Park Slope Parents Is Old Enough to Order a Drink

Susan Fox wanted to build a community. She never expected to birth an archetype.

Photo: Adam Powell
Photo: Adam Powell

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Park Slope Parents founder Susan Fox never leaves the house without a bag because she never knows what she’ll find on the stoops in her neighborhood. Today, she discovered a sack of clothes containing a real prize: a pair of orange palazzo pants, tie-dyed and held up by a forgiving drawstring. “You need these!” she exclaims to me. The extent to which I do not need them is soul deep, but Fox is a powerfully persuasive person, a swirling force of nature as she walks down the block in a colorful skirt, her fox-red hair flowing behind her. I don’t want those pants. Yet, for a moment, I consider stuffing them into my tote bag.

In 1998, when then-33-year-old Fox left Kalamazoo, Michigan, for a leafy street a block and a half from Prospect Park, moving to Brooklyn meant you had given up on the shiny dream of Manhattan and were settling for the stigma of having a 718 area code in exchange for space and the opportunity to buy a place. Fox gave birth to her first child just three days after the Twin Towers fell — she saw them collapse from the window of her penthouse apartment in an old factory building and still has the video she and her husband made. She didn’t know any parents in her new neighborhood, and she craved community and, not incidentally, a place to exchange used baby gear, which she suddenly either needed or needed to hand off in equal desperation. So in 2003, she created a Yahoo group called Park Slope Parents. “I had a mommy group, but I didn’t have anybody to say, ‘Hey, where do you take your kid to the dentist?’ because all of us new moms didn’t know,” she says. “I went to a lot of stoop sales, and I started adding people to the Yahoo group, and that was the genesis of the whole thing.”

By the mid-aughts, Fox had two kids and the group had become a bit of a legend in that people with no connection to Park Slope or parenting knew about it the same way you might know about the arcane rules and long lines of the Park Slope Food Coop even if you’d never set foot in the place. From a distance, Park Slope Parents had a reputation as a gossip- and complaint-centric site serving a neighborhood that was fast becoming increasingly expensive and that seemed almost unnaturally full of parents and babies, like the spot in a stream where salmon go to breed.

When I was pregnant in the early 2010s, a well-meaning aunt tried to hook me up with a Park Slope apartment. It was a third-floor walk-up in a brownstone that cost double my Clinton Hill rent, and I laughed it off. But to my aunt, it seemed like a natural move: I was having a baby, so of course I would move to Park Slope. That was just what people did. The neighborhood then did have a whiff of glamour. Celebrities moved there when they had babies, or at least Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard did, as well as Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany. Were they posting on Park Slope Parents? It wasn’t impossible.

Certainly, there were other online parenting groups, like UrbanBaby (unhinged, addictive, anonymous confessions of rich, miserable moms) and Bowery Babes (for downtown Manhattan moms), along with other local listservs for getting rid of baby junk in every Brooklyn neighborhood. But in the era immediately prior to Facebook groups and Twitter, Park Slope Parents took on an outsize significance. You could argue that Park Slope Parents created, in a way, the mythology of the Park Slope parent.

Novelist Amy Sohn admits to using it for “informal research” while writing her 2009 book Prospect Park West, a delightful romp about a sexually frustrated Park Slope housewife. Sohn remembers that when she first joined, circa the 2005 birth of her daughter, it was an Edenic time for PSP. Back then, it was still a listserv with no dues or membership requirements. “What I remember, being pregnant, was that Park Slope Parents was an antidote to UrbanBaby. UrbanBaby seemed like it traded on anxiety and meanness. It was very, extremely, heavily dominated by mothers, not fathers. And it seemed judgmental and cliquey,” she says. “I remember Park Slope Parents having much more breadth of experience. It seemed like parents were coming from a more diverse class background with different perspectives on parenting. And there were a lot of dads. I found it to be a very supportive community.”

