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Cyber family values

June 15, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Mari Mullane is only 6 months old, and already has her own Web site.

Perhaps that's to be expected from a "cyberbaby," a term of endearment her parents use for the little girl whose parents found each other over the Internet.

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Grieving over the death of her first husband, Mary Mullane joined a chat room for widows and widowers on America Online in October 1996.

There the Washington County woman, who was having trouble sleeping, made some friends, and stayed up until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to chat online.

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After using the chat room as a support group for about five months, Mullane felt able to move on, but she wanted to continue meeting new friends.

She began searching America Online's member directory for people celebrating birthdays and sending them instant "Happy Birthday" messages online.

She met Thomas Mullane Jr. in October 1997 while searching online to find a single man for a friend. At the time he lived in Rockland County, N.Y., just outside New York City.

Mary and Thomas quickly became friends, chatting online and on the telephone.

They met face-to-face in New York on Valentine's Day weekend in 1998. They chose that date, not for its romantic significance, but because it was a weekend convenient to both of them, they said.

After spending much of the weekend driving and talking, the relationship became more serious. Thomas began driving to Hagerstown every other weekend, he said.

The first time he "proposed" to her as a prank, fooling their friends during an online Secret Santa party in a private chat room.

Thomas told Mary not to laugh too hard because the next proposal would be the real thing.

They had a faux online wedding with friends in January 1998 and married for real in Virginia in July 1998.

They joined a private chat room created by a friend on America Online. That room saves them money on their phone bills and gives their friends and their friends' children a safe place to talk, the Mullanes said.

"These people we talk to, it makes no difference what we look like. We could have four heads. It's the way we treat each other," said Mary Mullane, 37, of Millers Church Road northeast of Hagerstown.

Last fall when she was in Johns Hopkins Hospital during her pregnancy she received phone calls from across the country, hearing the voices of many of the couple's online friends for the first time.

Mari was the Mullanes' little miracle, they say, because doctors had told them they probably wouldn't be able to have children.

After the December birth of Mari, pronounced "Mary," the couple received gifts for the little girl from online friends.

Horror stories abound about the dangers of meeting in person someone met through a chat room on the Internet, the couple said.

"The Internet gets a bad rap, but there are people out there doing good things," Mary Mullane said.

Someone could learn online how to make a pipe bomb, but someone else could find a support group to help their child, said Thomas Mullane, 50, a computer systems administrator for Toys 'R Us.

"You can't blame the Internet for the uses people put it to," he said.

Mary Mullane said people ask her if she was afraid to meet Thomas or other online friends in person.

She wasn't, she said, because in many cases, she felt she knew her online friends better than she would casual acquaintances in the area.

The Internet has allowed them to make dozens of friends, some of whom they plan to meet during vacations.

Mari Mullane's Web site is members.aol.com/mari1219.

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