Web Lifeline for Mums Is Big Business

An explosion in the popularity of parenting websites has sparked interest from big business, book publishers and even the government, who all want to reach out to the millions of mothers who log in every month.

Bloomsbury will announce a six-figure book deal with Mumsnet.com this week, while Hodder Headline recently secured an agreement with Netmums.com for a five-book series inspired by discussions on its site. Meanwhile, Mothercare has launched a parenting website called Gurgle and Disney also has its own family site.

Netmums will announce this week that it has received a substantial grant from the government so that it can provide expert advice to the thousands of its members who contact it with problems ranging from post-natal depression to domestic violence.

Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of the website, which combines 150 local networks, said: 'Every week we deal with a truly terrifying number of mothers who are literally suicidal. It has become a common occurrence for our staff to send ambulances or police to people's houses after online conversations during which they say they cannot go on.

'It's shocking how desperate many of the mothers who contact us are, and how little help they receive from a state that has simply let them slip through its net.'

The grant will allow Freegard to employ experts in areas including depression and children with special needs, who will then train the site's 40 parenting advisers. 'All the necessary help for these mothers exists, but it is spread between different agencies and organisations, who simply don't know how to find the mothers who need their support,' said Freegaard, whose site has 800,000 visitors a month.

'Mothers either don't know how to find experts themselves or don't want to go to an institution with their problems because they fear official procedures that could lead to the situation spiralling out of their control,' she added. 'Asking for advice from other mothers on a website is different; you're anonymous, everyone comes up with their own solutions so no one judges you and if one piece of advice doesn't work, you can try another.'

'Not all mothers are in so critical a condition. But even looking after a baby on your own can be lonely and boring. That sort of pressure can become intolerable, but can be so easily alleviated if you have just one person to share it with.'

Mumsnet is also often described as a lifeline by mothers who feel isolated. It has seen a huge increase in hits - up tenfold on five years ago to 375,000 visitors a month. A bidding war was recently waged between five large publishers eager to produce a series of books by Mumsnet. This week it will be confirmed that Bloomsbury has secured the six-book deal with a six-figure sum.

'Online parenting sites are a lifeline for thousands of mothers across the country,' said Lucy Nicoll, the Mumsnet member who will write the first book and whose criticism of parenting guru Gina Ford on the site this year almost led to its closure.

'There's baby guru fatigue in the mothering world, which is marked by a certain cynicism towards these people who set themselves up as having the ultimate answer, especially when they don't have children of their own,' she said. 'Where else can you go when the baby is screaming at 4am and all you want is a bottle of gin? Or when you have a crisis over the fact that you're 42 and your second attempt of IVF has failed? With the internet, you can find women going through exactly what you're going through, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

'We're operating in a time when mothers have never been more alone, often not speaking to another person from the moment their husbands leave home in the morning to the time they come home,' she added.

Dr Pat Spungen, founder of Raisingkids.co.uk, has seen membership of her site double in the past year. 'These websites can save the sanity of parents and save the childhood of their babies from disintegrating,' she said. (...)

Source: Guardian, UK
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