Friends indeed

How to find a moms' group and why you'll be glad you did

My daughter, Anna, was six weeks old, and I was sitting in a plastic chair in a basement room in our hospital with a dozen other moms and babies. I congratulated myself for making it on time. Getting anywhere at a specific time was quite a challenge in those days. Being showered was a bonus.

A friend had urged me to join this new moms’ group, but already I was feeling anxious. I worried that Anna would fuss and I wouldn’t be able to soothe her and she would disturb the group. We were also having trouble breastfeeding and I didn’t want to struggle through a feeding in front of strangers. As I looked around the room, the other women seemed different from me. They were laughing and chatting. I was exhausted. They were picking up their babies, who had been sleeping peacefully, to coo and cuddle, while I prayed Anna would sleep through the meeting. Two were wearing jeans — real jeans — while I was wearing the same stretchy maternity pants that I threw on every day. I couldn’t help but feel they all had it more together than I did.

Until they started talking. Our group leader, Laura Samaras, suggested we share a little bit about our experiences as moms so far. The stories spilled out — the breastfeeding problems, lack of sleep, endless crying, absence of support, general confusion. Babies cried. No one cared. Suddenly, I felt much more relaxed.

Join a group

Samaras, a registered nurse, childbirth educator and lactation consultant, is the coordinator of childbirth education at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. Thirteen years ago, she and a colleague started a free six-week new moms’ group to help women connect. They brought in experts to discuss relevant topics, such as baby massage and nutrition, but mostly the class was intended to help new mothers find peer support in their community and provide them with a safe place to voice their thoughts, fears and questions.

“We just felt that we had to see moms through beyond that initial period in the hospital,” Samaras explains. “When you’ve just had a baby, you think that your experience is so unique, but in a program like this, you realize you have the same fears and anxieties as the others in the group. I love to see those little light bulbs go on — oh, I’m not alone.”

Samaras always suggests to her groups that they continue meeting for weekly walks once the class is over. We readily agreed and each Thursday morning, we were a convoy of strollers through the park — sometimes five, sometimes 14. Emails circulated with suggestions for outings, links to programs and parenting information, and lots of “Is anyone else going through this?” One mom dubbed our group Strength in Numbers. As we quickly learned, tackling anything — the first subway ride, the first tooth or a particularly tough week — was much easier when we did it together.

During pregnancy, first-time moms-to-be spend plenty of time preparing for the birth, but for most, the planning stops there. Life postpartum can be full of emotional and physical surprises. By the time a new mom finds herself ready to face the world again, she often lacks the confidence, energy or resources to reach out.

Feeling isolated

Ines Henneke had her first child, Nolan, at the age of 42. Born and raised in Germany, Henneke moved to Canada 15 years ago to work as a nanny and has lived in Toronto ever since. With no family in the city, she knew she needed to establish a support system fairly quickly.

“But when Nolan was born, it was much more difficult than I had thought,” she explains. “Instead of being able to go out and meet people at the local drop-in centre, I was housebound for about five weeks. I simply didn’t think I could manage going out with a little one.” Even when getting out for a walk, Henneke felt isolated. “You see all these people with babies and you wonder, where do they go, how do they meet? I cannot just go over and say, ‘Hi, I’m a new mom too. Can I tag along?’”

A gift certificate she received for baby sign language classes gave Henneke the necessary push. In this small group, she met two moms who happened to belong to a stroller walking group. They insisted she join them.

“It took me a couple of weeks to get the courage to go, and I went, and it was amazing,” Henneke says. “Everybody started talking to me and they were interested in the baby. Then we started walking and talking and out of that, any questions I ever had were answered by someone. And it was not just ‘Oh, let me explain to you.…’ There was someone who would give you the shoulder to lean on and say, ‘You’re doing a good job. We all go through these moments.’ Not everything was sunshine. We all went through these phases of utter happiness and total despair. It was, for me, God-given.”

Starting late

While not everyone is a group person, connecting with others (or even just one other person) who can relate to the day-to-day realities of your life can feel like a breath of fresh air in a day full of drool and diapers. Moms’ groups need not be formal. Many women hear about other new moms in their work or friendship circles, even on their street, and make the natural leap to stroller buddies.

Sometimes it takes some digging to find the right kind of support for you. Winnipeg mom Meghan Budzan, 31, was afraid she’d missed the boat on parent-child programs after her daughter, Hailey, was born by C-section. After she recovered from the surgery, Budzan was too late to sign up for some local programs. She tried out a drop-in centre she was aware of, but it wasn’t a good fit for her because it was across the city. She hoped to find something to help her meet other parents in her neighbourhood, but wasn’t sure how to find what she was looking for.

She started inquiring among friends and investigating online. She discovered a school in her neighbourhood that offered parent-child programs, and through these classes, she and her daughter were able to get out of the house and socialize.

“You go from this routine where you’re getting up every morning and going to work, to staying in your pyjamas until two o’clock,” she explains. “Going to this group, even though it’s only once a week, makes you feel like, OK, now I’m doing something. It puts a little routine back in your life. You can visit with other moms, but also do things with your child.”

Starting out “late” is a common fear among new moms, who worry that if they don’t enrol in programs quickly, they will be left out of the loop. But it’s never too late to reach out — the majority of moms aren’t ready to jump into social mode mere weeks after giving birth anyway. It’s important to give yourself time to get back on your feet. There is a regular cycle of programs in most regions that allow you to join in at any stage.

And it’s worth the effort. It’s not uncommon for the relationships made during this key time to become extremely tight-knit, as you share brand new experiences and life on an emotional roller coaster. As I write this, my moms’ group is planning a joint birthday party for our one-year-olds and a reunion of sorts for the moms who have returned to work.

“I still get together with my group, all these years later,” Samaras says. “One of my friends has been with her group for 25 years. Once a year they do something. It’s a long-lasting connection.”

Make the connection

Finding or forming a moms’ group need not be intimidating. Remember, your child is a natural catalyst for conversation! Here’s how to connect:

Start early. During your prenatal classes, ask if your hospital or community organizes postpartum groups or support services. Exchange email addresses with the couples in your prenatal class and plan a date for a get-together after you’ve all given birth. When someone seeks suggestions for a baby gift, ask for a certificate for a mom-baby fitness class or swim program where you’ll meet other moms.

Ask public health. In many communities, new moms receive a visit or phone call from a public health nurse. Ask the nurse what’s available in your area, including where to find free local newspapers and websites for parents.

Take a class. Classes don’t only benefit your baby! Anywhere that moms and babies congregate is an opportunity for you to connect with another mom in a casual, natural way. Seek out programs close to home, so the people you meet will be within walking distance.

Visit the library. Most libraries across the country offer children’s programs or post information about them. Ask about children’s storytime and start going, even if your child seems a bit young.

Say hello. Kindred spirits can be found at the mall, a nearby park or your local coffee klatch. Not everyone is comfortable going up to a stranger with a stroller and saying hello. But remember, if she’s a new mom, you have plenty in common. Talking about your kids will fill the gaps until you get to know each other.

Go online. Online parenting forums allow you to share your thoughts and questions at all hours of the day and night — and offer support to others.

• Join the lively Todaysparent.com community to connect with parents across Canada: Todaysparent.com/community

• Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs. Visit frp.ca

• Parent-Child Mother Goose. These free song and rhyme programs are available across Canada. Visit nald.ca/mothergooseprogram for a location near you

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