Even after I unilaterally decided not to move to Park Slope for motherhood, people told me I had to join Park Slope Parents. I demurred for a while, but when my kids were older and I started needing more advice about activities and hookups for shoes to replace the ones they outgrew in two months, I acquiesced and began the process of being vetted to become a member. I paid $55 and provided information such as my kids’ ages and where I lived. (Every member has to be approved by the site’s director of membership, who, for a long time, was Fox herself.) After I got in, I could choose from 150 groups, each one a channel for parenting advice, school information, or finding a nanny, or for meetups around sports, books, and other non-kid-related activities. (I would quote the posts in these channels back to you, but doing so would result in an instant ban.) I could have gotten hooked and become a daily poster and commenter, or just lurked, occasionally reading the advice-digest emails to imagine the lives of the people who needed help finding a contractor for work on their brownstone. Instead, I logged off and left the kid-gear selling and buying to my husband, who loves a bargain. But after spending the day with Fox, I wonder whether I missed out.

Fox has a Ph.D. in communications from UC Santa Barbara, and unlike the group moderators you tend to find on Facebook, she is an actual expert in message boards: She conducted a study on them when she was vying for tenure. Her research focused on people with disabilities who connected via digital bulletin boards long before the average person had the same kind of access. “They’re in a wheelchair, they can’t get out to find other people, and they can’t travel, and here they were communicating,” Fox tells me. “I think that work impacted my desire to connect people.” In a sense, PSP is Fox’s ongoing research project, a place where she can fine-tune her theories on how to use communication. From the start, she says, she had an idyllic vision for what the group could do: “You could probably call me more of a Pollyanna than I would like. I like to think that the world wants to be good and that people want to be good. And because of that, I try to run Park Slope Parents with that kind of goodness in mind.”

It has been 21 years since Fox started the Yahoo group. Park Slope Parents still thrives with 7,300 current paying members, and she continues to recruit new parents at stoop sales. It is no longer Park Slope–centric; only 52 percent of members actually live in the neighborhood. This may be because a one-bedroom there currently rents for more than $5,000 a month or because used baby gear is more of a Windsor Terrace thing these days. The influx of wealth means the area itself has changed almost beyond recognition, but spending time on the site, with its aughts-era web design, can feel like time travel back to the Park Slope of ten or 15 years ago, when you could sit with your rickety laptop in an un-Instagrammable café on Union Street sipping a watery tea in a neighborhood that felt as comfortable as a pair of ratty old sweatpants. Sohn says when she first used the site, it reminded her of the Park Slope she knew growing up in the ’80s: “the Park Slope of The Squid and the Whale academics, wall-to-wall bookshelves, creaky staircases.” Back then, in the site’s listserv incarnation, rules didn’t really exist. Back then, you could post just about anything.

The early site was sometimes home to the kind of petty drama that’s endemic to populations of sleep-deprived people typing on their phones. It has been long enough since the famous blue-hat controversy that it has faded into legend, but in 2006 it was actual news. A PSP user had found a child’s blue hat and posted about it in search of its owner, including in their description that it was a “boy’s hat.” Other users questioned the identification as a boy’s hat, simply because it was blue, in the most inflammatory way possible: “Does the hat in question possess an unmistakable scent of testosterone? What does this comment imply about the girl who chooses to wear just such a hat?” Gawker, the New York Times, and this magazine weighed in (and even published a retrospective of the controversy ten years later).

Fox is many years past diapers and questions about cluster feeding herself, but she still shows up in the forums to give advice. Why does thinking about this phase of life, so intense and so fleeting, still appeal to her? For starters, PSP became her chief source of income about ten years ago. The site originally ran on volunteer work (with one paid staffer), but now, between paid advertising (mostly from local businesses) and membership fees, it turns a profit. And she’s also genuinely interested in early parenthood. She became a mother at an extraordinarily vulnerable moment for New York City parents, which must, in some sense, underscore her devotion to this stage of life. When I spent the day with Fox, I watched as her eyes went to every stroller we passed on the street. She’s fascinated by parenthood. She studies it: how parents approach their children, the way they feel.

Fox makes sure everyone she encounters in her neighborhood joins the site, coming up to new mothers with strollers to introduce herself: “How are you doing? And how’s Mama?” The next questions are usually “Are you on Park Slope Parents? Have you connected with your baby group? Have you been able to feel like you have a pride of people you can hang out with?” “I would say one out of four people I run into on the street are not members already. So that’s always good,” she says.

