Mommy Group Introduction
May 7, 2010
For August, September, and October Expectant Moms,
A small group of women are getting together at my house on Tuesday, May 18 at 7 P.M. The purpose of the pregnancy circle is to offer support and friendship to each other as we enter into this exciting time! Also, it can progress into a new mother’s group. If interested in coming, please RSVP.
Anna (expecting in early September)
I was hugely pregnant, buying apples at the Saturday Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza, when I ran into Anna, holding her newborn daughter, Isabella, tight in her arms. It was late September 2010, and the leaves on the trees at the border of Prospect Park were beginning to curl with yellow. Those leaves and the apples for sale at the market—tart, juicy, and crisp, perfect for my last month of pregnancy—epitomized a picture-perfect Brooklyn fall day. My husband, Danny, and I were out to enjoy one of our last solo weekends before our lives changed forever.
“Hey!” I called out to Anna, happy to see such a new mama out of the house. Isabella was two weeks old, and Anna had been having a rough recovery from her emergency cesarean. Even though we’d only known each other a few months, I considered her a close friend. Anna was the leader and organizer of our mommy group.
An email on Park Slope Parents, our local parenting Listserv, brought us together as our bellies were beginning to show in our second trimesters of pregnancy. Anna, Renée, Antonia, Jane, Melissa, Heidi, and I were all in our mid- to late thirties and (with the exception of Renée, who already had a three-year-old son) new to motherhood. From our first meeting, we shared a sensibility: supportive, sardonic, and terrified.
Since that spring, the seven of us had gotten together every few weeks, then more often as our babies were born. We exchanged tips on choosing electric breast pumps and hiring nannies, complaints about varicose veins and weight-obsessed OB-GYNs. We confided our fears and hopes about labor, marriage, and maternity leave.
Though we were all thrilled about our impending parenthood, mommy group was always a place we felt safe exploring the less sunny side of our new lives. Seeing a post about Heidi’s baby shower on Facebook, I was feeling surprised that she looked so happy in the photos. Had we been reserving the adoring photo-ready moments for people who already knew us—and who we didn’t want to worry?
Because of this intimacy, I was hurt and surprised when, in response to my enthusiastic greeting, Anna gripped Isabella closer, turned around, and actually ran off into a cluster of trees behind the artisanal cheese stand.
Only two weeks earlier, I’d visited Anna and Isabella when they were newly home from the hospital. Swaddled in a pink blankie and lying in a tiny pink hammock, Issie looked like a rosebud. Anna was so swollen with retained fluid I was sure she had some kind of terrible illness.
“It’s an extreme reaction to the C-section meds,” she told me, with strange (to me, looking at her) good cheer. “Stephan’s been great,” she added. “I’ve barely been able to get out of this chair since we got home.”
Stephan stuck his head into the room. I’d never met her husband before that afternoon, but he fit her adoring description for sure: tall, dark, and handsome, but with an intimidating (and somewhat sexy) German accent.
They were both attorneys, though as Anna had explained to us at our first meeting, “I’m the do-gooder, and he always knew he’d go corporate. The balance is great. With his salary, I can take as much pro bono as I want. Lots of domestic violence, ugly custody battles. Pretty hard-core stuff. And then he’s on these crazy zillion-dollar real estate deals. It’s really long hours, though,” she added. “I can get pretty lonely, especially now.”
“What do we need, babe?” Stephan asked now. “I thought I’d do some shopping since you have company.”
“More paper towels. And red Gatorade?” Anna looked up at him with so much love, her china-doll blue eyes bright. He blew her and Isabella a kiss.
“It was nice meeting you,” he said to me. But before I could respond, he was gone.
Anna said, “The birth was kind of a nightmare, but he was so calm and loving and present. He made me feel safe.”
Eight months pregnant myself, I was terrified by her words, her body, even the accoutrements of newborn life (so many containers for the baby and her various liquids). Nevertheless, Anna, swollen legs, stitches, and all, seemed determined to normalize her experience, and for my benefit. Her personality—real talk, emotional presence, empathy—was one of the reasons I, usually the last person to “join” anything, felt comfortable in this group. From the first meeting, she’d led by no-bullshit example.
