Credit: Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber

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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.”

Is that?

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.

(Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber)

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.

The baby gear thing is foreign to me. Truthfully, it’s a little overwhelming. Choosing a car seat seems to involve crunching actuarial statistics. A visit to DCUM makes a stroller purchase seem even more fraught: It turns out that the brand name I choose will mark me in the eyes of other parents.

A DCUM mom who started the discussion summed it up this way: Bugaboo is rich and trend-oriented. Maclaren is highly-educated upper-middle class. Graco is low class. She admits to having a Graco, but feels alone in a sea of Maclarens.

The question attracted 19 pages worth of comments. Some said no, they don’t judge. Others said they looked down on people who spent too much on a stroller. Someone justified an expensive model as something received as a gift. There was a digression into the shabbiness of parents who let older kids ride in strollers—a gateway habit to obesity, critics alleged.

Then the Bugaboo owner stepped in: “I own a bugaboo and I don’t give a damn if you all judge me,” she wrote. “We live in Gtown and it’s been great on the bumpy streets… In fact I also wear quilted jackets as do my children and drive a Tahoe. Also highly educated. So really you can judge away I am happy with my decisions and you can be happy with yours. We probably wouldn’t be friends if we met at the park and that’s fine too.”

And they were off. “You are a planet killer, waste your money, and dress your kids funny,” a commenter shot back. “How can one not judge you?”

As the discussion went on, posters used strollers to extrapolate about people’s finances, based on whether they had expensive strollers and costly or more modest homes. People defended their modest homes by saying they were saving, or accused people of bigger homes of going into debt for show. Posters were called bitter, envious, haters, and “jealous bitches.”

Thankfully, I’m not buying a stroller at all. My sister-in-law let me pick one of her old ones instead. Given the choice between her Peg Perego and her BOB, I picked the lighter one. My logic: I was living in a second-floor walk-up, and didn’t want the struggle.

If only I’d read the DCUM discussion before decision time.

SUBJECT: Dual-income families, what is your HHI? What’s your net worth compared to your income?

Everyone knows it’s not polite to talk about what people make. DCUM’s culture of anonymity changes that equation.

In the last few months, separate income discussions on the site have focused on household income when one parent stays home, household income when two parents work, household income if you send a kid to private school, and net worth compared to household income. Most of the figures are jaw dropping—at least to me. $300,000. $450,000. One mom posted that she and her husband made $750,000 a year. She made the bulk of it but her husband threatened to kill himself if she quit or reduced her hours, because he couldn’t stand to live on anything less.

Who are these people, and what do they do?

Clearly, I’ve been sheltered from Washington’s moneyed class. I grew up in the Midwest. I’m a writer. My husband is also a journalist. Most of our friends have similar jobs. I can only guess what they make, since of course it’s not polite to ask. But I do know that some of them still have roommates.

Are the high earners all lawyers? People assume DCUM is heavily weighted toward the legal profession—something that the site’s many point-by-point deconstructions of rival arguments certainly points to. Other posters, also in the $300,000 range, say they work in IT. Some federal workers posting to the site make upward of $125,000.

“Jesus Christ am I poor compared to you folks,” says a poster with a household income of $110,000, more than double the median figure for the country.

For me, the cost of living has been the biggest obstacle in my relationship to Washington—one that looms larger as I ponder adding a child to that relationship. Like having a great boyfriend with one fatal flaw, I’ve held back on fully embracing the city because of its cost. Washington has so much going for it—good job market, smart people, free zoo. But it’s so much more expensive than Chicago or Philadelphia, other cities I’ve called home.

One nice thing about DCUM is that I learn I’m not the only one with this issue.

“Is anyone under 35 without a rich mommy and daddy be able (sic) to buy a good house?” asks one poster. Under the headline “So tired of living in the DC area,” another describes her frustration with traffic, self-important people, and the cost of housing, where families must kill themselves with work in order to afford a small home in a decent school district.

On the other hand, one not-so-nice thing about DCUM is that none of the folks who could buy and sell me seem to feel rich themselves.

Demographic data makes clear that there are plenty of struggling families in this region, but you don’t hear much from them on DCUM. It’s a rare to come across a posting that mentions being overwhelmed with debt—let alone having to cut back the nanny’s hours for financial reasons. More typical discussions involve a woman who feels let down by a spouse who only makes $45,000 a year.

