When Erika Bugaj Petrova became a mom five years ago, she had to flex her “friend-making muscle” to connect with other mothers. Despite having a new baby in tow, she felt alone. Some days it was just easier to stay home.
“It was just me and the baby at home, and that can be very isolating,” said Petrova, a clinical social worker and the director of Dandelion Psychotherapy in the District. “You have to make a conscious and determined effort to get out into the community and attend activities that will help you connect with other people.”
Several apps have been developed to make that task easier for moms. Laurie Cordova, a mother of two who lives in Arlington, launched MamaLeave in June. Users sign up through Google or Facebook, which automatically populates the app with their Zip code, and create a profile with information such as the number of kids they have and their ages. From there, users can create public or private “MamaLeaves,” or events, by picking a time, place and purpose (a play date at a park for kids 2 and under, or a moms-only coffee meetup), and inviting people to join. Invitees get a push notification about the event.
Cordova’s goal is to remove the hassle associated with making group plans. “I’ve definitely spent hours going back and forth with people over text, and if someone had just said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing and who wants to come,’ I thought that would be an easier way to go about it,” Cordova said.
“I didn’t feel like I could join a play group because I would abandon them soon after,” added Cordova, who knew she was going back to work after 12 weeks of parental leave. And “once I went back to work full time, it wasn’t possible for me to attend play dates or play groups during the week, so I felt a little shortchanged on that front.”
Cordova’s situation isn’t uncommon in the D.C. area., which has an above average number of working moms, compared to the rest of the country. Perhaps that’s because D.C. ranks second in the United States for the best professional opportunities for women, according to WalletHub. The District ranks 13th, though, for work-life balance for moms, and Virginia and Maryland are 46th and 50th, respectively.
MamaLeave and other similar apps aren’t relevant only to local moms, though; they have users nationwide — unsurprising given that 70 percent of women with children under 18 worked in 2013, compared to 47.4 percent in 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Since Michelle Kennedy launched the Peanut app in February, its number of users has reached six figures. Kennedy attributes that success to several factors.
“You don’t live next door to your sister or around the corner from your mom — things have changed,” Kennedy said. “We’re moving all the time for work, for schools, for a better quality of life. That means we’re moving away from that network that I think we once had, and then you need to make new connections.”
Peanut asks users to choose three “packs,” such as “routine queen” or “powered by caffeine,” to let others get a glimpse of their personality. Users can share more information, including hometown, a bio, occupation, education and photos. To find potential friends in their area — like MamaLeave, Peanut relies on Facebook to determine where you live — users flip through photos. You can see fellow users’ names, locations, kids’ ages and packs. If someone looks interesting, swipe up to say hello. If not, swipe down to keep going.
“There’s no rejection on Peanut,” Kennedy said. Other users won’t know you waved at them unless they wave at you, too.
This may not be your mother’s friend-making, but using apps to procure pals isn’t all that odd these days. “Most people are even becoming couples through dating apps,” Cordova said. “I think this is a natural extension of that. We’re used to making contact in this way first.”
Still, technology has a reputation for making people lonelier. A study by the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh found that the people who reported spending more than two hours per day on social media were twice as likely to feel isolated.
Peanut’s Kennedy says it’s not that simple.
“For anyone ever who ever has said, ‘Tech is making us lonelier,’ it’s not,” she said. “There are people who are using this as a way to move through it. It’s never, ever a replacement for real life. It’s to facilitate the ‘in real life’ and to make it easier and more accessible.”
And that’s key, says Beth Morgenstern, communications coordinator at PACE, a nonprofit group that provides educational and emotional support for first- and second-time moms in D.C., Northern Virginia and Montgomery County.
“I don’t think it matters how you meet moms — whether it’s through PACE or through an app or at a coffee shop,” Morgenstern said. “It’s just super-important to make the connection, to recognize that you are not alone and that it’s hard.”
To strengthen that “friendship-making muscle,” Petrova recommends being open to parents you meet in natural circumstances. “It may be being willing to say hello to that mom who lives down the street, exchange phone numbers and offer to go to the nearby park and meet up there,” she said. Other opportunities include attending family events at day care or school, talking to other caregivers at extracurricular activities and joining organizations that support families.
The app creators say their technology isn’t meant to replace human interaction, but rather to encourage it.
“It’s not necessarily to help you find your best friend,” Cordova said. “It’s great if that’s what it turns out to be, and I hope it does for a lot of people, but it’s to help you feel like part of your community. When you go to the supermarket, you’ll start to recognize more people. I think that has a big impact on people’s well-being.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia. Find her on Twitter @StephKanowitz.