Sondra Ailinger thought she might lose her baby when she developed sharp abdominal pains in the third month of her pregnancy. Frantic with worry, she took the first course of action that came to mind: She logged on to the Internet and posted a message on an electronic bulletin board. It wasn't a doctor she sought, but a support group of 100 women just like her -- all due to give birth in May 1996.
"My abdomen hurt whenever I sneezed," said Ailinger, 31, an electrical engineer from Odenton. "For all I knew, I might have been about to have a miscarriage."
Within hours, a dozen women wrote back and told her not to worry -- she was probably experiencing routine ligament pains, as they were. Ailinger's spasms soon faded and she gave birth to a healthy son, Ben Ailinger, on June 4, 1996.
The May Moms had come to the rescue.
Since fall 1995, this band of women, scattered around the country and as far as New Zealand and Spain, has formed a tight Internet sisterhood that began with pregnancy, continued through childbirth and remains strong today. They've stuck together through bouts of morning sickness and contentious discussions about circumcision, counseling one another about picking baby names and potty training, posting 100 messages a day on an Internet mailing list.
They say the online bonding has been essential in a world unlike their mothers', where most women stayed home and developed social networks in the neighborhood.
Today, increasing numbers of women are turning to the Internet -- from 14 million nationwide in 1996 to 49 million this year, according to Jupiter Communications, an Internet research company.
The growth has spawned thousands of parent support groups using electronic mail, Internet news groups and Web sites that have become the backyard fences and childbirth classes of the late 1990s.
"While I feel I had a strong group of neighborhood friends or church friends, those kinds of things don't seem to be as available today as they were then," said Ailinger's mother, Lois Henderson, 55, of Laurel. "Most of my friends were at-home moms, so we would get together and do that kind of thing. Now, everybody's out in the workplace."
Ailinger stumbled onto the group in 1995 when she started searching for online information to help her through pregnancy. In her male-dominated profession and social network, she had few friends with whom she felt comfortable sharing the details of pregnancy, or to whom she could turn with questions.
She started checking Internet news groups such as misc.kids.pregnancy, and found a message from a woman starting a group for mothers giving birth in May 1996. The May Moms were born.
The group started with about 100 members and jelled as the women began having similar and often disquieting experiences -- such as having to get up three times a night to go to the bathroom.
"There are some things that you do not want to bring up to people who are not pregnant or not at the same stage of pregnancy, like pains or itchings," said Robin Netherton, 39, a May Mom who is a free-lance editor in St. Louis. "In real life, anywhere in my social circle, I would be lucky if I knew three other women due the same month I'm due. Even in childbirth classes, you usually have a variation of several months."
Today, the group has 80 regulars who discuss online shopping, books and their "DHs" (shorthand for "Dear Husband" or "Damned Husband," depending on the context). And of course, they talk about kids. They laugh about "CTTD" (Cute Things They Do) or "CTTS" (Cute Things They Say), and reminisce about their efforts to help one another, including one member's recipe for "labor-inducing guacamole," which some May Moms swear by.
Elizabeth Bird, a University of South Florida anthropologist who has studied Internet news groups, said these bulletin boards illustrate a general trend toward social networks based on common interests instead of traditional neighborhood groups.
"It's not just on the Internet," Bird said. "The cliche of the '50s suburban housewife who sort of did the work in communities, set up parties and events -- she's not there anymore. And people today have less time to interact by sitting around and having coffee with people in their neighborhoods. So, they do this kind of interest group thing when they want to. Instead of having it structured, like going to a book club for three hours every Tuesday night, the Internet gives you the flexibility to connect with people, say, when the baby's asleep."
The anonymity of the Internet promotes openness and bonding in groups that deal with emotional topics such as pregnancy.
"It's kind of the old example of strangers on the train," Bird said. "You share intimate things with someone you know you're not going to run into the next day except when you choose to, which is on your computer."
That's what attracted Susannah Gaylord Stoll, 36, vice president of a Washington public relations firm.
"With friends you see all the time, you wonder, well, how much do you want to burden them with talk about something you're going through in pregnancy," she said. "When you're having a discussion with a friend, sometimes when you bring something up, they're put on the spot and have to say something. With the May Moms, I can post something, and whoever feels like responding will respond."
Elisa Ast All, 30, of Evanston, Ill., was so happy with her May Moms experience that she started a bulletin board for expectant mothers in 1997. Today, All's Web site -- iparenting.com -- hosts more than 100 message boards, about 30 of which started as "expecting clubs."
On iVillage.com, a popular Web portal that targets women between 25 and 49, a site called ParentsPlace launched pregnancy message boards in spring 1997. The initial nine "expecting clubs" attracted 200 to 400 women within 30 days, said ParentsPlace vice president Jackie Needleman.
Like the May Moms, many of those early groups have stuck together. Today, iVillage.com hosts more than 100 pregnancy groups based on monthly due dates, each with 20 to 50 women, and almost 1,000 additional message boards on topics such as bed-wetting, home schooling and raising a biracial child.
Susan Hahn, iVillage.com's director of community programming, said some message board groups organize online baby showers. They purchase gifts through Internet retailers, have them mailed to the mother and then gather in chat rooms to open the presents together.
"It's amazing," Hahn said. "They get to know each other and have intensely warm friendships. Now, many are exchanging their babies' first birthday presents."
The May Moms have extended their online relationships in similar ways. Clusters of May Moms in the Northeast, Southwest and Washington, D.C., areas have met for birthday parties, trips to the zoo and holiday celebrations.
When a North Carolina May Mom gave birth to twins, dozens of her online cohorts organized "The Great Diaper Surprise," sending her more than 60 packages of diapers.
Linda Robinson Barr, 39, a librarian at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, said the group also helped when her family had financial difficulties in March 1998. Eight members pooled their money and sent her $250 in gift certificates to Kmart and Target.
Barr said that knowing she would have online friends made it easier to move from Columbus, Ohio, to the Virgin Islands for her new job.
The group "is even more important now because I'm far from my family," Barr said. "When I first came down here, I knew no one. With the May Moms, we have so much history in common."
May Moms are quick to point out that they have many friends outside their Internet group. But the members share something special -- helping one another through one of life's most intense experiences.
"Especially in the last month, when I was dying to give birth, I was too uncomfortable to go out and say, meet a friend for lunch," All recalled. "Without May Moms, I probably would have done a lot of crying on the phone, calling my husband and saying, 'Please come home and help me put on my shoes. I can't reach my toes.' My husband is so fond of saying that May Moms is the best thing to happen to him 'because there's a place for her to vent and she doesn't have to do it with me.'"
Want to learn more?
Interested in joining a parents' group? Here's a list of Web sites that can help.