Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of moms who met online in the early days of the internet. They were initially all part of the same parenting discussion board on Usenet, and when a couple dozen moms discovered they were pregnant and due around the same time, they formed a private email list called “rKids” to support one another as their kids were born and grew up. Twenty-five years later, the email list is still active, mostly as a hangout for its members, though they still do send updates on their (now grown-up) children. In this interview, eight of the members of rKids discuss what it was like to make friends on the internet before most people had ever used the internet, and how they supported one another through parenting wins and challenges—including the dreaded college-admissions process.
Grace Chan, 51, a consultant in Chicago, Illinois
Quinn Jay, 51, a home-health-care aide in Monroe, Washington
Sandy Krause, 63, a retired IT professional in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Stacey Lebitz, 54, an engineer in Middletown, New Jersey
Liz McFarland, 60, a database administrator in Federal Way, Washington
Amy McNulty, 58, a technical writer in Westwood, Massachusetts
Lynn Miller, 52, a software consultant in Cape Vincent, New York
Wendy Schreiber, 55, who lives in Spring Hill, Tennessee
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: You all met on an early version of an internet forum in 1993. Can you explain to me how exactly that forum worked?
Stacey Lebitz: It was called Usenet, which was kind of like Reddit today—it was a bulletin-board type of system. It was before the World Wide Web existed. You had to log on with Unix and type, I want to go to Usenet. It was divided into different categories. One of them was called misc.kids. That was all people talking about having babies. At some point we split off from the group, because there were a bunch of moms who all had babies due at the end of 1993. We formed an email group instead.
Beck: So misc.kids was not specifically for moms who were expecting, it was just any parenting questions that anybody might have?
Amy McNulty: That’s right. That group was public, whereas our email list was private, so we could discuss things that we didn’t want to share in public.
Beck: Obviously nowadays, there are all kinds of parenting groups online, but it must have been a newer concept at the time. What brought you guys to misc.kids in the first place?
Grace Chan: Usenet was mostly used by academics and scientists. A large number of us were either academics or academic spouses, or engineers or engineering spouses, for that reason.
Sandy Krause: Usenet had tons of groups with different topics. I definitely used Usenet for stuff before misc.kids. And when I got pregnant, I started looking around for a group that might fit that.
Wendy Schreiber: I was a single mom and pregnant, and I was definitely looking for support as well.
Liz McFarland: I was working at the University of Washington at the time, and it was the very early days of the internet being freely available to a lot of people. I was not in a technology-type position, but somehow, I stumbled across Usenet, and it opened up the whole world to me. I was pregnant with my first child at the time. I was looking for other people who might be going through the same thing.
Lynn Miller: I had just graduated college. I was in my first job, working in technology at a pharmaceutical company. We had access to the internet in ways that the general public didn’t. The only really good resources in the world were things like What to Expect When You’re Expecting—and it was really prescriptive. It was not very helpful. That forum was interesting because you could just passively browse it.
Beck: How did you all become friends on that bigger forum before breaking off and forming your email group?
Lynn: My recollection is that I was corresponding with Robyn [another member of rKids] when I was pregnant, specifically because of our due dates, and then we started having a “We’re pregnant” list. I think the more official separate email list of all the families that were due about the same day may have been right after the babies were born.
Sandy: On the misc.kids list, the same group of us were answering and asking similar questions. We just noticed the same names showing up time and time again. Then finally I think Robyn said: Should we go off on our own?
Beck: Could someone explain the origins of the list name—rKids?
Wendy: It had a double meaning. There were two Robyns on the list, so the R came from the Robyns’ names. And then also it sounds like “our kids.”
Beck: I would love to hear a little bit of what the day-to-day was like on that email list. What kinds of conversations were you having? Was it just parenting advice, or did you start sharing more about your lives?
Amy: Initially it was focused just on the kids, and things we needed advice on. And then gradually over time, as we got closer and got to know each other better, it started to evolve to personal things as well.
Wendy: I was dealing with my son, who has cerebral palsy, and some of the issues with that. And people had kids on the autism spectrum, and various issues. We were talking about divorces and things, too. There was a lot of that familiarity and intimacy with one another, and when I met people—like I met Lynn last year—it’s like meeting your family.
