• U.S.

The New Family Album

8 minute read
Pamela Paul

When Sara Hinds, 25, A middle-school teacher from Lexington, Ky., got pregnant, she told her blog before she told friends and family. “I thought it would be more fun to announce my pregnancy that way,” Hinds says. “I put a link on my family blog to an image of a stork with the words ‘We’re expecting!’, which then linked to my new baby blog. It was a lot easier than making tons of phone calls and having to decide who to call first.”

A flurry of congratulatory e-cards followed–many from people Hinds has never met. In fact, since she and her husband Shawn created their weblog (or blog, for short) back in November 2000 (the URL was printed on their wedding invitations), the online journal has attracted ever increasing attention from strangers.

Their site, Our Life in Words, and its offspring Honeybunches, the baby journal Hinds herself launched in 2002, attract about 50 hits a day, 80% from people Hinds doesn’t know. “At first I thought it was strange that people I didn’t know were following my pregnancy,” Hinds recalls. “But I realized this was an opportunity to guide people through the process.” One couple from Australia e-mailed to say how rewarding it was to be with someone throughout her entire pregnancy. A woman from the Northeast posted a note about how Hinds helped her and her husband understand what to expect. A woman from Florida related her struggles with infertility. On Aug. 13, 2002, when Caitlin Hinds was born, the baby blog got more than 200 hits. “Blogging gives me a way to get my thoughts out, release my frustration or just show off how proud I am of my little girl,” Hinds explains. “I often bond more with moms online than I do with moms right here in Lexington.”

Blogging isn’t just for techies, teens and presidential candidates. More parents, especially mothers, are entering the blogosphere, transforming the way moms commiserate and families communicate. And communicate they do. Mommy blogs often take navel gazing to new and uninhibited depths, recording every aspect of parenthood, from the pregnancy blood test through the umbilical-cord clipping to the latest triumph in toilet training–complete with photographs, video clips and message boards.

But why blog about it at all? Parents have traditionally been content to record the wonders and worries of child rearing in private conversations, baby books and diaries. Experts who study the effects of the Internet on society say parents create blogs not simply because the tools are easy and available but also because their blogs are a response to sociological and psychological shifts. In a harried society in which people can barely return calls on their cell phones, blogging offers a quick way to feel connected to a community. “Pregnancy, childbirth and parenting are times of great personal change and uncertainty, and that enhances our desire to reach out,” says Mary Chayko, author of Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age (SUNY Press; 2002). “Blogging helps parents connect in a convenient, efficient and stress-free way without the time and obligation of a face-to-face meeting.”

It is also a logical extension of today’s confessional culture. At a time in which ordinary Americans routinely divulge their most personal secrets on talk shows or reality-TV programs, blogging about one’s pregnancy-related constipation seems only natural. According to Sherry Turkle, director of M.I.T.’s Initiative on Technology and the Self, even people who normally guard their privacy can experience a kind of “disinhibition” with blogs, in which there’s a disintegration of boundaries. Bloggers easily lose sight of the fact that they’re publishing to a potential worldwide audience of millions. The result is a disconnect between the intimate way people express themselves and the very public way such information is communicated. Still, when strangers log on to parenting blogs, the blogger’s initial surprise–“Why would people want to read about me and my family?”–typically yields to pleasure rather than embarrassment. Jean-Marie Maier was startled at first when strangers entered a contest she put on her pregnancy blog to guess how much her newborn would weigh. “It’s weird that people we don’t know would bother,” says Maier, 32, a marketing consultant in Sunrise, Fla. Yet the encouraging responses she has received have been so positive, Maier doesn’t mind.

Parents struggling with a particular issue–an infant who won’t sleep or a child with a chronic illness–find blogging especially helpful as an outlet and a way to connect to others who are facing the same problems. “You can find three other moms dealing with gestational diabetes and talk about specific fears and concerns,” says Ananda Mitra, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University. “It can be incredibly validating and supportive.”

Heather Daugherty, 24, a hospital administrator in Fredericksburg, Va., double blogs: she keeps a baby blog for friends and extended family and a mommy blog that her circle of intimates doesn’t know about. On the baby blog, Daugherty’s in-laws can see the latest photos of Thomas, 2, while the mommy blog recounts her struggles to get pregnant again, her recent miscarriage and her views on breastfeeding.

For Daugherty, blogging beats keeping a journal because readers encourage her to open up and update often. “I get feedback from women who really understand what I’m going through,” she explains. “Today one woman who miscarried e-mailed me with encouragement. This is my place to heal and grow.” Daugherty also gleans practical information from fellow bloggers. “I haven’t cracked open a parenting book since Thomas was born,” she says. “I’d rather go to a blog and hear it from a real mom.”

Blogging parents form a kind of secret society, linking to one another’s sites and posting words of advice. Some end up exchanging e-mail addresses and phone numbers and even meet in person. Michelle Brown, 28, a stay-at-home mother of three in Spartanburg, S.C., keeps a mommy blog, unbeknownst to friends and family. Says Brown, a Nebraska transplant: “I’m not from South Carolina. I got pregnant right after moving, and I don’t know anyone else here. It’s nice when I’m having a hard day to write it out and instantly have five people who know exactly what I’m talking about respond.” Brown’s Moms with Attitude site gets an average of 300 hits a day. Of course, any blog, “private” or not, risks being discovered on the World Wide Web. Dawn Friedman, 34, a mom from Columbus, Ohio, kept a blog, This Woman’s Work, without telling people she knew. But when her mother Googled her way onto the blog and learned her daughter was planning to adopt, she got upset and asked Friedman, “When were you going to tell me this?” Says Friedman: “I guess it’s naive to assume someone you know isn’t reading your blog. When I look back to earlier entries, I realize there were things I probably shouldn’t have written.”

Secret blogs, like Friedman’s and Brown’s, are the exception, not the rule. Most family blogs are designed to keep family and friends up to date or to create a permanent record that can be shared with children as they grow up. Carlos Tirado, 40, launched Benjamin’s Babyblog not only to track his son’s development and his own progress as a father but also so that he and his wife Caterina could stay in touch with their families in Mexico, Arkansas and the western U.S. from their home in the Bronx, N.Y. “I don’t have to bombard them with huge photo attachments on e-mails,” says Tirado, who just posted his wife’s sonogram of Baby No. 2 on the site. The blog keeps Tirado’s parents closer to his son and even encourages real visits. “They’ll say, ‘I wish I could have been there for that’ after seeing something posted on the site, and I’ll say, ‘All the more reason to come see us!'”

Nobody tracks the number of family-oriented blogs, and estimates of the blogging universe range from 300,000 to 3 million sites, but by all indications, baby blogs are becoming more common. According to an October 2002 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, parents are more likely to be online than nonparents, and 53% of online parents say the Internet has improved the way they connect with family; 61% say it has boosted relations with friends. At Lycos, which is host to two blog sites, moms are regarded as the future. “The new blogging world skews female,” explains Michael Sikillian, marketing manager for Lycos Web Publishing. “One day,” he predicts, “every family will have a blog. Instead of putting drawings up on the refrigerator, you’ll scan them into your computer and upload.”

M.I.T.’s Turkle agrees that we have seen only the beginning of the trend. “When my 12-year-old daughter was born, I was completely besotted and kept a diary, which I now share with her,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have dreamed of putting it on the Internet. Families today are creating a whole new way of using the Web that I don’t think anyone could have predicted.” Nor do most parents themselves predict that they will be the next ones to blog on. But first you get the digital camera, and the next thing you know, you’re e-mailing baby pics, and soon you are blah, blah, blogging.

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