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Inside L.A.'s invite-only mom group that's better than Google

Lily Qian / for The Times
(Lily Qian / for The Times)

At first, Cathlene Pineda was reluctant to join the Atwater Village Moms' Facebook group.

The jazz pianist and composer doesn’t particularly like Facebook, and she’s wary of online communities. But she acquiesced because, as she put it, “Some other moms were like, ‘You have to be part of this group.'”

After joining in 2021, she realized it had benefits. When she needed a trustworthy mechanic, the Atwater Moms told her who to call. When she was ready to sleep train her baby, they recommended books like "The Happy Sleeper" and "The No-Cry Sleep Solution." When she went to Vegas, they told her to stay at the Cosmopolitan.

Then, a few months into her membership, she was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. She had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old at home and couldn't imagine how she would get through the long, involved treatment her doctors prescribed. Not sure what else to do, she turned to the Atwater Moms for help.

“I was expecting what I usually got, which is a few responses,” she said. Instead, more than 90 women commented on her post. They shared lists of specialists and free resources, including how to sign up for meal services and get a one-time cash grant. But for Pineda, their validation helped the most.

Lily Qian / for The Times
Lily Qian / for The Times

“Some of the women who commented had gone through this when their kids were the same age as my children and they said, ‘You can do this,’” she said. “I didn’t even really need the advice. I just needed to feel real.”

Founded in 2011 as a way for new mothers in Atwater Village to meet each other, the Atwater Village Mom’s Group has evolved over time to become a crowdsourcing powerhouse with more than 6,000 members scattered across L.A. and around the world. One member in a recent post called it the best advice group on the Internet. Another described it in an interview as "Yelp times 100."

“Obviously I still Google things, but before I do, I ask myself: ‘Can I ask Atwater Village Moms?'” said Swati Kapila, an actress and mother of a 2-year-old. “People jokingly call it Moogle all the time — Mom Google. It’s mama mutual aid.”

If you have questions about summer camps, the going rate for nannies, the best local preschools or where to go for date night — the Atwater Moms have answers. They’ve helped one another find gifts for their partners, swapped recommendations for the best birthday party parks and compared experiences with pediatricians, dentists and kid barbers. At the same time, they’ve supported each other through life’s biggest challenges, many of which extend far beyond birthing and caring for a child.

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Daryl Dickerson, a mother of two who teaches gardening at a charter school, bought a car from a mom in the group. It was the first step in her divorce. When Sharon Sognalian’s apartment rental fell through, the legal staffer and mother of a 12-year-old moved into another member’s back house.

Tanya Reyes, a mother of three who teaches at a school for pregnant and parenting teens in Echo Park, said members of Atwater Moms have donated strollers, car seats and used clothes to her students. Any time she posts her Amazon wishlist to the group, packages soon appear at the school.

"This community has allowed me to serve my community of students," she said. "It's moms supporting moms."

“People jokingly call it Moogle all the time — Mom Google. It’s mama mutual aid.”

Swati Kapila, Atwater Village Moms member

Reyes has received other types of support from the group as well. When she recently posted about the challenges of getting her "neurospicy" kid out of the house each morning, she got 87 responses. Like Pineda, she said her fellow moms' solidarity was even more valuable than their advice. "It's nice to know I'm not crazy, this is really happening."

Brandi Jordan, a parenting specialist who has worked as a doula for celebrities like Julia Stiles, Mandy Moore and Megan Fox, never expected this kind of communal support when she started Atwater Village Moms back in 2011, soon after Facebook first introduced its groups feature. At the time she was running a boutique called the Cradle Company that catered to Atwater's moms and babies. Her oldest son, now 16, was just 3.

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She and another mom, Leonora Pitts, started the group to connect with other women with babies in the area and to coordinate occasional meet-ups at the park. She’d heard of similar groups on the Westside but didn’t think they would be her vibe. “I’m not trying to figure out how to get my baby’s eyebrows waxed,” she said. “But good on you if that’s your thing.”

Initially Jordan and her co-founder aimed for 25 women to join Atwater Village Moms, but word spread and interest soared. Then they thought the group might top out at 200, but it quickly surpassed that number too. The criteria for joining then were the same as they are now: You must be a parent, identify as female or nonbinary and — though you're not required to live in Atwater Village, or even L.A. — you must be invited by another member to join. (A discussion about whether men can join the group is ongoing, but for now they remain excluded.)

“People jokingly call it Moogle all the time — Mom Google. It’s mama mutual aid.”

Swati Kapila, Atwater Village Moms member

Jordan doesn’t have demographic data on the group, but she said that, historically, members tend to be white and affluent and live on the Eastside. But in recent years, there's been a shift. “We’ve had more women of color joining," said Jordan, who is Black. "As people have seen it is a safe space, they are sharing with more women of color.”

Atwater Village Moms has gone through different phases over the years. In the early days, discussions centered around places to go with small kids and member meet-ups. As time went on, it grew into a general resource for any question about L.A. and beyond. The posts became more political after the 2016 election and again after what Jordan describes as “the George Floyd era,” when the moms in the group began more openly discussing race.

“It was difficult, but as a group we didn’t give up,” she said. “We have this idea that this place is not safe — it’s brave. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to get over it, we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to hear different sides. And we started making rules to support that.”

Lily Qian / for The Times
Lily Qian / for The Times

Before joining, the group members have to agree to a set of rules that includes respecting everyone’s privacy (no screenshotting posts), refraining from hate speech or bullying and abstaining from deleting a post because it's drawing unwanted comments (this is grounds for removal).

“Anything that affects women and mothers, you can talk about in the group and we don’t limit that conversation,” Jordan said. “But we also tell people you have to understand that people are going to voice opposite opinions and you have to be OK with that.”

Lauren Amaro, a professor of communication at Pepperdine University who has studied online mom groups (and who recently found a general practitioner on a moms Facebook group in Camarillo), said it’s rare for a group the size of Atwater Moms to be seen in such a positive light by its members. These communities can devolve into mom-shaming that is especially painful for new parents.

“The fact that women are willing to trust other women on the internet is both a beautiful and necessary thing and sometimes, depending on the topic and context, unwise,” she said. “There is a really wide range of how these mom groups function.”

Careful moderation, along with clear, consistent rules, can help groups like Atwater Moms thrive, she said.

Liza Sacilioc, a communications specialist who has been a member of the group for more than a decade, said Jordan is a skilled moderator. “Brandi does a really good job seeing people and setting the ground rules without it feeling like a slap on the hand,” she said. “We’re a very respectful group.”

“We have this idea that this place is not safe — it’s brave. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to get over it, we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to hear different sides.”

Brandi Jordan, co-founder and moderator of Atwater Village Moms

Three years after she joined Atwater Moms, Pineda is grateful for all she's gained as a member. A self-described introvert, she said it wasn’t like her to post about her cancer diagnosis to a group of 6,000 people. But somehow, doing it on Atwater Village Moms felt safe.

“For me to share that, I had to feel that they would respond appropriately and helpfully, and in so many Facebook groups that’s not the case,” she said. “Looking back at some of those comments, they were like: 'I have no advice, I’m just sending you love and holding you close in my heart.' That’s it. Everyone was so respectful.”

And today, with her cancer in remission, she often finds herself responding to other women’s questions, whether they're about cancer, child-rearing or just life in general.

“You want to help someone if you can,” she said. “It takes five minutes to say, 'This worked for me, I don’t know if it will work for you.' And also: You’re doing a great job.'”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.