This article was in the Sunday Times on 21 February 2010
The man’s guide to Mumsnet by Matt Rudd
There are places in cyberspace a man should avoid. Our male reporter goes undercover and is afraid, very afraid
It’s a Sunday morning. Isabel and her nine-year-old son are in the living room. She is helping him to get started on a story he has to write for his homework. All is well with the world. Halfway through, Isabel’s husband wanders in from the kitchen and says, “Aren’t you going to tell him to think of a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than just write the story in a Neanderthal way?” Patiently, Isabel explains that she always found planning boring. The husband says, “Bollocks,” and goes off in a huff. Isabel is upset. The child battles on with his homework.
Ten years ago, that would have been it. The wading in of a ham-fisted husband, the ensuing domestic argument and a larger-than-usual glass of sauvignon blanc for the angry wife that evening. But that is not what happened last week. Instead, Isabel gathered herself up, marched off to the computer and logged on to Mumsnet. Her post, entitled “Would you find this offensive?”, detailed the events of the morning: “DS (darling son) and I were in the living room… DH (darling husband) came and sat next to us… I found his way of expressing himself on both occasions offensive, but I don’t know if that is what other people would think too… would you have taken offence? Would welcome any thoughts.”
Within a few hours, Isabel had several pages of reaction from other Mumsnetters. The universal verdict was that DH’s attitude stank: “You have to stand up for yourself.” “He may be the Neanderthal.” “It is just not nice to be spoken to like that, especially as you were having a nice, intimate moment with your son. Sounds like he completely ruined it.” The “thread” trailed on. Isabel shared more of her domestic woes and the Mumsnetters concluded there was more to this than a squabble over homework. DH needed to be set straight. Go, girl, and all that.
I can’t tell you what happened next. Isabel hasn’t been back to update the forum yet. (If tomorrow’s headline is “Wife cuts off man’s testicles after homework dispute”, we’ll know why.) What I can tell you is that DH has been well and truly Mumsnetted. And while it serves him right, it does make me wonder what my wife (and excellent mother of our two children, gosh, how I admire her approach to parenting) and others are really up to on Mumsnet. Are we dads missing a trick? Should we stop salivating on the Apple website and organise ourselves into a Dadsnet? In order to find out, I decided to infiltrate Mumsnet.
“Cover me, I’m going in,” I whispered to myself nervously as I powered up the computer and logged on to the site. For a while, I stood blinking in the virtual light. I could see immediately that this was enemy territory. The website’s strapline might be “By parents for parents”, but there is no evidence of men here, not even sensitive, understanding, co-operative ones. The clue, I suppose, is in the title. It’s mums’ net. As I moved further from safety, I found women, hundreds of them, busy chatting to each other in cyberspace. If this were a Costa, it would be packed to the rafters and the noise would be deafening.
One poster was worrying about whether the name Luca is too trendy (it is, dear), another has a three-year-old son who eats only bread, another has an 18-month-old daughter who has started holding her breath in her sleep. As well as the lone posters, there are gangs. One is dedicated to losing the post-pregnancy pounds (they said that, not me), another is called the “tack room” and is for horse-mad mums. Perhaps the most tense and expansive of all is introduced with the title Hello Baby… Goodbye Pelvic Floor. An entire tribe of tired, grumpy, itchy, scratchy women, all due to give birth in March, prowl around here. It is a frightening place for a man.
Mumsnet was set up a decade ago by London mums Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton. It first made serious headlines in 2006, when it was sued by the childcare author Gina Ford after she took offence at comments posted on the site. After months of legal discussion, Mumsnet apologised and agreed to ask its members not to mention her name any more. Members simply switched to the acronym SWMNBN (She Who Must Not Be Named) to reference Ford.
There have been other milestones. In 2002, Mumsnetters talked a member through her home birth after the midwife failed to turn up in time. In 2005, a depressed single mother announced in a thread that she had taken an overdose. Members worked out her true identity and called an ambulance. They then raised £2,000 to pay for some emergency childcare to give the family some respite.
Today, its influence is huge. The third of a series of books is published next month and will take a further chunk of sales off dear Gina. Several commentators believe our next prime minister will be decided not by the press or the politicians, but by what is said on the website’s message boards. According to The Times, 2010 will be the year of the “Mumsnet election”.
That is all very well, but I’m now deep behind enemy lines, and I’m not getting very far because they talk in code. For a man to grasp what’s going on, he has to learn the acronyms. It says a lot about the kind of trouble we could get ourselves into. TBH is To Be Honest. IIRC is the combative If I Remember Correctly. IYKWIM is If You Know What I Mean (which I don’t, okay?). For those of you without a weak stomach, there are LMP, TTC and PITA (Last Menstrual Period, Trying To Conceive and Pain in the Arse). WTF is self-explanatory.
In the end, I was overwhelmed. The sheer breadth of topics combined with the often funny but more often brutally blunt opinions make Mumsnet what it is: a cyberextension (and sometimes cybercrutch) of mums in the real world. In fact, the degree of anonymity makes it even more real than the real world. Everyone is free to say exactly what they think.
One thing I can conclude is that men should be careful. Behind every woman are, potentially, a thousand other women. And quite a lot of them have their arms crossed angrily. Take, for example, last week’s post in the very popular Am I Being Unreasonable? section of the site. It reported a snooped-upon email of a husband to an old (female) school friend in which he told her (a) she looked incredible, (b) that he missed her, and (c) that he would let her know when he was next in her country. Was the wife being unreasonable? Computer says no, of course not: that man is in serious, serious trouble when he gets home. Mind you, even without Mumsnet, I suspect he already was.
I blame the kids: the top mummy blogs
A MODERN MOTHER (dooce.com)
One of the world’s most popular blogs, mother-of-two Heather Armstrong from Salt Lake City tells it like it is — wryly, self-effacingly and prolifically. Topics include rows with the husband, naughty kids and bad cooking.
ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET? (arewenearlythereyetmummy.com)
Mother of two (aged four and five) and stepmother of one, Laura Driver is a working mum who writes archly on her children’s (good and bad) behaviour. Well established, she frequently has reader offers.
MAD MANIC MAMAS (madmanicmamas.blogspot.com)
A group blog from “women who live with teenage terrorists” — a place to offload the trials of raising teenagers (“queenagers”). Given the busy comments pages, it’s not unlike group therapy.
MOANING MUM (eggandollie.blogspot.com)
“Well-intentioned but frequently disillusioned wife and mother, cathartically blogging about the daily frustrations of raising two little monsters (Egg, 5, and Dumpie, 3)”. Clever, candid and reassuringly real.
Fittingly, this blog is a job share between the Times and Sunday Times journalists Eleanor Mills, Caitlin Moran, Sarah Vine and Jennifer Howze, who discuss current issues facing mums. Satisfyingly meaty, yet personable and honest.