Via PSP, Fox has witnessed firsthand a marked rise in stress about micromanaging every aspect of parenting. “There’s this increased pressure for parents to take care of these precious little objects and mold them,” she says. “Because if you can make an impact with what your baby eats, then you can impact everything. The biggest change I’ve seen is the pressure to be the perfect parent.”

She tells me she wants to give the people caring for newborns something she craved but didn’t have as a new mom: “It’s terrifying. The first six weeks, for me, were really hard. And so if I can, I ease those first six weeks and say, ‘If you feel like somebody’s thrown you in the deep end, what’s happening is perfectly normal.’ What I didn’t have is mentors. Park Slope Parents is camaraderie. I’m helping provide camaraderie in a situation that can be very scary.”

But this isn’t the camaraderie you typically encounter in a moms’ group. While Signal or WhatsApp groups — basically apps with cordoned-off text threads — can turn into anxietyfests (“You’re in that period where you have these vivid flashes of how your baby can die, and I didn’t want other people’s vivid flashes in my phone all the time,” one mom who quickly muted hers told me), PSP remains uniquely calm. Unlike in the myriad Reddit forums, Discord channels, and Facebook groups dedicated to parenting, where mom and nanny shaming are de rigueur and self-promotion is frequent and blatant, camaraderie here is highly curated. After the blue-hat debacle, PSP instituted post moderation, done first by Fox herself and later by a team of three employees and volunteers. These days, Rachel Maurer, the longest-tenured moderator besides Fox, does the bulk of the work. Overall, experienced parents with credentials get the virtual microphone; those spewing pseudoscience are shut down.

It takes a lot to get kicked off PSP, but one surefire way is to pretend to be someone you’re not. The site has paid advertisers and paying posters and wants no overlap between the two, so if you respond to an “I need a sitter” post by saying you run a babysitting agency, you will be warned and eventually banned. Ditto for Realtors who want to help out people in search of real estate. “A lot of it is trolling,” Fox says. Her stories of monitoring the boards would make a good podcast, she adds.

Moderation on PSP may err on the side of what some people would consider extreme, but it’s also what has transformed the site from a source of looky-loo fascination to an unrivaled resource for informed, sophisticated, drama-free parenting. Its popular nanny contract and employment guidelines are, in Fox’s view, a moral imperative.

“It’s really easy for the population of nannies to feel like they’re powerless,” she says. “A lot of the information we’ve put on the website about hiring a nanny is free. And I do that because I have this kind of social-justice feeling that we can make sure the nannies feel they’re getting a good deal and that employers know what to do. So we’re saying, Here’s the standard. You pay 52 weeks.

The site that once inspired Prospect Park West now inspires mothers to put down the oils and go see an M.D. — one personally selected by PSP’s medical adviser, Dr. Philippa Gordon — for their baby’s rash. Fox brought on Gordon officially in 2004. The two met when Fox’s oldest daughter was less than a year old and had just become Gordon’s patient. The doctor walked into the examining room and Fox’s baby was sitting politely in a chair. Fox, meanwhile, “was lying on the examining table like an odalisque or a mermaid,” says Gordon. “She has a lot of mermaid-y qualities.” Now when they meet, Gordon is often the beneficiary of Fox’s magpie tendencies: “Whenever she comes over to visit me, she always has a sweater or a skirt that she found on the way here and that she thought would suit me.”

As I sit with Gordon in her beautiful home, her every word sounds definitive, which probably helps when dealing with parents and their sick children as she has done for decades. She had a local private practice for 27 years but recently sold it. She is overtly against the venture capitalization of medical offices and misses the days when you could just call your doctor to ask a question. She brings that same energy to her PSP posts even if she isn’t shy about her disdain for some of the members’ tendencies.

Gordon says she’s often irked by “the affluence and narcissism, which we’ve seen on and off, where parents really care about what their kids achieve as a reflection on themselves. It’s the lifestyle orientation of ‘My kid has to be bilingual; my kid has to fence.’” From a pediatric standpoint, she has watched as changes to the in-person pediatric network — the demise of private practices, the rise of hospital-owned clinics — has meant that parents can no longer get personalized advice or information easily. “There’s no continuity,” she says. “And nobody cares about not using antibiotics and unnecessary imaging; they just want to get it done. So it’s a very difficult time. And increasingly, Susan and I just throw our hands up.”

