We will first report the quantitative findings, so that the reader has a sense of who the members of the board are. Table 1 reports the findings from the four roll-calls of the study. When an item is left blank, it is because it was not included in that roll-call. Since no one was required to answer a roll-call, there is potential unknown bias of who responds. Clearly, those who do not respond to roll-calls but read and interact on the board will not be represented in these descriptive tables. The nonresponders may be less outgoing, more private about sharing family information that includes first names, geographic locations and so on. In addition, the bias may be in the characteristics measured as well. For instance, perhaps those with more than one child were busier and thus had less time to answer the roll-call. Thus, while the sample is not generalisable, it does give some indication of who is on the board. However, as we can see across the four samples, the averages stayed quite constant, indicating a high degree of reliability at least within those who answered the roll-calls (an exception is in sample four where few stay-at-home moms answered, for reasons unknown).
Table 1. Descriptive statistics on the website participants who responded to roll-calls
|Average age (s.d.)||30 (4.5)||28 (4.8)||n/ad||31 (4.6)|| 30 (4.8)|
|Residential region (%)|
| Northeast||11||18||27||14|| 16|
| Midwest||24||10||23||22|| 20|
| South||29||36||27||39|| 33|
| West||27||26|| 0||18|| 18|
| Other country|| 9||10||23||13|| 13|
|Employment status (%)e|
| SAHMb||49||55||n/ad||n/ad|| 52|
| WAH/WOHc||45||29|| || || 38|
| Other|| 6|| 4|| || || 5|
|Mean # total children (s.d.)|| 1.8 (1.0)|| 1.8 (1.0) || 1.4 (.66)|| 1.6 (.81)|| 1.7 (.91)|
|Marital status (%)|
| Married||91||98||97||97|| 95|
| Not married/single|| 9|| 2|| 3|| 3|| 5|
Overall, based on the descriptive statistics, we found that the average age was 30. In addition, participants were fairly equally dispersed across the USA, and about 13 per cent coming from other countries – namely Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and a few from Asian Countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore. The average poster had 1.7 children, planned to have more, and the overwhelming majority were married. Finally, based on the total average, more stay-at-home-mothers (SAHMs in board lingo) were in the sample (53%) vs. only 41 per cent for work out of the home (or work at home) mothers (WOH/WAH in board lingo).
What is clear however, is the picture of affluence these results suggest. The relatively high percentage of stay-at-home mothers is far higher than the national average with infant children. Currently in the US, about 25 per cent of children under 15 living with their married parents (as most of this sample was) lived with a mother who stayed at home to care for her family (US Bureau of the Census 2003). Of course, mothers with children under two are more likely to stay at home, but even so, in 1999, an estimated 38 per cent of these mothers were not in the labour force. Certainly, however, some of these women were unable to work or were looking for work, and many were not married (US Bureau of the Census 1999). Additionally, a total of 95 per cent of all responders were married, which is much higher than the national average of 69 per cent for women with children (US Bureau of the Census 2003). Finally, these mothers were older on average (30 years old). This provides support for the claim that those in this sample, and who interact on parenting message boards, are more privileged, or possibly that those who were willing to answer roll-calls were those who were more socially normative –i.e. being married with children.
Furthermore, though we are uncertain, there is some evidence that stay-at-home mothers were the most likely to post on the board. This provides support for those who are most isolated, i.e. mothers with small children in the home may be seeking an alternative means of pursuing support (Munch, McPherson and Smith-Lovin 1997). It could however also represent those most comfortable to post. It is plausible that work-out-of-home mothers are reading the board daily, but do not feel comfortable posting, as they are using their employer's computer.
Content of the posts primarily consisted of questions trying to establish if symptoms, behaviours or circumstances were normal or not. Often, after a description of the problem, the last sentence would be ‘Is this normal?’, and so on. Other typical themes were that they had a problem with family members and bosses, and eventually that they had a problem with the children. The women would often write a subject line that would state a problem and then follow it with ‘HELP!’ Another theme was ‘I’m new here’, which would quickly be followed by welcomes. Another familiar subject heading was ‘need to vent’.
