Listen to this article
One morning at the beginning of 2000, Justine Roberts knocked on the front door of the Islington house where I was then living. She had a proposal: would I like to write pushchair reviews?
Roberts had recently moved in over the road with her husband and twin baby daughters and though I barely knew her I rather looked up to her on the grounds that a) she was miles taller than me and b) she combined working at SG Warburg with writing about football. Now here she was announcing she had quit banking and was setting up a website for mothers to talk to each other on the internet. Seeing that I had four children, she thought I would be the ideal person to review pushchairs for her.
This was one of the least appealing ideas I had ever heard. I replied that there was nothing to say about pushchairs: mine was light and folding and did the job fine. So, no, I didn’t want to review them. In any case, I couldn’t see why mothers would want to discuss pushchairs – or anything else come to that – on the internet, which struck me as a useless invention as it involved unplugging the phone and plugging in another wire and then waiting for ages to get a connection.
“You were very rude,” Roberts says when I meet her 13 years later at the Mumsnet offices in a converted warehouse in Kentish Town. She is smiling at me in that unnerving, clear-blue-eyed way of hers. I think she’s saying “no hard feelings” but I can’t be sure.
Not only was I very rude, I was also very wrong. If you type the word “pushchair” into the Mumsnet website you get nearly 300,000 matches. Mothers, it seems, do want to talk about pushchairs online a very great deal, though not quite as much as they want to talk about schooling, their cheating husbands and their post-coital clean-up rituals.
In the years since that awkward exchange in my hallway, my ex-neighbour has not only created the nation’s biggest parental chatroom, she has started a movement. Woman’s Hour recently named her, along with Mumsnet co-founder Carrie Longton, the seventh most powerful woman in the UK. She is much courted by politicians: the 2010 election was dubbed the “Mumsnet election” as the site’s middle-class members were seen as vital swing voters. Retailers approach Roberts to find out if the clothes they sell for children are acceptable. And employers come to find out if their “family friendly” policies should be more friendly still.
At the MNHQ (acronyms are even more popular on Mumsnet than pushchairs) lines of women are quietly hunched over their keyboards. There is no table football, no dotcom bravado. The sight reminds me of a sweatshop, even though the parallel is hardly appropriate as Mumsnet’s 80 employees are mostly part-time mothers who are actively encouraged to turn up to their children’s sports days. In the middle sits Roberts herself, looking lean in Lycra leggings and bright-blue trainers. Her face is unmade-up and her hair is reassuringly messy. “I’ve been doing yoga,” she explains. “I didn’t have time to change.”
We move to a partitioned area to talk without disturbing the others and she recounts a slightly different version of her visit to my house in 2000: “I was so incredibly blown away by your parenting prowess. [Your son] was having the most phenomenal tantrum on the floor and you just carried on as if he didn’t exist. I was a novice parent so I’d never seen anything like it and I just thought, ‘Oh, my God, she’s so amazing, I’m going to do that,’ and I did. I copied.”
I decide to worry later about whether this compliment is backhanded, and instead ask about the five million people who visit Mumsnet every month. Who are they? Has she reached saturation point among Britain’s yummy mummies?
The beauty of the site, Roberts explains, is how it goes on growing. More than five million people visit the site every month, almost twice as many as a year ago. While there is an endless supply of young women having babies, those who joined years ago to discuss baby-led weaning (or BLW as Mumsnetters call it) tend never to leave. The stranglehold that the well-educated, part-time mother once had on the site is also loosening.
“You will still find people who are discussing incredibly esoteric PhD subjects on Mumsnet. But you will also find endless conversations about Downton Abbey,” Roberts says.
