Last summer, a flame war erupted on local parenting website DC Urban Moms and Dads. This particular battle didn’t involve one of those topics that reliably propel DCUM’s 8,000 or so daily users into anonymous online warfare—subjects like whether to stay at home or go back to work or whether moms who don’t breastfeed are forever damaging their children. Instead, this fight concerned the online message board’s name.
The issue: Should moms who live in suburbs be permitted onto a site with “DC” and “Urban” in its name?
Naturally, the discussion quickly devolved into a city-vs.-suburb brawl over commute times, school quality, and just who was cutting through whose neighborhood en route to work. The overall tone was worthy of DCUM’s progeny. “You people are stupid snobs,” one suburban defender snipped. “Excuse us for relocating to the area.”
“Sorry I can afford to live in 20016,” another retorted, referencing the ZIP code that spans many Upper Northwest neighborhoods.
Still another mocked the site’s audience with an ode to “the gritty streets of Tenleytown,” that buzzing neighborhood of art, innovation, and a nearby Cheesecake Factory.
The sarcasm didn’t faze the site’s stalwarts, who chalked it up to jealousy among those unable to afford Ward 3. “There’s no reason to be unkind to those less fortunate,” one commenter said.
Income is a major source of fascination on DCUM. And income-related mockery is like a match to gasoline. “You DC bitches are priceless,” said one poster from Northern Virginia. Not that this poster was—God forbid—poor. She wrote that she had a household income of $600,000 and a $1.7 million home. She was happy that said home was far from DCUM’s bailiwick: “Glad not to be around that anymore. Not good for the kids.”
In many ways, DCUM is a typical parents’ message board. There are garden-variety threads on medical practices, preschools, and how to get your picky eater to try new foods. There are ads for nannies and discussions about how to fire them. There’s endless speculation about other people’s parenting styles—a subject of particular fascination in this season of debate about whether or not Chinese “Tiger Mothers” are out-parenting their American counterparts. It’s no surprise that the parenting website Babble just named DCUM one of the country’s “top 12 Listserv parent networks.”
All the same, DCUM’s vivid displays of jostling for position might make it an appealing locale for anthropologists, too. Flame wars are common wherever the Internet grants people anonymity, but the fights on DCUM have a uniquely Washington flavor to them. With all that ambient worry about where we live, how much money we make, and how gifted our children are, it’s a place to ponder what it means to raise a child in America’s highest-income, best-educated Census area. DCUM might be as close as it gets to a field guide to parentis Washingtonianis.
The month I spent exploring the DCUM world wasn’t a purely journalistic exercise. In March, I am going to have my first child—and I have no idea what I’m doing. The site was originally created as a helpful newsletter for newbies like me. Reading it would be like preparing for a trip by reading a travel guide to a foreign—very foreign—country: What to Expect While You’re Expecting to Be a Washingtonian Parent.
Did the site give me a better idea of what I’m what I’m in for? Sort of. I was alternately amused, bored, dumbfounded, and neurotically worried. I saw parents call each other losers, idiots, douchebags, and bitches. I learned that people make a whole lot more money than I imagined. I discovered that the baby gear I choose will act as a signal to other parents about my finances and priorities. I not only learned that getting into the right preschool really does matter, but that there are “right” preschools in the first place.
I also learned that I am in trouble.
SUBJECT: Do you secretly judge parents by their strollers??
Jeff Steele, the founder of DCUM, says there aren’t many topics on the site that can’t turn into an argument. Compared to the kinder, more utilitarian parenting newsletter he and his wife also run, he says, the message board is like the Wild West. And if some of the site’s biggest fighters don’t appear to have much humor as they do battle over proper parental decorum on the playground, Steele and other posters appreciate the absurdity of it all. On his Facebook page, Steele highlights DCUM’s best discussions. Classic example: “Are the men of Chevy Chase, DC ugly?”
“I think it’s the nature of our audience and the demographics of the D.C. area,” Steele says. “You have a lot of Type-A personalities.” To such parents, every choice—whether to send kids to private school, whether to move to the suburbs—involves lengthy expostulation.
Even if the subject matter is strollers.