We categorised substantive information within and across threads. Three broad categories emerged as representative of the types of the social capital present in the posts. These categories include emotional support, instrumental support – both informal and more formal, and community building/protection.
Emotional support. The most prevalent type of post was emotional support. Women wrote about frustration and stress with pregnancy, children, and family – to which others would provide emotional support. When complaining, mothers maintained their normative place as ‘good mother’ in society by referring to family members as ‘DH’ (dear husband), ‘DD’ (dear daughter), and so on. This softened whatever the subsequent complaint would be. The use of dear before naming a family member was also sarcastic at times.
As women began having their babies, a month or so was taken up with announcements and congratulations. A post would typically read ‘so and so arrived’, and then the women shared the work of congratulating one another. With over 500 births occuring in about a month-and-a-half time-span, it was not uncommon to have up to five births a day – the births came fast and furiously between late March and late April – a time when everyone was in their last weeks of pregnancy. During these days, it was accepted that so many women were giving birth that anyone who had not yet given birth and was available should write the congratulations. In the event of a baby death (there were five in this group), up to 50 people would write messages of sympathy, indicating that during these busy times, women were still reading frequently. From this we see an active community, organising itself in sharing the emotional work of congratulating. As noted by Miyata (2002: 541) in her study of online social support in Japanese mothers, in a supportive online community, norms of generalised reciprocity are easily established. In this group, turn-taking was the norm.
In addition to supporting others for positive experiences, emotional support was also offered for those wrestling with their problems. For instance, Anna’s_mom describes a litany of stressful problems. Her subject line was ‘bad week . . . need to vent’, and then she proceeds to tell us of her car accident, moving to a new house, DH working extra hours (she might have had an early miscarriage, as she was bleeding lightly 10 days after her period ended), and finally, that her mother-in-law came and made a point to tell her she should only have one child – one's enough for her. She signs off, ‘thanks for listening’. Others respond kindly with ‘you poor thing, hang in there’, and so on. All address the possibility of a miscarriage, and Erica adds, ‘vent as much as you want here . . . we’re listening and sympathising because we know what you’re going through’. Wendy addresses another important issue, that light bleeding in that time frame could be implantation bleeding, when the egg implants itself in the uterus. She adds she does not want to add false hope, it could be a miscarriage, but also shares her story that she had this implantation bleeding. She ends the letter stating, ‘write again if you need to blow off more steam. We Care’. Thus, Wendy has been supportive, encouraging Anna's mom to write if needed. Both Wendy and Erica speak for the group, by saying ‘We Care’, and ‘We’re listening’. However, an important exchange of information has been addressed (that it is common to bleed slightly in the first month of a pregnancy). We will address this again in the instrumental support section below.
In a third example, Dianne writes in her subject line ‘HELP!’ She is pregnant again, but her husband may be going to prison for having a fling with a 14-year-old student which is, understandably, causing her considerable stress. She explains that she believes there was no intercourse, and that he is a terrific father. She loves him more than anything in the world and has forgiven him. Her main problem is not the affair, but rather that she already has a 14-month-old (which is why she is in the birth cohort), and that now she will have to live on one salary with two children.
The first response advises her to look into mother/child groups and adds that,
I hope nobody writes judging your dh. You need support in raising your child at this moment. That's what we are here for.
Only three women responded to this post, and all were supportive, offering the woman suggestions. In this example, while a few women wrote supportive suggestions, a large majority displayed a ‘passive’ support in which they did not say anything negative, but also did not respond. Unlike other tense posts, this remained untouched with negative comments of any kind.
The common thread among these three examples is that these mothers were under stress and were seeking out the support of others, particularly other moms with infants who might understand part of the nature of their stress. Just as evidenced here, previous research has shown that social support involves the use of social relations to vent frustration, share sentiments, seek empathy and bolster self-esteem (Lai 1995). Such support during pregnancy has been shown not only to enhance women's first year of motherhood (Oakley 1992b), but also to be associated with their children reporting better general health seven years later (Oakley et al. 1996). While we cannot infer so much the status of the children of the women we studied, we are highly confident that the social support received by the women themselves was important for mitigating stress and improving their well-being based on our observations of their statements.