Stacey: The other advantage is—let’s say you’re having a problem with your kid or your husband or whatever. If you’re talking to your family members or your friends in real life, they know that person. And you don’t want to necessarily tank their relationship. But when you’re talking to people who don’t know them in person, it’s easier to share some of that information, because it won’t affect anyone’s relationship.
Quinn Jay: I moved around a lot with my now-ex-husband who was in the tech industry, and I had these ladies wherever I went. So I didn’t feel alone, even though I had to start over and meet new people. I’ve been fortunate to meet about 12 of the ladies. Four of them are on [the call] right now. And like Wendy said, it was like meeting your sister.
Beck: How many people were on that private email list?
Grace: I think 28 or 30 or so was about the right number. Because we had yearbooks at one point, and there were probably 25 to 30 yearbook entries.
Beck: Wait, definitely tell me what you mean by yearbooks.
Amy: Yeah, the dinosaur ages.
Quinn: Paper yearbooks.
Amy: We took photos and copied them, or made extra prints. And each one of us had a half page or a page to put a collage of photos and a bunch of memories about our kids and what they liked and so on. We rotated around who would do the yearbook. We did it 10 times, the first 10 years of the group. It kind of fizzled after that.
Beck: So it was a different person’s responsibility each time to put together the physical objects? That’s amazing.
Stacey: After that, more online picture sharing was available. So we didn’t really have that need for the paper one anymore.
Beck: Does anyone remember specific challenges with your kids that the email list helped you with? Or big, happy moments where the email list played a role?
Sandy: I feel like all the milestones were shared in some way. We really did put it all out there. And the group responded, whether we could help, or if you just needed people going, “Yay for your kid!”
Lynn: What age to start kindergarten was a huge thing. Because everybody’s kids were born right around the cusp of school starting-time cutoffs. It was different in different districts. Half the kids started kindergarten a year earlier than the others, and there were really interesting conversations. One of the things that’s nice about a private email group versus a public group like Facebook is you can tell the negative things. You don’t have to curate as much. You’re talking to trusted friends.
Liz: You could seek advice in other places, but you'd have to start from the beginning with the whole story. Whereas people on the list already knew my daughter, knew some of her history.
Beck: Do your kids know about the list? Have they ever met each other or met any of the other moms?
Quinn: A few of us got together and took a trip, twice or three times. We went to Amy’s house and met up with, like, four families.
Amy: One family was supposed to camp out at a campground, and the ground was full. They called and said, “Can we camp out in your backyard?” Quinn, I think you were with them.
Quinn: Yes, we called it “McNulty Pines,” remember?
Amy: I think a lot of us took the opportunity, whenever we were traveling somewhere for business or on a family vacation, to try to get together.
I’d like to mention something else. We have one list member who died a couple of years ago. Her name is Loreen. I don’t remember exactly when she joined, but I think it was pretty early on. And a lot of us had met her. My family had vacationed with her family on a lake where we go every summer. So we had gotten to know each other quite well in person. It was very hard losing her. Even though I had only met her one time. There was still that very strong connection because of all the years that we had spent talking about everything together.
Beck: Did the group do anything to honor her memory? Did you guys go to the funeral?
Amy: I think one woman from the group did go to the funeral. Possibly two. But, Wendy, you should talk about what you did.
Wendy: One of the women actually went and helped caregive at the end of her life.
So my daughter and I do tie-dye stuff. I offered to make shirts, with a heart on them, for anybody who wanted them. We sent them to everybody. And I sent three to her two sons and the father.
Beck: You guys were having this parenting experience that’s more common today, except very early on. Do you feel like your experience having your first kids was different than other parents you knew who weren’t really on the internet yet?
Stacey: You get a chance to interact with a more diverse population. Quinn was from Canada. We had Karen from the Netherlands. And Amanda from Australia. And we also had religious diversity. We had Jewish people, Christian people, Mormon people, Baha’i. It was just neat to hear a little something unique to that person that’s outside your frame of reference. It makes you learn all the more about parenting.
Sandy: I was the oldest parent on the list, and I really didn’t have friends who were having children at the same time. Most of my friends’ kids were already in high school. So I didn’t really have a support system of moms. And eventually when my daughter got to school, the moms were so much younger than me. We didn’t have a lot in common. So for me it was just fabulous having this group that I could jump into and get perspective on things.