Now, watching Anna disappear into the forest like Bambi’s mother, I revisited the details of that visit. Had I offended her? My history of female friendship dynamics shuffled through my head. I’d never been good in groups, my relationships with women always worked better one-on-one, maybe this was some kind of pregnant-lady Heathers (and here I dated myself—a “young” mother would have thought of Mean Girls or Clueless—God, I was old). Had the other mommies decided to cut me out because I couldn’t eat brownies and croissants with them, my gestational diabetes preventing me from eating carbs? That seemed unlikely, even in my excessively paranoid advanced pregnant state. Perhaps Anna simply hadn’t noticed me as I longingly browsed the raw honeycomb (I could eat no honey because of the GD, no raw honey because of botulism risk). Yes, that must be it. She hadn’t seen me.
In the midst of my emotional ramp-up, a white-haired woman who looked exactly like Anna (but with a practical hairdo and crackly warm-up suit) walked over to me. I recognized her as Anna’s mother, from Kentucky. We’d met earlier in the summer. But Anna’d told me her mom wasn’t coming back to New York for another month.
“You’re Elizabeth, right? From her mommy group?” she said with a twang.
“Yeah,” I said. “Wasn’t that Anna over there? I thought I saw her . . . Is everything okay?”
“No.” Anna’s mom pressed her lips tight and shook her head. “Her husband walked out on her three days ago.”
I thought I’d misheard her. Was she really talking about that guy I’d just met? Who held his wife while she mourned a miscarriage, and held her together when she was almost hospitalized from severe morning sickness? Stephan was supposed to be the love of her life. Did he never come back with the paper towels and Gatorade?
Interrupting my thoughts, Anna reappeared at her mother’s side. As she clutched Isabella to her chest, tears rolled down her cheeks; her face was red and raw. When she finally looked at me, her eyes were unfocussed. “I’ll call you later, Liz,” she managed to say. Her mother put a firm arm around her shoulders and led her away.
I wondered if this would be the last time I’d ever see her. If so, I felt really sad.
The following Monday morning, the mommy group planned—as we had for the last few weeks—to meet at the Tea Lounge, a neighborhood coffeehouse with worn, overstuffed sofas and decent salads. The place earned its nickname, the Teat Lounge. Even our circle of incompetently nursing new mothers (maximal nipple flashing, minimal lactation) didn’t warrant so much as a side-eye from the other patrons or the hipster coffee jerks. Danny and I were expecting our daughter, Clara, around Halloween, which meant that my due date was the last in the group. So even though I didn’t have my own baby in arms, I came to hold the other mommies’ tiny squishy people, hear their week’s war stories, and check out my near future.
The others were already there, sitting on the least ratty (and therefore least potentially bedbug infested, we hoped) circle of sofas. Jane waved at me first. She was a social worker and Portland expatriate whose two-month-old daughter, Katie, had an adorable perpetually surprised expression and a silky cap of strawberry-blond hair. I already loved Jane because she always seemed to say aloud what I was thinking, no matter how awkward or inappropriate.
Renée was our soft-spoken maternal authority, as she already had a three-year-old son, Charlie. Her baby, Emme, was a petite six-week-old who slept constantly. (I’d been shocked when Danny and I ran into her husband, Benji, in Prospect Park, and Emme snoozed through our whole forty-five-minute chat.) I loved to marvel at Emme’s delicate eyelids and the long lashes that reached halfway down her rosy cheeks.
Antonia and Heidi, and their boys Gus and Clay, were my recruits to the gang. Toni and I knew each other from a stint as adjuncts at the same state college, and we’d bumped into each other (almost literally, considering the size of our pregnant stomachs) at a former colleague’s party. Antonia was smart. Her writing about the connections between Australian and American colonial literature had brought her to the States on a Fulbright, and she’d always been two steps ahead of me in classroom dynamics and curriculum. Now her emails to the mommies were as clever and profound as her criticism of pioneer myths had been. And Gus was one of the most beautiful children I’d ever seen, long and lean even at two months, with features that looked drawn on with pen and ink. The tricky bit: he never slept.
