Speed dating

It occurred to me my personal equivalent of speed dating is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many

I am writing this on a train – to be precise, the train that I had to buy a ticket for when it turned out that the train I had a ticket for didn’t exist as a result of obscure and perhaps satanic influences – or simply because it’s a British train and therefore one small, but highly effective, part of a multi-layered plan to make travelling by public transport impossible.

So I spent two hours of this afternoon huddled in a hot corner of Kings Cross, eking out a soda water and lime and waiting to climb aboard what these days constitutes my office. No one phones me on trains, no one faxes me, no one can email me (because the advertised wi fi doesn’t work) I can drink cups of appalling and vaguely stimulating milky tea (my intolerance to both caffeine and dairy making this a heart-racing and phlegmy thrill) I cannot distract myself with household chores, or minor acts of self-harm (except for the tea) and I can actually get some work done.

The only story I’ve ever had accepted by the New Yorker was written on a train, the short story I am currently writing is being written on a train, this is being written on a train – dear God, I had exactly one day to deal with my washing, ironing and post after returning from the Fringe and then I was off again – on a train - and now I’m heading back – on a train. Before being off some more. I may never find out what’s in my own freezer again. If I had enough time, I might find it alarming that spending a month surrounded by showpersons, comics and diseases while performing at least once a day constituted a restful burst of sanity and a chance to bond and chat with people I hadn’t made up earlier out of my head.

The lunacy of my current existence was recently brought home to me when I considered speed dating. Not as a thing I would have to be drugged, handcuffed and forced to take part in at gunpoint – just as a concept.

My innate shyness, alarming sense of humour, twitches and ridiculously high boredom threshold effectively prevent me from dating, even at a moderate pace, and should I suffer a personality-transforming head injury that makes me want to sit at a table opposite a succession of sad-eyed Brians and Dereks, my being semi-permanently on a train would prove a grave obstacle to nervous glances and whatever “small talk” might turn out to be.

It occurred to me the other night that my personal equivalent is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many ways, piling into a damp car park at 3am with a load of strangers is an ideal way to meet new chums. There you are, united by adversity, with plenty of amusing grumbles to share and ample opportunity to check out the night attire of potential mates – will you nod enticingly to the flannel pyjamas and anorak, or the bare feet, jeans and pullover, or go for the mysteriously rakish overcoat and ankle boot combination?

Being more that a little paranoid, I’m comforted by knowing how someone will react in a crisis. And, being a night owl, I do tend to shine in the small hours - especially if I’m the only woman present who doesn’t look as if she’s been regurgitated by a killer whale – even more especially if I happen to be in a sharp suit and my lucky shoes. Not that my state of enviable readiness would in any way suggest that I might have left some smouldering leaves in a vestibule for some reason and forgotten to smother them with sand.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser