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    Moms meet virtual friends in real life

    Users of www.momslife.com come to spend the weekend at the site creator's home.

    By TARA DOLAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- All stay-at-home mom Colleen Caldwell wanted to do was use her basic Web skills to create a little place online where mothers could meet daily and talk about motherhood.

    Caldwell, 24, never imagined that her Web site, www.momslife.com, would become a $15,000 investment and grow to receive about 30,000 visitors a month.

    She never imagined she would forge lifelong friendships with mothers who live thousands of miles away.

    And she certainly never imagined that she would invite these women into her home from Thursday through Sunday for what the group called "A Mom's Life, In Real Life" weekend.

    This weekend, reality surpassed her expectations.

    The women who gathered at Caldwell's Tarpon Springs home -- Michelle Cree of Phoenix, Amy Lepre of Philadelphia, Shanna Ormond of Pleasant Grove, Utah, Laura Sosamon of Aurora, Colo., Kim Vincelette of Bountiful, Utah, and Donna-Leigh West of Nova Scotia -- met for the first time Thursday.

    But they feel they've known each other for years.

    "Some of us work 50 hours a week and only have time to socialize on the Internet," Caldwell said. "This was our time to stop thinking that we are just moms. It was our time to get together, relax and enjoy the company."

    Though Caldwell wanted the visit to include plenty of sightseeing, with trips to the beach, Ybor City, the Sponge Docks and Spring Bayou, she said the real purpose of the weekend was to enrich the online experience they already have shared as members of the Mom's Life community.

    "This visit is so different from talking on the computer," she said. "Now I can laugh with them, dance with them and eat with them. I can see their faces, and I can hug them."

    To share their experience with the greater Mom's Life community, Caldwell set up a Web camera to capture the group's activities for much of its visit this weekend.

    Caldwell said the thought of meeting these moms in person initially made her nervous. But she said her fears were calmed the moment the first mother stepped off the plane.

    "The connection between all of us was so immediate," she said.

    Stay-at-home mom Donna-Leigh West said talking to the women in person wasn't different than talking online.

    "There is just a physical sense to our conversations now," said West, 32. "But there are no weird feelings. It's like we've done this for years."

    But work-at-home mom Laura Sosamon, 28, said "meeting these people put faces to the profiles on the computer. Behind each user name is another person, another mother, another friend."

    Mom's Life began in October 1997, just after Caldwell had given birth to her second daughter, Grace. Caldwell also has another daughter, Catherine, 5, and a son, Matthew, 1.

    "It was a big adjustment to go from having one to having two children," she said. "I was just used to having Catherine, who was well-behaved and would go anywhere with me. But after Grace, it just wasn't so easy to leave the house anymore."

    But Caldwell found that although many parenting Web sites had good advice, they were overwhelmingly big, and she had difficulty finding a sense of community.

    So Caldwell got together with some of the moms she met on those sites and formed Mom's Life using free space from Geo Cities, an Internet community where people can chat online and create Web pages.

    Because she had no Web skills, Caldwell designed the home page by trial and error. She used a program to learn hypertext markup language, or HTML, the basic language of much of the Web, and looked at the specs of other parenting sites. But much of what she learned came from people she met online.

    "We started on a very informal basis," Caldwell said. "When I think about the very first draft of Mom's Life, I laugh. I thought it was so sophisticated, but it doesn't compare with what we do now."

    Caldwell's hobby evolved into a full-time job. Response to Mom's Life was so positive, she expanded the home page into a Web site, which now features parenting information, movie reviews, contests, auctions, an online magazine, message boards and a chat room with 2,000 registered participants.

    For Caldwell, expanding into a Web site meant additions to the technology needed to keep it running. She has since upgraded her computer system to include a scanner, a Web camera, a digital camcorder, a digital camera and expensive software.

    "And I still haven't taken a course or bought a book," Caldwell said.

    By attracting advertisers such as Baby Universe, a site that sells baby products online, Mom's Life began to earn a profit in 1999.

    Caldwell uses some of the money to cover the site's operating costs of about $5,000 a year and to cover the costs of contests. She uses the remaining money to send her children to preschool a few mornings a week.

    "But I don't do this to make a profit," Caldwell said. "I do this for the community of moms who support each other."

    Caldwell said mothers are drawn to the site for different reasons.

    "For me, Mom's Life helps on those days when I can't get out of the house," Caldwell said. "Every mom has those days, and online I have an instant community of people echoing their support for me."

    Single mom Kim Vincelette, 38, said she values Mom's Life because the mothers do not treat her differently because she is not a stay-at-home mom.

    "There are so many parenting sites out there where you're looked down upon because you are not a stay-at-home mom or because you're not a working mom," said Vincelette, who has two girls, Katie, 15 and Sarah, 12. "At Mom's Life, we are just moms."

    Vincelette said balancing a full-time job and two kids can be overwhelming. She said she depends on the support she receives from the moms online.

    "Sometimes I have a bad day at work and I don't want to dump that on my kids," Vincelette said. "So I dump it on the (message board), leave the computer, cook dinner and come back to it later and find a lot of responses."

    Vincelette said the advantage to having online friends is that someone is almost always available. "If I can't sleep at night, I go online and read the messages people have posted," Vincelette said. "No friend wants me to call them at 3 in the morning. But here there is a sense of comfort and compassion no matter what time of day."

    Stay-at-home mom Shanna Ormond, 29, knows that sense of compassion firsthand.

    Ormond went searching for online parenting sites shortly after the birth of her daughter, McKenna, now 3. Ormond has two other children, Jona, 6, and George, 2. She liked that Mom's Life wasn't as big as other parenting sites.

    "There wasn't as big of a turnover and it was easy to keep in touch with people," Ormond said.

    For a while, Ormond and her husband worried that her son, Jona, displayed the symptoms for autism. As a baby, he had trouble making eye contact with people. And he had repetitive speech.

    "When you would ask him a question, instead of answering he would repeat the question," Ormond said. "And yet there were also areas where he was very bright."

    Ormond said she felt helpless.

    "As a child my mom was there anytime I needed her," Ormond said. "There was this sense of security that I received and want to pass on to my own children. But this was a scary time. We wondered, 'What can we do? How can we help him?' "

    Ormond said doctors eventually determined Jona was just a little behind in basic motor skills and that kindergarten has helped him immensely.

    "But at the time it was so nice to have a place to go and get everything out," Ormond said. "The mothers really empathized."

    Sosamon found similar support when she was deciding whether to go back to school. Sosamon, who works at home for Cosmiverse, a space and science Web site, is studying to be a computer programmer.

    "I wondered if going back to school was the right path for me," Sosamon said. "But I could get online and have instant feedback from all of these mothers telling me that they believed in me and to have faith in myself. It really helped."

    For Caldwell, this past weekend has shown her the depth of her creation. She has proved to herself that online friendships can exist and thrive beyond the computer. And she knows she has accomplished so much for the simplest of reasons -- she loves being a mom.

    There already is talk of next year's visit and how she will house all the mothers who want to come. And there is talk of eventually expanding the Mom's Life content into new areas.

    "I have purchased several other domain names that I will explore in the future," Caldwell said. "But a close-knit community will always be the priority."

    For now she is content to sit down at the computer, chat with her friends and hear their voices inside her head.

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