Heidi lived four doors down from Danny and me in a ground-floor apartment. Though we’d shared the same block for over a decade, we’d never met until our husbands got us together. Both musicians, they’d chatted at a professional function and were delighted to realize that a) they were neighbors, and b) both had pregnant wives due at around the same time. Within days, we were knocking on each other’s doors (or her street-level window) to grab an iced tea or take a slow walk to look at baby gear together. Clay was also two months old, with a melon of a head and the chubbiest legs I’d ever seen on such a small person. Heidi was convinced he and Clara (even in her current unborn state) were destined for love.
Melissa, the most recent member of the group, was a painter and web designer. She came via Antonia’s husband (she’d built the website for the film library he worked at). Her girl Sofia was the biggest (though not the eldest) of the baby gang, with enormous blue-gray eyes and a passionate attachment to her Sophie the Giraffe chewy toy. I didn’t know Melissa well yet, but she seemed cool, especially if I was judging by her accessories (which I will admit I was). Silver Converse sneakers and delicate rose gold earrings were a good combination. Most of all, though, Melissa was nice, really listening when the other women talked. I wondered what her story would be, once she felt comfortable enough to tell it.
I already imagined (though perhaps not with Heidi’s fervency) a future for these kids together. I’m an only child, and grew up without close kid neighbors. Already, I wanted this to be my daughter’s gang, and I was ready to be the grown-up with a supply of Band-Aids and juice boxes.
In the midst of my fantasy, Anna arrived: our leader, a family law attorney in dire need of her own services. Issie was still tiny, a pup beside giants Gus and Sofia. Anna wouldn’t—couldn’t?—put her down. But she also couldn’t—wouldn’t?—stop crying. She sat in the center of the middle couch, and we huddled around her, bringing her hummus, coffee, and an enormous glass of water.
“Thanks, girls,” she said. “I needed to see you all. You’re the only people who know me without him.” Between bites of pizza bread, Isabella’s mewls for milk, and her own tears, she told us what had gone down with Stephan. “He kept saying he didn’t want to be married anymore. I think he’s having a nervous breakdown.”
We hugged her and cried with her. We held Isabella, offered to babysit, make her lasagna, and beat the living shit out of that asshole. And right there in the Teat Lounge, our mommy group transformed into the Mommy Group, our force and sisterhood, our emotional succor for the next two years.
Mommy groups had always seemed cheesy to me. “Go to Mommy and Me classes! You’ll meet other women with adorable babies who have pink bows pasted on their bald heads!” Not for an urban bohemian free spirit such as myself. Danny and I already had friends. Sure, they were mostly child-free gay men, but we knew they’d love hanging out with our little girl when she was finally born.
Candide-like, I thought I would be raising my putative child in the best of all possible parenting worlds. We live in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a few blocks from infamous Park Slope, one of the most child-friendly urban neighborhoods in the country. I moved to Brooklyn twenty years ago because it was cheap. By the time I “matured,” met and married Danny, and decided to have a baby, my corner of New York had become a living cliché of hipster parenthood.
Park Slope Parents, the Yahoo parenting Listserv on which the Mommy Group members and I found each other, boasts more than 7,500 members. Stroller pushers outnumber “civilians” on the sidewalks. Within a few blocks of my stoop are five playgrounds, two “best in the country” ice cream shops (it’s all about grass-fed milk versus house-baked mix-ins), a fancy toy store, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the beautiful and wild 585-acre Prospect Park. Then there is Amorina, our local Italian-style pizza joint (Danny calls it “the artisanal Chuck E. Cheese”), several play spaces to spend rainy and cold days, kids’ art and yoga and music classes, and excellent public transportation. All of this is within the larger universe of New York City’s resources and diversity. If you live in a big city, raising a kid in Brooklyn should be pretty close to perfect.