Steele wishes the site were more representative of the city as a whole rather than just its wealthiest area. There are logical reasons for that, he knows: access to the Internet, a paucity of free time to monitor online debates. And then, of course, there’s this: Once you’re done being amused by angry rich people walloping one another over their stroller-purchasing choices, the free-for-all isn’t especially helpful.

SUBJECT: If Sidwell was your #1 choice for PK or K, but didn’t get in

In the DCUM universe, real estate and household income are plenty contentious. The Private/Independent Schools forum, though, is truly the site’s Thunderdome—a deadly serious subject for devotees, and a wildly entertaining one for gawkers.

Sure, I may have been baffled by the post that asked, “can anyone that has been accepted at Holton Arms in the past tell me what your WISC-IV and ERB scores were?” But I had a lot of fun with the one asking “how much do a kid’s looks factor into admissions decisions.” (Apparently, WISC-IV—whatever that is—doesn’t measure aesthetic appeal.)

And, DCUM being DCUM, the threads quickly go beyond just swapping tips on the test-taking and beauty-pageant portions of the admissions process. Before long, the parents are ripping into one another’s choices for how to spend their $30,000 private-school investments. One lively recent exchange involved the macho culture of Bethesda’s Landon School: Was it was an all-boys breeding ground for thugs like the lacrosse-playing graduate who allegedly murdered his girlfriend at the University of Virginia last year or a school whose athletic success makes others jealous?

On the other hand, a conversation about one of D.C.’s other elite private schools, Sidwell Friends, concerned whether the Obama family’s chosen private institution was “joyless.”

For those unfortunates among us who went to public school, the forum permits a peek into an entirely different world. A world, for instance, where people know what the initials WPPSI stand for. (For the uninitiated: It’s the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence. It tests the aptitude of kids ages two to six.) Of course, in DCUM world, the competition starts well before the WPPSI cramming begins: I’ve now learned that not only do certain exclusive preschools feed certain exclusive elementary schools, but that I’ll be able to help get my kid into one of those preschools by hooking up with the right playgroup. The march towards the Ivy League starts here.

Oh yes, says Steele, laughing. “It shocked me that people think about this way before preschool.”

He can’t relate. An Illinois native who moved to Washington in 1986, “I didn’t think about preschool until it was time for preschool.” His two sons are in a D.C. charter school that he learned about through the site.

I can’t relate, either. And that makes one thing clear. In the Washington race to raise successful kids, we are already behind.

SUBJECT: Is good enough good enough? Really?

Back when I was exploring the battlefields of DCUM’s stroller wars, trying to tell an UPPABaby from a Quinny Buzz, I happened across a comment by a poster named Adequate Parent. “I can’t for the life of me figure out why we have only 17 female senators and 73 women in the U.S. House,” she wrote. “Maybe because men don’t give a rat’s ass about stroller brands.”

Her post was signed, “Because good enough is good enough. Really.”

I never saw that as a subject post during my time on DCUM. It seemed that most people there, especially the moms who started discussion threads, were trying to do the absolute best in every single decision.

The problem with DCUM’s variety of wisdom—and, really, the problem with how we talk about everything in this city—is that it’s based on the illusion that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, starting with pregnancy. Is it OK to drink a glass of wine on your husband’s birthday? Some posters reaffirm what the questioner is looking for: Yes, they say, as long as it’s in moderation. But then the Mommy Police shows up: “Can’t you go 9 months without alcohol?”

Serious questions about relationships get judged, too. One recent discussion involved whether a woman should reveal a previous abortion to her obstetrician when she hadn’t told her husband about it. Most commenters urged the poster to share with her doctor, just in case something happened. Then a Judging Mommy weighed in: “Am I the only one horrified to find that you cannot share this kind of information with your husband? You should seriously think about what you are doing when you bring a brand new life into this kind of relationship.” Thanks for that.

Psychoanalyst Barbara Almond , author of The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood (try reading that in public while you’re pregnant) talks about the phenomenon of the “too-good mother,” who must do everything—from feeding to nurturing to educating—just right. She believes women who fit this model are really hiding their own mixed feelings about how motherhood has changed their lives. By showing zero ambivalence, they can avoid having to deal with those conflicting emotions.

The expectation of perfection—and the reality of not being able to meet it—creates frustration, Almond says. What safer place is there to lash out than an anonymous website?

Almond argues that we need to recognize the goal of maternal perfection as impossible. Children can’t be controlled in the way a high-flying Washington career might be. But people here achieve professional success by meeting impossible goals—working round the clock to hit an impossible deadline, win an impossible case or complete an impossible political comeback. Other parents might shout from the rooftops that perfection doesn’t exist. There would probably still be people in the overachieving quarters of Washington thinking: For you, maybe.

