Online Group Provides Instant Network for Mothers has become a source of information and support for area mothers.

Posted Updated
Sheryl Grant (Carolina Parent staff writer)
Moms have good reasons to join an online mothers' clubs like TriangleMommies: A wide circle of friends, relief from social isolation and connecting with friends all hours of the day and night – arguably one of the best things to happen since the invention of the stroller. Add to that the perks of meeting locally for play dates and moms' nights out, and you have one of the fastest growing mothers' clubs in the Triangle.

Minutes into an interview with Marissa Ackerman, founder of TriangleMommies, it's easy to see why the group has grown to more than 1,500 members. Ackerman’s conversation is punctuated with laughter, and it's clear from her stories that she's kind and caring – those age-old, low-tech building blocks of friendship.

"It's really about people – moms – connecting so that no one has to feel alone," Ackerman says about TriangleMommies.

One of the paradoxes of motherhood is that having a child can be both intensely social and somehow isolating, especially in the early years of motherhood. Take away family and friends, and motherhood can, at times, be alarmingly lonely.

From 2005 until last June, Ackerman was TriangleMommies' site administrator, volunteering up to 20 hours a week while raising three children younger than 3 years old. During the interview, her daughter Callie, almost 2, and 9-month-old son Corbin tried to nap. Chase, her 3 ½-year-old, detected that his mother was trying to talk on the phone and started up a conversation about shovels. It's the kind of thing a mom might post on Talking on the phone – success tips?

Chase is no stranger to TriangleMommies business. In 2003, Ackerman was living in Charlotte and was pregnant with Chase when she had a conversation that changed her life.

"I was pregnant, living in a new town, no family nearby, no friends and about to have my first baby. I felt pretty isolated," she explains. But Ackerman got a tip that turned things around. "I was at a dinner and met a woman with kids, and she told me about CharlotteMommies."

Brainchild of Heather Meininger, CharlotteMommies was the first online forum created by the Mommies Network, where mothers use the Internet to connect with other local moms. In some towns, mothers' clubs require fees to join, and Meininger envisioned a free online network that offered instant connection 24/7. Motherhood is an all-day, all-night affair; having access to other moms around the clock is, for many, a dream come true. CharlotteMommies was an immediate success.

Ackerman searched for CharlotteMommies online and registered to become the group's 43rd member. As chance would have it, Meininger lived on the same street, and the two women quickly became friends.

"When my son was only a few months old, we moved to Durham," Ackerman says. "I knew I wanted to have something like CharlotteMommies."

Triangle Group Forms

Meininger was immediately on board with the idea of expanding, having already envisioned a network of similar groups across the nation. In 2005, with Meininger's help, Ackerman launched TriangleMommies. Word quickly spread, and Ackerman began receiving as many as 35 membership applications a day.

TriangleMommies was the Mommies Network's second site after CharlotteMommies, but as mothers moved and relocated, 40 sites in 20 states took root across the country. Few flourished as quickly as TriangleMommies, however.
Mothers from Wake, Durham and Orange counties helped turn TriangleMommies into one of the most successful spin-off sites. Today, it has a leadership team of 17 volunteers who moderate different forums, manage events, promote the site and take care of the million other duties that pop up when 1,500 people are involved.

In June, Ackerman announced she would step down from her position as site administrator, and a special dinner was planned in her honor. More than 40 mothers – several whom had never met in person – and Ackerman’s husband gathered for dinner at Fratello’s in Brier Creek to thank the site founder.

At the dinner, old-timers – those who met back in the day when TriangleMommies membership was in the single and double digits – helped with name tags, including people’s online usernames and the ages of their children. For TriangleMommies, a username is the way people identify themselves on the site, sort of like a CB handle. Even at real life events, the Internet has a presence.

At dinner, jennypoo9, moderator for the Young Mommies forum, and two other moms in their mid-20s, both with 6-month-olds at home, sat next to each other. At the end of the table sat joandian, a moderator and member of the private group for moms 35 and up, and across from her sat tylersmom. Conversation was the usual mother talk: sibling rivalry, how to put kids to bed, fatigue, school lunches, fatigue, discipline, fatigue. Nothing different there.

But there is something unusual about TriangleMommies. Moms live all over the Triangle, some in neighboring counties. Play groups are open, membership shifts, participants change. Some go to live events, some don’t. But get involved online, and people you may never meet start to feel like friends.

For anyone unfamiliar with online social networks, meeting up on the Internet might seem strange. But according to Howard Reingold, author of Virtual Community, “People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.” Thanks to the Internet, we can know so much about someone we wouldn’t recognize on the street. For some TriangleMommies members, that’s a new experience.

