I've been feeling nostalgic lately. I think it's because I'm back on full time mum duty for a fortnight, while Martin does his teaching rounds at Eltham High. Last time I was full time Mum was when Fred was Una's age and Una was a little baby (um, and no, not quite sure how I got two novels written in that first few years of Fred's life). There were lots of people around to play with. I had my mother's group, but I was also part of an enormous online mother's group, mostly Australian-based with a big Melbourne chapter. It started off at a place called ninemonths (there's still a forum there, but lately when I was doing some single mum research for my latest novel I noticed it was pretty much dead in the water). A group of us ninemonthers broke off after what we affectionately came to call Georgiagate, in which an apparently Munchausens by proxy by internet sufferer (or just some mean person) developed this elaborate and disturbing narrative which began with her pregnancy, developed to a terrible premature birth, her husband's affair with her sister (and being the suspected father of her pregnant sister's child) and ending up with her fake suicide - luckily she left her login details in her suicide note so her 'father' could come and tell us all the bad news. Soon after that she was outed as a fake and she apologised, things got nasty, then she disappeared into the ether, probably to manifest on some other site. So anyway, frustrated with a lack of moderation, we went and started our own msn site, that was governed, unfortunately, with a fair degree of suspicion - in hindsight, rising out of the ashes of georgiagate, it's not surprising that some level of trust and faith was compromised. In the article I've linked to bereavement counsellor Pam Cohen describes Munchausens by Internet as emotional rape. Perhaps if you haven't invested yourself in an online group you won't really understand how true that rings for me.
Anyway, those of us on the new site also became closer, now the site was private (new applicants were voted on by the group) most people felt comfortable revealing more personal information and we shared photographs etc. There was still the odd flare up (the life of an online forum is oddly cyclical, the same issues and questions being generated by the collective consciousness of the group, and the same occasional dramas playing out, much like a soap opera) and after the chaos of ninemonths, the new site was managed tightly with a lot of strict rules (rules I personally found overly paranoid and unnecessary). In fact I'm almost breaking one of them writing about the site here. The site was managed by a small group, for a long time in secret, through a second site, which for a while i had access to - as well as a convenient place to discuss controversial issues, it was a second layer of commentary on the site. Of course a number of us also emailed each other behind the scenes too.
Despite this, ore perhaps because of it, the Melbourne girls especially became close. We started meeting up in pairs or small groups. When Fred was about one we began to meet as a big group on a regular basis, at first just the inner city mums and then some that had to travel a bit further. The kids would play, the adults would gossip, mostly discussing the site. We had two shared experiences, our babies, and our online lives. If you've ever been addicted to an online game or a forum or gambling then you'd probably know what it was like. Now that I'm not enmeshed in it anymore, I can't quite remember what it was that was so deeply appealing about the site. I mean, I cared about many of these women and their children (and still do), but the day to day appeal of questions and posts about first teeth and tantrumming toddlers is hard to quite grasp, especially considering the sheer volume of time I spend on there. (I guess some of the appeal was procrastination, a few times I had to quit the site in order to meet a deadline - I always found these times curiously liberating though eventually I'd be drawn back there - such is the mystery of addiction). I don't, however, struggle to remember the point of the meet ups. Being a mum can be lonely. I moved out of my suburb and didn't have a regular mother's group anymore*. We were in and out of each other's homes, or we'd meet in parks and play centres. When you're looking down the barrel of a long week with a toddler when you're seven months pregnant (the kind of pregnant where strangers look at you in horror and back away slowly) then knowing that at least Wednesday will see you busy and your kid worn out so you can justify sticking them in front of the teev for much of Thursday is more than just appealing, it's essential to your mental health. A couple of these women in particular were almost like mothers to me, when I was strung out and had no idea how I was going to write a whole second novel when i couldn't even toilet train a two year old, they'd have me over, feed me up, let me sit in their warm, clean homes while Fred trashed the joint and just be interested, generous, kind and warm (one of them would even make Mars Bar slice). I was living stranded in a suburb I didn't feel a part of and I depended possibly too heavily on these people - I don't know if they know how much I needed them and how grateful I am now that they were there for me. We also left the kids at home and went out for dinners - these dinners made me feel so freaking human. It culminated in one of my most cherished memories - a new year's eve party a few months before Fred turned 3. Una was a few months old. The kids ran around happily on the lawn until after 10, Una and the other newborn slept and we partied like...like we were a family.
It wasn't just in Melbourne. I've met up with mums in Sydney, Brisbane, and Tasmania and I am still close to some of these people. When I was nominated for the Aurealis award I was able to attend the ceremony (adn watch Scott Westerfeld win it, bless his cotton socks) because one of the Brissy mums put us up and babysat Fred so we could go. Some people might be shocked that I left my child with someone I never met before - all i can say is she was in no way a stranger to me - I loved her before I met her, and nothing I saw of her ever suggested she wasn't the woman I knew -and the same goes for all the mums. One of them was notably much much nicer and calmer in person - she knew it too. Some of the interstate mums travelled to Melbourne to meet up too. Other national meets (that i couldn't attend) occurred in Sydney and Brisbane. At one stage I knew I could move to any capital city in Australia and have an instant network of mums. In fact, that's probably still true.
I quit the site for the last time in March 2006 - I know the date because that was when I started writing eglantine's cake. I figured if I was going to spend all this time crafting careful responses to posts etc, I may as well do it in a way that I was extending and challenging myself - the cyclical, closed nature of the forum made me feel like I wasn't growing as a mother, a writer or as an 'online entity'. I hadn't known I was quitting, I breezily wrote something along the lines of 'Gotta go write a novel, be back before the next baby is born.' But as it turned out, I never went back.
Leaving the site was healthy for me. Like I said, it had an addictive and cyclical quality (two words together that usually suggest unhealthiness). And leaving the forum has initiated my own rebirth online. Instead of being in a room with no windows or doors, I now feel like I live across the breadth of the internet, I feel like an Internet gypsy, not homeless, but that I have many many homes, some temporary, some, like this one, more permanent. Through blogs, facebook, emails, and other means I've kept in contact with many of these people. But leaving was not without sacrifice, the intensity is gone and the meet ups are over, for me at least. When I left the forum one of the Melbourne mums had moved to New Zealand and after I left another moved to Canada. I'd moved back to the inner city and closer to other friends, Martin started studying full time, the girls went into creche and I began working more. A bit later all our kids started kinder and school and some of the mums went back to work - even if I was still posting regularly I doubt the meet ups would still be occurring.
But just this past week or so, I've been missing them, the chaos, the fun, seeing the kids interact and the next generation of babies (Una was the first of a Melbourne baby boom**) grow up, the gossip, the friendships big and little. Fred still talks about most of them by name - the kids she's known since before she was two seem permanently fixed in her memory in a way that, say, kids she went to creche with last year are already vanishing. I went to a play centre last week at Fred's request (she was feeling nostalgic too) and saw groups there that could have been us over two years ago and wished I could magic up my Melbourne mums, just for an afternoon.
*though I still see one ace chick from my North Fitzroy mother's group - she now leaves in the Western suburbs - we all dispersed.
**well, strictly Lulu Plum was the first, but she nicked off to NZ.