Alas, after I’ve dived deep into DCUM’s discussion boards, I find that this kind of thinking doesn’t help me much. Instead, I draw comfort from folks who tell me to follow my gut. I’ve been hanging onto the hope that a mother’s instinct will kick in when our child arrives. The more time I’ve spent on the site, the less likely that has seemed.

When I was in Ohio this month, my mom said something to me about not over-planning my life. You can’t know what the future holds, she said. Flying back, I sat next to a 25-year-old woman with a five-month-old baby on her lap. My first instinct was to look around for an empty seat to switch to. Then I realized I would be that woman soon. I asked her about the first months of motherhood.

“Just follow your instincts,” she said, smiling. It seemed like good advice.

“You cannot trust your instincts if you think about them too much,” Almond writes. The problem is, that’s what these message boards are for: Arguing over every question—with each argument spurring still more thoughts about each competing variable. Before long, you’re in a prognostication cycle, trying to game out how decisions like which lactation consultant you use or just how you tell the kids you’ve sacked their nanny, will influence life five or 10 or 15 years down the line. It’s not much fun.

This is why, when I found Lara Schwartz’s website, I wanted to be her friend. She’s “Adequate Parent” on DCUM. Her voice-of-reason posts prompted her to establish a website called Institute for Adequate Parenting. Its motto: Because Good Enough is Good Enough. Really.

Schwartz started reading DCUM as a guilty pleasure, “like Taco Bell or masturbation.” She saw a disconnect between the reality she knew, where parents don’t care much about others’ small, mundane choices, and the DCUM world where mothers argued about what other mothers might be doing to harm their children. Not pumping breast milk? Not feeding the kids organic? For shame!

In DCUM world, Schwartz says, moms act like mothering is a sophisticated, high-stakes profession—a way to continue “validated high achievement.” Because, if parenting wasn’t such a big deal, if it didn’t require intense intellect and attention, what then?

“It has to be or there would be no point in doing it—and I’d have to drink all day,” she says.

What annoys Schwartz the most about DCUM is the mommy fights. The obsessions with other people’s parenting, she says, make her embarrassed to be a woman. If more women are ever to have an equal number of positions of leadership and power—a true Washington concern—they need to stop scrapping with each other over the little stuff and start talking about the bigger issues that would really make a difference in parents’ and children’s lives.

Despite the annoyances, spending time on DCUM has had its benefits, Schwartz says. The lack of discussion about how to raise a generous child led to a resolution to help her daughter learn good citizenship. It’s also made Schwartz more humble.

“Believing you have all the answers is a mistake,” she says.

SUBJECT: Flame away—what are your most flame-worthy opinions?

A few days into the new year, the nasty nature of DCUM almost collapses on itself. Someone posts a topic asking people for their most unsafe-for-public-company opinions.

Within hours, there are more than 40 pages of answers. It starts with “I think that people who are having trouble conceiving should get over themselves and not expect the world to cater to them.” It quicky expands: “I think a lot of kids (not all) diagnosed with autism or ADHD are just poorly behaved kids with lazy/passive parents.” “Anyone who doesn’t vaccinate their children is a selfish, simple minded, easily manipulated conspiracy theorist.” “I think [stay-at-home moms] set bad examples for their daughters and I am embarrassed to be around people who don’t work.” “If you think it’s fine to have an undereducated nanny raising your kiddos, go for it while you have your high powered career!” “You’re a skank who can’t be bothered with divorce.” “I think there is a good chance that if you live in Bethesda or Potomac, you are an a$$hole!” “I think most of the women who complain about their husbands on these boards should thank their lucky stars anybody married their sad asses.”

After reading for a while, I have a hard time separating farce from reality. This site is making me crazy, I tell my husband. After I turn in this assignment, I will need to stay away from it. Especially when the baby finally comes, and I’m more confused than ever.

I’ve spent so much time there that I can already imagine what DCUM posters would say to me. “You sound like a very uncertain person and insecure. Are you sure you’re ready to have a kid?”

To them, I’d say, yes, I am uncertain. We probably aren’t ready—in fact, I know we’re a lot less ready than other parents. But if we wait until we really feel ready, we probably never will be. Anyway, it’s too late now. In 10 weeks, we’ll have a child. And, I think, despite all the things I don’t know, that I’ll be a pretty good parent.

Good enough to meet Washington’s standards? Maybe not.