While 4-year-old Michael spins circles around the toy-filled living room and 4-month-old Evan bounces in a baby seat, Mom and Dad peer at the screens of nearly identical silver PowerBook computers. Maria Sokurashvili and Jeff Steele, home for the evening after work, are tending to their other baby -- the online parenting support group called DC Urban Moms.
Sokurashvili, 33, is from Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. Steele, 41, is from Illinois. The two met when Steele was in Georgia working on an Internet project. Like many young people from other places who settle in the Washington area and start families, they had no handy network of relatives to provide help and advice. As veterans of the high-tech world, they naturally saw the Internet as a solution.
Sheryl Stein of Arlington connects to DC Urban Moms, an online parenting support group, while her children Kira Sweetman, 6, left, and 23-month-old Julian Sweetman, play nearby.
(Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
They started modestly, launching DC Urban Moms in 2001 as a way for a group of about 20 friends to share advice and make plans. As more people signed up (at www.dcurbanmom.com; note that "mom" is singular, the result of a registration error) to receive daily e-mails, the group swelled to include parents of multiples, gay moms and dads, single parents and pregnant women. In 2002, the group's members sent 200 messages per month. Today that number is over 2,000. The list has 5,500 members.
In a time when many people complain about not knowing their neighbors, DC Urban Moms has become a virtual village, a version of the community that some people think is needed to raise children. It has also become a window into what thrills and irks Washington mothers and fathers.
At DC Moms you can pose a question -- about what to do when your child can't sleep, won't eat or simply has too much stuff -- and receive dozens of replies within the day. One member recently asked where she could find chocolate geckos and got half a dozen suggestions.
In some circles, "the list" has replaced baby books as the main way moms -- and it is mostly moms although dads participate, too -- seek practical advice. It's quick, interactive and loaded with diverse opinions. It's entertaining and controversial, and frequently both. It's a flea market, a bulletin board and a 24-hour advice line.
But it's also a forum for spirited, heated, philosophical exchange on controversial topics, such as the decisions to have only one child, stay at home with the kids, return to work, breast-feed, raise kids as vegetarians and home-school.
"It's a safe place to vet a question without having your husband think you're nuts or annoying the nurse in your pediatrician's office or feeling judged by a mother or mother-in-law," said Karen Montagne of Arlington, the mother of a 2½-year-old and a 7-month-old and vice president of a business group. She calls the list a "collective women's instinct."
Many DC Urban Moms say they read the list instead of watching television. Some say they've become addicted to following certain threads and reading posts from regular contributors who have almost become characters in a family drama. Sagas such as potty training, deciding when is the best time of year to have a child and even when to report suspected child abuse are all closely followed.
"Who needs soap operas?" said Tricia Duncan, the at-home mother of a 6-month-old who lives in D.C.'s Palisades neighborhood. She said she and her Arlington sister-in-law regularly say to each other, "Did you read the one about . . . ?"
Addicted to Momming
Lynn Anne Miller of Bethesda said she lately has been trying to curb what her husband calls "DC Urban Momming" -- the hours spent reading, replying to and forwarding e-mails. Miller's husband refers to himself as a "DC Urban Widower."
"It can become an obsession," she admitted.
Miller, who has a 2½-year-old and works part time, said she doesn't ask her own mom for advice because, at 81, she doesn't remember the new-baby stage very well -- nor did she have to worry over such modern issues as hiring a nanny or choosing a car seat.
Miller said that, like many list members, she keeps up with some people she knows in real life largely by reading their postings online. "There's a strange, new-millennium feel when I see a post from a friend saying she's sick," Miller said.