Wendy: I really felt that it was helpful with my son, because of his cerebral palsy and all the issues he was having. I got a lot of really strong support: Go see this specialist; push for this. And a lot of help with advocacy. These ladies really supported me through dark times. I talk about Amy or I talk about Robyn, and my family knows who I mean.
Quinn: In the early days, it was so hard to describe us. People were like, “What are you talking about?” Because they hadn’t had that kind of experience. But people thought that was the coolest thing, and they wish they’d had it. And over the years, they got used to hearing me talk about Sandy and Amy and Lynn. When Sandy was diagnosed with cancer, I had a family member diagnosed with cancer as well. And so my aunt would ask how Sandy was doing. It was like an extended-family type of thing.
Sandy: If I was planning to meet someone, earlier on, people would say, “You're going to meet somebody you met online?” Like it was the most dangerous thing in the world.
Beck: Now that your kids are adults, has what you talk about on the email list evolved?
Stacey: There were a few people who dropped off the list after the kids went off to college. I think the college talk was maybe too intense. We had to go to a subgroup for that.
Beck: Oh yeah? What was that all about?
Stacey: I think anytime you’re looking at colleges, there are some people who are like, I’m just going to go to my local college, I’m done. And there are other people who are trying to get their kids into the tippy-top college. Some people were constantly asking super-detailed questions: When should I take the SAT? When should I send this? When should I do this? And I think some people were like, I don’t need to know all that.
Quinn: My daughter was one of the ones that did not go to college, and I was really upset about it. So it was like, Well, I have nothing in common there.
Lynn: There was a lot of cultural tension, because everybody came from different places. On the East Coast, you apply to a lot of places, and there's this prestigious thing. And we had friends in Colorado that were like, “You go to UC Denver or you go to community college. Why are you bugging me with this ‘How do I choose?’ crap?”
Quinn: Also, some of the kids had very high academic scores and others were struggling, so that was hard to hear sometimes. We love them and support them, but it’s just hard to hear My child made valedictorian when somebody else’s child is struggling just to get through.
Stacey: I think on the rKids group, we always had to be careful. Because if you hear a bunch of parents saying, My kid’s walking, my kid’s walking, my kid talks, my kids can do somersaults, and your kid isn’t doing that yet, you’re comparing. That can happen when they’re babies. But that can happen at college time too, comparing your kid to the top of what every other kid can do. And they might have this other thing that they’re good at, but we might not be talking about that part.
The list is more about us now. Sandy’s daughter just bought a house, so she announced that on the list. So big, big news about your children, we still discuss. But you don't have the day-to-day kind of news—Oh, my kid, she walked today or The tooth came in.
Quinn: It’s a whole slew of new firsts. Two of the kids are married now. From first tooth to first step to first marriage. It’s really cool to see that transpire.
Sandy: We just don’t talk about the things that would embarrass them anymore.
Beck: Wow. So, having been citizens of probably the very earliest incarnation of parenting internet, what do you think about how it has evolved since then?
Stacey: Some of it’s exactly the same. There was another website called College Confidential that I went on when my daughters were applying to college. We were all posting publicly, but at some point we made a private Facebook group. It’s the same kind of thing. People tend to want to be able to share a little more that’s not public.
Quinn: Most of us have had subsequent children. I belong to another group for my son, who was born seven years later. But we just didn’t click like this group did. We were really blessed to continue this as long as we did.
Sandy: There were several incidents where the group just really banded together in wonderful ways. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had phone calls, I had letters, I had all kinds of support. Not online—more in person and personal. And actually it was Loreen, the woman who passed away, who spearheaded that. Anytime somebody in the group was going through something, somebody got something going for them. Just to show them: You’re not alone. It was huge to me at a time when I was sick. It stays with you forever, when people treat you like that.
Grace: I ran for office, and some of my earliest donations were from these ladies.
Quinn: When the kids were younger, we kept saying on our 25th anniversary we have to plan a major family reunion. We haven’t done that. It would be really cool to meet up somewhere with every single person that’s on our list.
Amy: Our kids are 26 this year. So it has been 25 years.
Wendy: I just bought a new house, so y’all are welcome. And I’m in the middle of the country. I’ve got lots of tie-dye materials.
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