By “throw our hands up,” Gordon seems to mean they type out a non-alarmist, perfectly fact-checked info sheet on whatever topic parents want to discuss most. She is on the site just about every day, moderating and pondering and writing new FAQs.

Park Slope Parents loves a FAQ, including both Gordon’s expert takes and “Words of Wisdom” from the community. They range from suggestions for what to do on a sick day to crowdsourced information about the really tough stuff — death, cancer, miscarriage — and may be worth the price of admission on their own. It feels oddly satisfying to read the detailed play-by-play of an actual mother who dealt with her daughter’s head lice; you almost feel as if you’re there combing Pantene through every strand. Then there’s the ultraspecific stuff about baby and child health broken down into categories that feel more reliable than BabyCenter’s.

When Gordon writes, particularly in response to parents worrying about potential diagnoses, her goal is to take them through every possible scenario — the terrible, the difficult but solvable, and the benign. “We’re talking to all these new parents,” she tells me, “and we have to talk to the majority of the group — the very anxious, overeducated ones and the ones who aren’t that well educated. We have to try to tailor our advice to all of them.”

There is absolutely no posting of non-peer-reviewed medical information, a policy Gordon implemented when she became medical adviser. (This leads to the removal of posts with links to even relatively mundane articles.) Gordon advises parents never to read any medical article that ends in a .com or that has ads on the page, and she cautions them against reading primary-source studies because “it takes two years in medical school to learn to interpret them properly,” she says. She has been frustrated that the same persuasive techniques she once used in her own practice don’t translate online. When she needed to convince an anti-vaxxer before, Gordon would calmly list all the positives that come from vaccination and usually ended up getting the parent to vaccinate their kids, but “all of a sudden, expertise became kind of a rude word,” she says. PSP has been accused of censorship for not allowing anti-vaccine posts, but in Fox and Gordon’s view, it’s the only way to keep a toxic, repetitive thread from emerging.

Gordon tells me she still struggles with what to write about tongue and lip ties, popular topics on PSP right now: “Susan said to me, ‘Just write something we can post,’ but I still haven’t written it.” Gordon explains that a recent surge in parents posting about their newborns’ tongue and lip ties, a relatively rare condition that can interfere with feeding, has coincided with the rise of “laser machines being heavily marketed to dentists.” She says there’s a dentist mom in the group who is very into using her laser to fix tongue ties and will post things like “Doing it with a scalpel is so inferior to doing it with a laser” and “If you go to a pediatric dentist, you’re seeing someone who has their boards working in kids’ mouths.” Gordon then deadpans to me, “What does a dentist know about a newborn’s mouth? Newborns don’t have teeth.”

Still, she worries that if she critiques the dentist’s laser treatment, the moms will revolt and view her as old-fashioned. “So I’m working on it, but slowly,” she says.

In the meantime, Gordon has been responding to concerned moms individually. A recent one-on-one correspondence led her to refer a parent to a speech and feeding therapist at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation at NYU, where the poster’s baby received a complex diagnosis that will take quite some time to treat.

Fox wonders how the rise of technology and other messaging apps may one day change the PSP community and how it operates. “There are people who are like, ‘The email is overwhelming,’ and there’s this angst with the younger people who grew up using Slack at their first couple of jobs,” she says. “Part of the question is, How long do I do this? When do I turn it over?”

Fox is now 58, and her children are 19 and 21. Her older daughter once asked her, “Mom, when I grow up, do I have to run Park Slope Parents?” Fox tells me, laughing. While she has no illusions that her kids will want to carry the family torch, it’s true PSP has always been a family business: inspired by her daughters, funded in part by her husband (his paycheck let her keep the business afloat in those first ten years), and run, of course, by the matriarch. Fox admits she has achieved one of her initial goals: “I think we’ve got the formula down for how to keep people civil to one another.”

Park Slope Parents Is Old Enough to Order a Drink