Of this growing kind of community, Reingold commented, “I'm not so sure myself anymore that tapping away on a keyboard and staring at a screen all day by necessity is ‘progress’ compared to chopping logs and raising beans all day by necessity.” That’s true. But if you’re a mom looking for a lifeline, you’ll take your community any way it comes.

Most people, according to Reingold, like to lurk at first. TriangleMommies is much more interesting, however, when you post something of your own. People respond within seconds; popular posts are “flamed,” and quickly the whole thing becomes addicting, especially for housebound moms with young kids. And those who don’t post after 30 days will be “pruned” from the site, so lurking has its limits.

Mothers Find Support
Moms like Keri Kennedy, whose daughter Rebecca was born with bilateral optic gliomas, a type of benign brain tumor on the optic nerves, has found great comfort on TriangleMommies. Kennedy wrote in an e-mail, “TriangleMommies has been a great place of support for me as a mother of a special needs child.”

Whenever Kennedy posts something online, members can view Rebecca’s CaringBridge page to find out how treatments are going. Since she was 2 months old, Rebecca has had seizures and has already undergone chemotherapy.

Writes Kennedy, “TriangleMommies feels like a family to me, even though I haven't met most of the people in real life. I've gotten to read about other people's struggles and their joys, triumphs and tribulations. All from moms who live in my own community.” Having this local connection is what sets TriangleMommies apart from the large national groups, and because of that, friendships spill over into real life.

Ackerman notes that TriangleMommies offers a lot of flexibility in how women participate. "You really can do however much you want. You can go to single events, like what’s on the (TriangleMommies) calendar, form small groups that meet for play dates, or just connect online."

She remembers the time she saw four different groups of TriangleMommies visiting Southpoint Mall in Durham. "You can spot them because they have green and white polka dot ribbons on their strollers," she says.

For Ackerman, that’s what TriangleMommies is all about. "I think because our members meet in person that the site stays more polite and helpful. You'll get warnings from the leadership team if you're mean, but for the most part that's not an issue."

She also notes that, "Moms who don't go to events tend to speak more freely. And it’s like e-mail. You have to think about what you're putting out there. You need to think about the tone and whether or not people will understand sarcasm."

To join, there’s typically a 24-hour turnaround before new members are approved. Site administrators check to make sure that moms either live locally or intend to live in the Triangle in the next six months. North Carolina has 12 Mommies Network sites, including AlamanceMommies, TriadMommies and SandhillsMommies. Not to be left behind, dads helped launch two new sites through the Mommies Network, including TriangleAreaDads and CharlotteAreaDads.

To underscore how big TriangleMommies has become, Ackerman’s successors decided to split the job. Co-site administrator Beth Benjamin (bethncsahm) and Crystal Seaton (ctseaton) now head the group, rising in the ranks from other leadership positions.

Anyone who's a regular on or forums knows the message board routine. But for the uninitiated, an online message board is a site where members post questions, thoughts, rants and ideas on everything from children, husbands, family and the ever-popular mother-in-law.

Nothing is off topic, especially in the Relationships & Family forum, where members can post anonymously. (Husbands, both helpful and not, are a hot topic.) Members can join private forums for moms ages 35 and over; bonus mommies; twins, triplets and more; single moms; postpartum depression support; adoption; and moms who started their families "early." There are also open forums for breastfeeding support, grief support, moms on the clock, pregnancy, childbirth and anything to do with the highly variable nature of family life.

Since TriangleMommies is local, members also can meet for play dates, talk about local businesses and help each other. During the Apex fires in 2006, members of TriangleMommies became first responders to other TriangleMommies families who needed places to stay.

In the past five years, online social networks like MySpace and Facebook changed the way younger people socialize. It was only a matter of time before the same kind of technology touched motherhood and gave us an extra tool for the journey. True, the strength of TriangleMommies is arguably its weakness. Moms who don’t have a computer or Internet connection at home can’t enjoy many of the benefits. Public libraries have free Internet access for county residents, but that can only temporarily close the digital divide. And moms with dial-up Internet connection might find the wait time to get online too cumbersome.

Fortunately, moms are equipped with an enduring ability to find other moms for friendship, support and play dates, whether by impromptu trips to the playground or a stroll around the neighborhood. And moms can always join one of the longstanding mothers’ clubs in the Triangle. Chapters of Mothers and More, Triangle Mothers of Twins and Triplets, Mocha Moms, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), Chapel Hill Mother’s Club and many more groups dot the map.

For Ackerman, the mission of TriangleMommies, while steeped in technology, is the same as any mothers’ club. “We love people, and we want people to connect and not feel alone.”

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