War of the Words

While the Internet can bring women together, it also fuels the "mommy wars." Here's how to steer clear of conflict.

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The media loves a catfight. One of these conflicts, the so-called “mommy wars,” has raged for decades in print and on the airwaves. The skirmishes that are now flaring up on Internet blogs and message boards may feel new, but they’re just outgrowths of disagreements that began pitting working mothers against stay-at-home moms in the 1960s and ’70s.

The intense exchanges between today’s mommy warriors are fed by instant communication from laptops and Blackberrys and iPhones: Breast-is-best advocates assail those who assert formula is just fine. Attachment-parenting types defend themselves furiously against those who claim too much closeness makes for spoiled babies and enslaved parents. Natural childbirth enthusiasts decry those who choose Cesarean sections and are, in turn, chastised by moms who say forgoing pain medication during labor is masochism.

Mothers have always critiqued each other’s parenting methods. What’s new is the Internet’s anonymity and instantaneous mass audience; its users’ sudden empowerment can easily become zealotry and turn otherwise sane women into proselytizers.

Meanwhile, the insecurity and lack of experience inherent in a first pregnancy can make moms-to-be and new mothers vulnerable to the self-righteousness and misinformed campaigns that metastasize on the Web.

A made-up conflict?

Some people believe the mommy wars are a manufactured concept, a media-fueled fight that is periodically resuscitated to sell magazines, newspapers and books. “There’s tension and insecurity among mothers, especially new mothers, and there are some hot-button issues, but there’s nothing anybody could call a war,” says author Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Steiner knows something about the media’s proclivity for conflict. The provocative title of her well-received 2006 book of essays, Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, was accused by some of adding to the tensions. But Steiner maintains that her book aimed to bridge a gap, not widen it.

Fortunately, it’s possible for controversy, even manufactured controversy, to work the other way: While the proliferation of online forums has stirred up old debates, helped create new ones and sometimes given them a nasty edge, it has also created communities for a demographic clearly in need of support. Blogs that read like position papers on the merits or drawbacks of going back to work, sleeping with your baby or vaccinating children have provided a useful starting point for nuanced conversations among women who are more interested in seeking comity than conflict.

Woman to woman

A brief review of blogs and posts by new and experienced moms suggests that women’s predominant impulse for going online is to share personal stories and seek advice and information, not to climb up on a soapbox.

Liberty Worth, 34, an at-home blogger, entrepreneur and mother of two in Los Angeles, says the Internet has been a personal and professional lifeline. If a discussion starts going negative, she has a simple solution. “I just leave [the forum] and seek out examples of people who model what I want to know,” Worth says. “A lot of people make a living off of polarizing other people, so it’s imperative to use wisdom when searching online.” (See “Know What You’re Dealing With,” below.)

What most draws us to our computers are the kinds of questions that have always concerned rookie mothers: how much weight to gain during pregnancy, how to deal with labor pain, how to treat diaper rash.

That’s what motivated Los Angeles mom Mia Marano, 35, to hit the keyboard when her first son, now 2 1⁄2, was an infant. “You can’t contact your pediatrician for every little thing—that’s when you go online,” says Marano. “Then there are questions that you don’t want to ask about at all in person, but you will online, like one mom who asked, ‘Where do I get a double-F cup bra?’ ”

Jennifer Kalita, a communications consultant based in Washington, D.C., agrees, noting that the majority of blog talk and Internet chatter is middle ground. “The supportive aspect of the Internet is most important,” she says. “It’s been a great microphone for women, and we’ve needed that.” As the Internet becomes increasingly important to “caregiving” communities like mothers, Kalita adds, the dissent that defines so much online banter will matter less.

Despite the influence of the Internet, it is still just a tool—a well of information and a supplement to your common sense. Online debates are showy, but they’re not as valuable as the multitude of offerings that provide news and advice from neutral, evidence-based sources. “You’ve got to get a breadth of information and assess it,” says Worth. “But then you listen to your own barometer.”

Know what you’re dealing with

It’s easy to get carried away on the boundary-free Internet, which is why guidelines are important. Here are some basic rules of the game:

Distinguish fact from opinion

Don’t confuse opinionated blogs and message boards with websites that share reputable data. When you’re seeking information, look for reporting based on accurate and unbiased research.

Look before you commit

Do a search on the online community or blog and see what comes up. Communications consultant and author Jennifer Kalita says she once went to a blog recommended by friends but found the posts about some near-disasters with the blogger’s kids too flip for comfort.

Think before you write

The Internet never forgets. A statement like, “I felt like throwing my baby out of the window,” could come back to haunt you. “The Internet seems intimate, but it’s public,” says Kalita. Lurk on a site before you post. Track the conversations and see where they go.

Be wary of isolation

Supplement your time online by attending a networking group or making dates with other moms. “You’ve got to get out,” says Kalita. “There’s no substitute for living, breathing people.”

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