The Moms Who Formed an Unlikely Friendship Online...20 Years Ago

Mother’s Day weekend of 1997 was a pretty great one for me. After months of infertility treatments, I learned that I was expecting my second child.

Around that time, several dozen other women who I didn't know, from all over the country, of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, education levels, and backgrounds were also learning that they were to become mothers—for the first, second, third, or fourth times.

Soon, through the fate of a keystroke, we would know each other very well, perhaps better than anyone else other than our partners or immediate families.

It was the dawn of the age of the Internet.

The Internet didn't even exist yet at my workplace, but they were about to start using email, which I was nervous about learning.

A friend of mine had already discovered the joy of Internet surfing, and she was teaching it to me.  Naturally back then it was all AOL, all the time, and she showed me how to use Instant Messenger and surf the AOL message boards.

So we got a computer. I would spend hours on the big, clunky desktop, taking over my phone line as it slowly connected with its pings and pongs. And then one day, not quite sure how I stumbled upon it, I found an AOL message board titled Due in January, 1998.

That was me.

I was immediately hooked—drawn into the stories of these women with such different lives than mine. Over the coming months, the few dozen of us from all walks of life got close as we shared symptoms and questions from the newbies and answers from those having their second (or third or fourth) child.

Our discussions were mostly about pregnancy and birth and nursing and bottle feeding and how long we'd take off from work and baby names, and all the other joyous things pregnant women like to talk about.

Judy (right) with two of her fellow "Janmoms". Photo: Judy Walters

I was excited to meet my baby as my pregnancy ended, but I was sad because I thought my special group would no longer have a home. I assumed AOL would dismantle us and that I'd lose this fine group of women I felt as though I was actually friends with, even though we had nothing more than a due date in common and had never met IRL (In Real Life).

But AOL kept our board going—for years. And years. And then we turned ourselves into a private group—eventually landing on Facebook—so that the world could not see our personal discussions—which included some of the more difficult aspects of motherhood, our sex lives, private family things we didn’t want everyone else in the world to know.

My family and friends thought I was a little nuts. Why did I keep talking about “the Janmoms” and who were they? I didn't know them, for real, they would point out. They could be anyone. They could be no one. (Over the years I actually have met some of them in person. They are like anyone else.)

I couldn't help but be compelled to check in with the group every few hours—who knew what would happen.  I loved so much about it, and more than that, I LEARNED so much from it. For the first time in my life, I met women who were completely different than I was but who I loved talking to.

I met a Mormon for the first time, talked with women who hadn't been to college and didn't see it as a foregone conclusion, as I had, and became friendly with women who could barely afford to fill their gas tanks. There were also women who were much more economically comfortable than I was, going on vacations all the time.

I met women who got pregnant by accident and who got pregnant on purpose and who believed in big families and who only wanted one child. I met lots of Republicans—something not too common where I live—and many religious Christians—also not too common in my area.

There is a legally blind woman in our group.  There is someone who went through a divorce during our pregnancies. I like to think that I have somehow enriched their lives as much as they have enriched mine. Some of them, for instance, had never met a Jew before they met me.

Over the years, our conversations just naturally evolved. We are no longer bonding over pregnancies or babies, but we are also women who became friends on a completely different level. We had discussions about our home lives, about work, about our husbands and ex-husbands, about finances—things you probably wouldn’t even tell your best friends IRL.

We talked about our parents and our siblings and our highs and lows.  Over the years, some of us have gotten divorced. Several of us have met with serious illness—chronic illnesses, facing cancer.

There's the job losses so many of us struggled with during the 2008 financial crisis, and the inevitable bankruptcies and short sales and foreclosures. There have been problems with the kids—plenty of problems. Learning disabilities, autism, truancy, mental health struggles, a teen pregnancy.  We’ve been together through it all.

Some of the "due in January 1998" babies. Photo: Judy Walters

We've found, over time, that we have had to limit our conversations, though. The politics thing has become heated—and we've lost members to it.  So now we don't talk about what we consider our hot button issues—abortion, the Duggars (believe it or not), religion (except to ask a truly meaningful question to understand someone else’s religion), or elections. (Imagine what it was like this past fall, when we left the election out of our conversations and were in what felt like in an alternate world for months.)

And now we are 20.

It’s 20 years ago that many of us were trying for that baby. It was twenty years ago when we got that positive pregnancy test. It was twenty years ago that a bunch of women from all of the country with nothing else in common but a due date came together on the new Internet and started a bond so tight that it hasn't been broken.

For our 20th reunion this May, some of us are meeting in Disney World for 24 hours of craziness—at least as crazy as women ranging in age from late 40s to late 50s can get. And the others who can't go will receive regular status updates and pictures from us on Facebook.

But we'll all still feel together. Because every day, frankly, multiple times a day, we enter our special Janmoms world and we always come back even if we've gone off in a huff for a while, even if things are bad in our own lives—maybe especially then do we reach out and hold on.

We've got kids off to college and we have kids getting married and we have kids in the service now. Those same babies who we cherished in our wombs twenty years ago are adults and it’s time to celebrate—they got through, and so did we.

Who knows what the next twenty years will bring?

Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels: A Million Ordinary Days, Start at the Beginning, A Place to Say Goodbye, The Opposite of Normal, and Child of Mine.  She is also an essayist whose work has appeared in, among others, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows and ScaryMommy. She enjoys speaking to groups and book clubs about the writing life, family life, and the subjects she explores in her books. You can find her at www.judymollenwalters.com.