Foreword to Toddlers: The Mumsnet Guide
One afternoon back in 2000, a friend called me for some advice. She was six months pregnant and had been suffering from palpitations. Had I experienced them too? She asked anxiously. It shames me now to admit it, but I ruthlessly told her that I would only answer her question if she posted it on the bulletin board of the website I had started a few months earlier.
After all, we needed all the users we could get: until that point, the bulletin board had been populated almost exclusively by me and by Carrie – a friend from antenatal class and co-founder of Mumsnet – and often by just one of us, switching between nicknames to maintain the appearance of a conversation. Me: "What do you do if your child will only eat jelly?" Me Too: "Have you tried carrot jelly?"
On this occasion, however, something different happened. By the time I had hurriedly logged on to reply to my friend's query, someone else – a real, actual person! – had beaten me to it. And in that instant I knew that Mumsnet was coming to life.
Since then it has blossomed into one of Britain's – perhaps the world's – most extraordinary online communities. A tad hyperbolic maybe but the Sunday Telegraph called Mumsnet 'an internet phenomenon', and The Times describes it as 'the country's most popular meeting point for parents'.
It's true that the sheer scale and energy of Mumsnet still strikes me almost every time I log on: the site now notches up a million visits a month and more than 20,000 postings every day on anything and everything from the advisability of using pull-up nappies to the acceptability of wearing socks with Crocs. As I write, Mumsnetters are discussing amongst many other things: the purpose of school; cantaloupe melons; how to remove mould from a wall; Jonathan Coe; petrol prices; hen party ideas that aren't rude; Gordon Brown's latest speech on social mobility; how to stop chickens coming through the cat flap; home births; Mooncups; ugly blokes who are strangely attractive; ugly women who are strangely beautiful; vasectomy reversals; fake tans; Citroen Xsara Picassos; boys' names to go with Jasper and things to do in Dorking.
But Mumsnet is about much more than sheer numbers. What makes it special is the intelligence, compassion and, perhaps most important, wit of its users. There was the time, for example, when we were facing legal action from a certain rather doctrinaire parenting guru and were forced to take the drastic step of banning all mention of her on our discussion boards. Within minutes of our announcement Mumsnetters had conceived a new Potter-inspired acronym – SWMNBN (She Who Must Not Be Named) – and that is how Gina Ford has been referred to ever since.
And this army of bolshy, brilliant parents (yes, there are quite a few dads, despite the name) can be powerful too. Just look at what happened to Waitrose Baby Bottom Butter once Mumsnetters discovered it worked wonders on their wrinkles (don't ask me how). Shortages were reported up and down the country and jars of the £2.49 cream were going on Ebay for £15 and more.
All of which may leave you wondering why you are reading this book, and are not sitting in front of a screen chewing the fat. And it's true that to feel the full Mumsnet experience you need to log on and plunge in. But a while ago it occurred to us that, without us ever planning it that way, Mumsnet Talk had turned into the most amazing archive of parenting wisdom. Whereas the child-rearing manuals offered you the wisdom of a single Leach or Stoppard, Mumsnet could bring you the collected wisdom of hundreds of thousands of parents.
Just as Wikipedia has rendered almost obsolete the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so we wondered if there was a way to capture the wisdom of this remarkable crowd.
We thought a Mumsnet parenting manual might be different from its competition in another way, too. Whisper it quietly, but if Mumsnet is such fun to read that some of its members begged us to ban them from it because they were spending too much of their lives on the boards, might it not be possible for a parenting book to be a good read too? Even with a thread on the grisliest of subjects, it is not unusual to find yourself chuckling over the keyboard. One member captured the wonderfully batty serendipity of the site recently: "You know, you start a thread about vaginal discharge and within a few posts you find yourself recommending a reasonably priced shed or telling all about the little hotel you stayed at in the Cotswolds."
At the same time we realised that long sequences of internet posts, however brilliant, can die when sandwiched between hard covers. So these books are not simply edited extracts from the Mumsnet's boards but instead they are lovingly crafted guides, distilled from the collected wisdom of our members.
And if traditional parenting manuals purport to reveal 'the right way' to bring up a child, our firm starting point is that there isn't one right way – most of the time – to do the parenting thing. If there were a Mumsnet philosophy it would be something along the lines of 'There's more than one way to skin a cat', so read this as a book of optimistic suggestions, rather than as a user's manual. What we provide is a range of options compiled from the hard-won know-how of what has worked for thousands of others: somewhere in here will be answers that work for you. Fittingly, this first of our guides is written by a brilliant Mumsnetter best known for her dramatic cameo in a previous challenge to the unquestioned authority of the parenting gurus. She it was who, with tongue firmly in cheek, mischievously described a certain childcare expert as someone who 'straps babies to rockets and fires them into southern Lebanon'. The gag sparked a rather unseemly legal battle, but to SWMNBN we should offer fulsome thanks for bringing Lucy Nicholls to our attention, and, ultimately, for bringing you this book. A book, it has to be said, a few thought unlikely to materialise. As one Mumsnetter scoffed when we floated the idea of the guides, 'We could never write a book. We never agree on anything!'
Justine Roberts (co-founder, mumsnet.com)
P.S. Mumsnetters, as you'll see, write under an array of weird and wonderful nicknames – VoluptuaGoodshag isn't really called VoluptuaGoodshag in real life. At least as far as we know he/she isn't.