Of course, there is a dark—and, often, annoying—side: the Park Slope Food Coop is so notoriously PC that it was the subject of a Daily Show episode. A humor piece in the September 2014 Vanity Fair bore the headline: “From Brooklyn to Buckingham Palace: Park Slope Moms Offer Kate Middleton Parenting Advice,” explaining that “Park Slope moms are revered—and reviled—as some of the most doting, kale-eating mothers around.” The neighborhood’s $30-an-entrée restaurants feature high chairs and gourmet mac ’n’ cheese (economically reprehensible and delicious). And please note essentials I did not mention in the “pros” paragraph above: reasonable rent, affordable childcare, and consistently excellent public schools. Brooklyn now ranks as one of the most expensive places to live in the country.
I’m a city girl, born and bred; I hate driving, and (much to my raised-in-the-burbs husband’s amusement) believe serial killers lurk behind every tree in the suburban forest. Yes, New York is expensive and can be stressful, but it’s home. Danny and I belong to that crazy Food Coop, buy most of our clothes and household furnishings secondhand, and accept that we’ll always work three jobs each and have one bathroom in our apartment. But we also go to museums and the opera, walk two miles for the best bowl of pho, and love living here.
But, no matter how excellent our coping skills, we didn’t predict what would happen when we procreated in a city without family living nearby, with little experience in newborn care, while living in a walk-up rental apartment without a washer and dryer or even a second bedroom.
Call me naive, but I thought adding Clara to our lives would be easy. Danny and I were a solid, happy couple, with professional lives that already offered flexibility. We’d both earned prestigious degrees in our fields, and we were accustomed to working at odd hours, on little sleep. Most important of all, we loved children, and we couldn’t wait to have this little girl. Every night of my pregnancy, we got in bed together and sang the same lullaby my parents had sung to me when I was little: a tune by Brahms with changing lyrics about our day, and what we were going to do tomorrow, taking turns to come up with the silliest or most banal verses we could. Once the baby was born, we thought, life would be like the lullaby, only real. Sleep deprivation, spit-up—we could handle those. Pregnancy had been difficult. Once our baby was here, it would get easier.
I don’t want to say we were idiots, but . . . Enthusiasm aside, we were almost completely unprepared for the reality of parenthood. What we didn’t know and couldn’t imagine: there is no life experience as transformative as the birth of a child. The baby is a bomb that goes off in the middle of your living room, affecting all aspects of home life, marriage, body, and sense of self—especially for mothers. And if you lack the traditional structures and support of close family or have little experience with babies, it’s shocking.
I—and the other members of the Mommy Group—assumed we’d “just know” what to do with our infants. We’d been running our own professional and personal lives, paying bills, being grown-ups for decades. Why was this so hard?
Perhaps our confusion, our lack of power, had something to do with how strong we were before having children. This is the alienation of the contemporary not-quite-pre-middle-aged parent: old enough to have found a career and to have begun to excel at it, to have lived away from your childhood home for as long as you were in it, but not too seasoned to not need help.
We’re all members of Generation X and children of the Baby Boomers. Many of our parents divorced after starting families, and many of our mothers found themselves through feminism in the seventies and eighties. They fought for our rights to plan our families via contraception and abortion, to go to graduate school, to find partners who would co-parent with us when the time came. They taught us to choose work that we loved, and to hold off on marriage and babies until we were ready.
Having such choices did make it easier for us. If our pregnancies had been unplanned, if we’d been poor, if having children had interrupted our career paths in more substantial ways, then we would have felt even further marooned on the dark side of the moon.
As much as we adored our babies, we knew what we were missing. Working late without worrying about (or paying for) childcare. A slow Saturday morning in bed with our partners. Reading novels, staying in hotels, attending conferences and events, ordering one more cocktail on a night out with friends. Mature, child-free independence. When these noisy, damp, transfixing creatures came into our lives, all of that was gone, at least for the near future. When you’re a sleep-deprived, adoring, terrified new mother covered in spit-up, it’s hard to imagine past the next feeding.
