You’d think the board’s randomness would make reading it unbearable. And maybe it is. But for many, including me, it is also irresistible, a place for New York mothers to talk about the most taboo subjects—money, sex, and especially marriage, the ones rotting from the inside, the ones where the couples never talk and never have sex, the ones organized along occult power lines invisible to the outside world. You don’t have to be a very voyeuristic person to be drawn in, but it helps. On UrbanBaby, women openly confess to an ambivalence about parenting that no one is allowed to admit in the sunlight. They disclose financial secrets they’d never discuss with their closest friends and secrets about their feelings toward their husbands, which sometimes amounts to the same thing.
They blurt out entire novels about their lives in staccato dialogues.
“I never wanted kids and now I am pregnant.”
“do you want this one?”
“ ‘Want’ is such a strong word. My husband wants it. Sometimes I think it’s interesting. I am EXTREMELY uncomfortable (2 months to go) and I am BORED.”
UrbanBaby began as a New York project, founded by former Esquire editor Susan Maloney and her husband, John, for women who “couldn’t relate to pink and blue,” and though it has since gone national, its flavor is still very New York. There are lists of lactation consultants and interviews with “Moms About Town” like Nicole Miller; there are aspirational illustrations of skinny moms with posh diaper bags. A Craigslist-ish area allows moms to hawk gently used Bugaboos.
But as with so many online phenomena, what really took off about the site wasn’t the useful part. It was the message board, which flourished not despite but because of its chaotic design. On UrbanBaby, no one has a profile or a screen name, so there’s no telling who is posting from thread to thread—could be Mary Louise Parker, could be your bitchy neighbor. Comments are studded with baffling abbreviations like dh (dear husband), dd (dear daughter), ds (dear son), and BTDT (been there done that) and jargon like “sanctimommy” (a self-righteous mom) and “Über-boober” (a self-righteous mom obsessed with breast-feeding).
Amid all this, invisible “deleters” erase entire threads for no clear reason. (Were they too sexual? Too political? Did they talk about the deleters too much, à la Fight Club?) And if you are banned, you will get nothing but a mysterious message telling you how long you need to wait before being allowed to post. In seconds. Like this: “You will not be able to post for 24,083 seconds.” No explanation.
As women post en masse over the course of the day and long into the night, the mood changes: The daylight crowd tends to be prissier, the night crowd rowdier (and drunker), the late-night crowd surrealistic and unpredictable, made up of the extremely sleep deprived, from mothers of newborns to insomniacs in the midst of a divorce. But certain shared obsessions loop back, sometimes for years on end. There’s the conflict between Park Slope (crunchy, sanctimonious) and the Upper East Side (elitist, spoiled). There are “Muffintops,” a.k.a. the postpartum love handles, and “Frenemies,” or backbiting false friends. Celebrity moms—Gwyneth, Brit, SJP, MLP—and their failings and whether they are secretly on UrbanBaby. Stay-at-home moms: How much help do they have? Cry it out: Is it cruel to sleep-train your child? Circumcision, extended breast-feeding, autism, PPD (postpartum depression), BPPs (bitter poor persons), and TT (top-tier) preschools.
There are the notorious “bad nanny sightings”:
“If you know the parents of this beautiful girl please tell them that their nanny is verbally abusive to the baby and let her scream today for at least 45 minutes and kept telling the baby ‘you have to learn.’ ”
There are recurrent escape plans:
“I have a secret fantasy of splitting with dh and taking db [dear baby] and leaving him with dd. He’s making her such a spoiled brat, I’m tired of being the bad guy, and I’m tired of his shit.”
And there are endless comparative polls: How much do you weigh? What’s your HHI (household income)? Your ring size, your bra size, your thread weave? Someone calling herself Psychic Mom tries to predict the future, and Hong Kong Mom posts in the wee hours of the morning to sleepless mothers in the East Village. A tough-love Marxist urges a mom whose nanny has quit without notice to “walk it off.” Muslim moms debate identity politics with Jewish moms. A self-proclaimed Life Coach mom offers to solve everyone’s problems at once.
Once you’re hooked, it’s very hard to log off. So hard that women have been known to get banned deliberately just so they can break their addiction. And there are some very mean women out there—women who will accuse a woman whose child has died of making the whole thing up, women who will attack another woman’s child’s name until she posts back that she’s crying. The site is poisonous at times, but also strangely comforting and frequently hilarious: There are other women out there who are all wound up, cracking bizarre running jokes and overthinking everything, but overthinking it together.