.

Each meeting is organized around a theme, but "the topic is almost secondary," Ms. Rogers says. "The main thing is getting together with your peers and taking time for yourself. It can be pretty isolating in today's world when most of the women [in the neighborhood] are going off in the morning to work. We form these virtual neighborhoods."

Talking over nitty-gritty

Other groups, such as Salon magazine's discussion groups, are strictly online. Salon provides new articles on its World Wide Web site five days a week.

The content isn't only all digital, but also delves into the grittier issues of mothering: views from a welfare mother, interracial adoption, and abortion as seen through the eyes of an abortion doctor both before and after she became a mother.

"It seems that a lot of the parent magazines tend to talk down to parents and have a false perkiness to them," says Peri of Salon magazine (www.salonmagazine. com). "There's a need to wrap everything up neatly. And parenting isn't that way."

The section isn't all serious. One department called "Drama Queen for a Day" lets readers send in their worst parenting experience and have other readers vote for their favorite. "Time for One Thing" suggests readers treat themselves to something, maybe an interesting book one day, a great pair of slippers the next.

Many of the Internet sites are devoted to working mothers. There's "Executive Baby" (www.parentzone. com/eb/ ebhome.htm), which calls itself "the working mom community center." "Work-at-Home Moms" (www. maricle.com/wahm) describes its members this way: "Is every day at your office 'Take Our Daughters to Work Day'? Are there Legos under your desk? ... Then you're a WAHM, and this is your magazine."

Much of the content is devoted to balancing work and family.

"Women today want to be with their children and sometimes they also need to have an income," says Betty Walter, chairman of the board of directors for Mothers at Home (www.mah.org). "So they've made decisions about their work choices that allow them to put their families first."

Spouses understand that. Other mothers understand. Much of the rest of the world doesn't.

"There's much more understanding than there was 15 years ago that staying at home is OK," Ms. Walter says. But "there's a real strong aversion to acknowledging that there's anything valuable women can learn at home."

In fact, stay-at-home moms learn a good deal. In leaving her job, for example, Walter says she found time to volunteer at Mothers at Home, which got her back into writing - an interest that took a back seat during her career.

The organization has published two books (one is called "What's a Smart Woman Like You Doing at Home?") and puts out a monthly magazine for 15,000 subscribers. The publication encourages mothers to use their job skills in the business of mothering and to redefine success.

"Your job is not to check off 25 items on your to-do list; your job is to care for your child," says Walter, a mother of two boys in Annandale, Va.

Building a network

To break through the isolation of staying at home, for example, the group counsels members to use networking skills to build a support group of other moms.

"We try to keep our work skills alive," says Rogers. "And it's validating that you can use that education ... in your new work."

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