As for their politics, “screeching conservatism of Middle England” covers it no better than does “Islington, lentil-weaving, eat your own placenta”. There is no point in talking about a Mumsnet election, she says, as Mumsnetters don’t all vote one way. Yet despite such talk of diversity, Roberts spends half her life telling the media what “the community” thinks on an impressively wide range of subjects. In the three months before our meeting she has been quoted in 133 mainstream newspaper articles variously saying what mothers feel about standardised cigarette packets (good); bedtime stories (very good); David Cameron (elitist Oxbridge-Etonian who doesn’t get women); politicians in general (unimpressive and out of touch); parental spying on children (bad); raunchy clothes for eight-year-olds (very bad indeed); goody bags on maternity wards (terrible and should be banned); doing school run in pyjamas (fine); start of the school term (a relief); and sex (very good indeed).
The last subject, unsurprisingly, is the one that created the biggest stir. In October, the website ground almost to a halt when a discussion went viral after a woman revealed that her husband kept a beaker of water on his bedside table in which to dunk his penis after sex. More than a thousand comments were posted, some of which were quite funny. (Was the water cold? Would it not overflow during dunking and create more mess?) Even funnier was the line taken by some newspapers that the website had strayed too far from its heartland of pushchair and play date.
“It was like this Mary Magdalene complex, that once you’re a mother, clearly sex is off the cards,” says Roberts. The “penis beaker” story pleased her because it showed the world that mothers could be witty. “My hope is that this prejudice against mums being unfunny and stupid – we might just have shifted that a teeny-tiny bit,” she says.
I suggest that an obstacle to making the world think mothers are clever and funny is the name Mumsnet. Roberts sighs. “Very intelligent women don’t like the name because they think: I’m so much more than a mother and I don’t want to be defined by it – which I think is their own prejudice against mothering and motherhood.”
I protest that I am fine with mothers: it’s “mums” I can’t bear. It is so twee. “So if it was called Mothersnet you’d like it more?” she asks, and I say I would. Yet there is no way back from the name now. The brand is loved by its members with a sort of maternal fierceness that is both impressive and slightly troubling. Indeed quite a few behave as if they were more connected to the website than to their children.
“We’ve banned a lot of people at their own request because they’ve told us they need to be blocked to stop the addiction. People write in and say my kids have got their GCSEs, can you just block me for a little while?”
Despite how much they love it, and despite how many young mothers it has saved from going insane with boredom, loneliness and anxiety, making money out of Mumsnet has not been easy.
“It is a rubbish business model,” Roberts says. “We started just as the dotcom bubble burst and we raised no money at all. Advertising rates crashed. It was done on no cost – but a lot of hours. I hired the cheapest au pairs imaginable.” But after about a decade of working from her bedroom – and looking after her twins who are now 15 and two further children who are 10 and seven, “I thought it’s not really good enough for us to be OK at tech and OK at the money bit. We should actually be better at that – why can’t we be a proper business?”
The company has no outside investors – it is owned by the founders, staff and a “couple of mates” – and so any pressure to make more money comes from within. Recently it has turned a profit – “a small one” – from advertising, sponsorship, market research, events and publishing – but Roberts evidently feels it can do better.
Yet there is no question of Mumsnet becoming “cheesily commercial”, as that would alienate its members, who as it is are only prepared to tolerate advertising from certain companies. Payday loans are beyond the pale, as is anything to do with cosmetic surgery; the traditional corporate whipping boy, Nestlé, is also banned. As are “redtop newspapers – basically boobs – and misogyny generally”.
However, McDonald’s, which used to be forbidden from advertising on the site, has been “re-evaluated by the community”. Some 750 members recently posted passionately on the subject: an extraordinary outpouring given that what is at stake is a couple of ads for cheeseburgers.
All this shows that Mumsnet, which this year expects to have sales of more than £5m, is the opposite of a rubbish business model. Early on Roberts stumbled on the two things most needed to make a social networking site profitable. First, a niche (and you could hardly hope for a bigger one than mothers) and, second, something users feel passionate about (parenting surely being up there with sex and religion). Add to that the fact that most users are As, Bs and C1s – and you might think the 46-year-old Roberts would be far too rich still to be living in my old street in Islington. When I put this to her, she looks somewhere between hopeful and doubtful. People have tried to buy Mumsnet, she says, though never at a price at which she was interested in selling.