Instrumental support: informal. Informal information-sharing was ubiquitous on this website, and some of the more common issues discussed were pregnancy symptoms, breastfeeding, sleeping and colic. In the Anna’s_mom example above, among her litany of problems that week, she shared a potential miscarriage. Another mother, Wendy, quickly pointed out that the time frame sounded as if it could be implantation bleeding, which sometimes occurred. Thus, Anna’s_mom, who might be only two weeks pregnant, already had received the news that she might not have miscarried, and that she might be pregnant. As a result, she might act as if she were still pregnant, rather than becoming more depressed and potentially behaving in ways that might be harmful to a fetus.
In another example, regarding breastfeeding, Nadia shared the following information:
My ds still nurses 6–8 times a day including night feeds. He usually gets up @ 1AM to nurse and then 5AM. Since he is underweight I feel that he needs the night feeds and haven’t tried to discourage them.
Such informal information-sharing is a resource for these women. A single thread can contain a couple of dozen of mothers’ responses regarding their breastfeeding practices similar to the one above. This is especially important to new mothers who have almost no frame of reference for what is normal. In addition, since these postings are global and asynchronous, the mothers can access them and the inherent information virtually any time.
Another mother compiled the results of a post that was a survey of how long babies slept through the night, based on whether they were breast or bottle fed, and their sex. She averaged the number of hours that each baby slept (of 47 posts), dividing the sample by sex and feeding method to report hours slept, thus providing a benchmark for members to ascertain whether their child's sleeping pattern was in the realm of normalcy.
Another issue the mothers discussed was if and how to let their babies ‘cry it out’ (CIO), i.e. cry themselves to sleep. Momof2boys wrote:
Here's my situation, hope it helps. My first is now 2 – we didn’t do CIO until he turned 1. The first year we were up every 2 hours with him most nights. We bit the bullet and were up rocking and rolling to his every whimper. UGH!! . . . With our April baby, he's always been a better sleeper and I was determined to learn from MY mistakes. We started CIO at 4 months. One night was all it took. He's awesome!
Similarly, reggaegirl shared,
i had to do it with my dd 2 years ago and can still remember it! try to do some laundry . . . the dryer really blocks the noise . . .
Again, this information, at minimum, begins to give these mothers a range of what is normal for a cohort of infants roughly the same age and whether their child fits into that range. It also includes tips or techniques that the mother may not have heard of before, nor possibly have access to, if it were not for participating on this website.
Instrumental support: formal. While informal information was the most prevalent type of information exchanged, frequently more formal information was passed along as well. By formal, we are referring to information derived from professional experts or organisations. Following the breastfeeding example above, some mothers passed along formal information on the appropriate amount of time a child should be nursed. For example, MomX shares:
The AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] recommends bfing for a minimum of a year, not stopping at a year. The WHO [World Health Organization] recommends bfing for at least 2 years.
Similarly, one mother participant identified herself to be a speech language pathologist and addressed an issue raised regarding the normal age range for developing motor and language skills:
. . . if he doesn’t say his first word by 15 months, I’ll start to worry, and if he hasn’t by 18 months, I know he may need an evaluation. I also know of kids who did not speak until after 18 months, who did catch up to their peers by kindergarten . . . I guess my point is, there's a lot of leeway as to what is ‘average’.
Finally, in an exchange regarding crying it out to teach a baby to fall asleep on his/her own MommytoPam writes:
My dr has told me several times that under 12 months old you should never let them cio for longer than 15 minutes.
To which Meridethsmom says:
Most of the sleep experts (even the book by the AAP) say that if you go and get a child at a set time, like 15 minutes, then they learn to cry for 15 minutes every night. If you let them cry without a limit, then they figure out how to soothe themselves to sleep. Also they all say that babies are old enough to cio at 4 months. If you wait until they’re a year old, it's much harder.
These formal guidelines and informal information-sharing serve as resources to mothers, who can subsequently decide whether they think their infant is doing something normal or abnormal. Furthermore, if the mother decides the infant is acting abnormally, she can act on this information by seeing a physician. These examples illustrate that social capital can operate through the diffusion of information. In many ways, these resources are more advantageous than being a novice mother with few, if any, ties to ask questions of.