“We’ve made a big mistake in that sense. You either shouldn’t make any profits, or you should make a lot. Once you make a profit, people value you on a multiple of that.”
For now, the expansion continues: Mumsnet has gone local, with different regional branches, and is considering going global, through syndicating its content overseas. It has also gone older, with the launch last year of Gransnet, which Roberts says is just like Mumsnet, “the only difference being that the grans don’t swear. It’s more fun than you’d expect – lots of discussion of fashion and sex.”
After the interview I check to see, and find that along with the discussions about grandchildren and female hair loss there are various threads on “DIY sex” for octogenarians. It can only be a matter of time before that website crashes too.
. . .
Gransnet also turns out to be more sparing with the twee acronyms than its parent site. Mumsnet is a thicket of DDs and DSs (darling daughters and darling sons) as well as PFBs (precious firstborns).
When I suggest that these act as a sort of pepper spray to mothers like me, Roberts points out that they aren’t Mumsnet’s fault. They are standard on social networking sites, the only difference being that on other sites there is less cause to discuss NAK (nursing at the keyboard) or the terrifying VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section). However, by far the most important of the Mumsnet acronyms – AIBU – was invented by Roberts herself. Early on she noticed that mothers were endlessly asking, “Am I being unreasonable?” So she created a special category for women to fret about being unreasonable all together.
These four little letters seem to sum up not only Mumsnet but a whole side of British womanhood: an addiction to self-doubt and self-deprecation, which I’m not sure should be encouraged. Can Roberts imagine a man ever asking such a question? She laughs. “That’s why I think Dadsnet would never take off. When women feel strong emotions, their first thought is: is it me? Whereas with men, it’s the world that’s wrong.”
Later, I look at the AIBU discussions and find that the most recent begins: “Am I being unreasonable to put tights on my son?” Underneath, more than a hundred mothers have weighed in on this issue – which I see is four times as many as were moved to advance a view on a provocative column about Iran’s role in Middle East peace talks over on FT.com.
We have been talking for 90 minutes and Roberts is evidently itching to get back to her computer. This woman who has campaigned so hard to help other working women see their children, herself puts in the punishing hours of an alpha-male CEO. “I literally start at 7am. I stop at 6:30pm. I go home. I do two and a half hours with the kids and then I’ll start work again and I’ll work till midnight.” Does she sometimes feel bad about it? Her answer is oddly flip: “I’ll see how big the therapy bills are for the children later on.” Then she adds: “I think flexibility is as important as anything, so for the important things, I can be there. There is a Mumsnet philosophy that good enough is good enough.”
While many of the world’s alpha women have been lucky – or smart – enough to pick beta partners who take the domestic strain, Roberts’s husband works as hard as she does. After years as deputy editor of the Guardian, Ian Katz recently quit to join the BBC as editor of Newsnight. In September, barely a week into the new job, he made his own headlines by inadvertently sending out a tweet to all his followers describing the performance on the show of a Labour MP as “boring snoring”.
“@iankatz1000 Resign!” his wife tweeted jokingly at the time.
When I ask her about his gaffe, she plays with her hair and says: “Do I want to answer that?” Then she says, rather carefully: “When you press that button and you know you’ve sent the wrong thing to the wrong person it’s horrific.”
Three months ago, Katz and Roberts were named by the Evening Standard as one of the nation’s most influential couples, up there with Posh and Becks and Mark and Diana Carney. I have one more thing to ask: who does she think is the more influential of the two of them – her or her husband? “That’s a ridiculous question,” she says. “I don’t have a clue!”
And then she produces a perfect cop-out: “I don’t think either of us is. We are both mouthpieces.”
I tell her that when I put the same question to colleagues they all thought that the founder of Mumsnet was far more influential than another editor of Newsnight.
Roberts gives another of her strange smiles. She could be embarrassed or she could be pleased, though this time I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.
To comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published