The first few months of motherhood were overwhelming for all of us. I can only imagine how scared and tired we seemed, each of us holding our babies tight to our swollen chests when we met at cafés. We ate our croissants and slices of quiche, drank endless cups of sugar-sweetened coffee, and talked.
There’s much made in the media about “Mommy Wars” and “parenting styles.” Stay-at-home versus working moms, attachment parents versus free-rangers, unschoolers versus flash-card devotees. The Mommy Group showed me that such differences should be immaterial.
I now believe that almost any group of mothers who meet once a week for a few months, and who consciously go beyond chatting about stroller brands and whose baby sleeps in an organic bassinet, will feel the same sense of sisterhood that we did. And its powerful effects.
Our Mommy Group didn’t only save Anna when her marriage collapsed. It saved all of us. I am well aware that the word saved implies we were dying or drowning. It sounds final, maudlin. Weren’t we supposed to be magically in love with our babies, cherishing this special time (especially according to whatever celebrity just lost all her baby weight while simultaneously founding a chain of green preschools)? But saved is the right word. Without the Mommy Group, I think I would have lost myself in new motherhood, going crazy without knowing if I’d ever feel better. Instead, I had these women, this community, to help me find the ring, complete the quest, make the journey home.
Our struggles did not take place in a vacuum (though we all ended up doing a lot of vacuuming). The personal decisions of parenthood have never been more political. It’s a sad, oft-reported and oft-repeated fact that the United States doesn’t fully support parenthood, or the decisions surrounding it. Our abortion and contraceptive decisions (Hobby Lobby, anyone?) play out in the voting booths in every election cycle. The United States is one of the few developed countries without paid family leave or subsidized childcare. This country’s shameful maternal policies meant we had to return to work before we felt as if we knew our babies well enough to leave them for a full day. It’s no surprise half of us were on psychiatric meds within the first six months.
This was not how new motherhood was supposed to look according to the baby industrial complex of parenting magazines and BPA-free teether manufacturers. We were supposed to sail past the dragons and monsters of early parenting with only the internet and inborn wisdom to guide us. Magazines and advertising push otherwise self-aware women on an idea of perfect motherhood: baby bumps to flat abs, rapture in the nursery and ecstasy in the marital bed, a seamless transition back to work. Even if we know these messages are as bullshit and Photoshopped as ads for cellulite-busting cream, it’s almost impossible not to internalize them. And, therefore, to wonder if we’re doing something terribly wrong as mothers all the time.
The Women’s Liberation slogan of the seventies “the personal is political” has never been truer. As daughters of the women’s movement, contemporary mothers may have missed official consciousness raising, but we can still organize (and with better wine and fewer leaflets). We have to, if we want to effect the change American mothers so desperately need.
Women spend about twice the amount of time per day caring for their children that men do. Single mothers are the heads of household for more than 9.6 million American families. One in ten women experience some kind of postpartum mental illness in the first year after giving birth. One out of six children are diagnosed with a disability.
We should organize for: national parental leave policy and subsidized daycare; consistent screening for and treatment of postpartum mental illness; subsidized parenting support and counseling for low-income and working-class families; better education (from preschool on) about diverse families—single-parent, adopted, and/or LGBT. What better way to understand these issues, to organize, and, frankly, to politicize, than through mommy groups?
I do feel compelled to acknowledge the privilege that my particular group enjoys, and I am well aware of our demographic advantages. We are all college educated, and while we don’t all own apartments, houses, or cars, and most of our kids will be attending New York City public schools, we are by no means poor.
Many mothers with fewer resources might not have the same kind of time and energy to devote to finding and maintaining a group, especially in our increasingly economically polarized country. Which is why it’s so crucial to note that our Mommy Group initially bonded almost as much via email, texts, and social media as in person—and we maintain those “virtual” bonds today. In fact, they’re often the only regular way for us to connect. Five years after our babies were born, every one of us now works full-time (several of us as our families’ breadwinners).
As I researched and reported for this book, I wanted to include many varieties of mommy groups and parenting experts, and hope I have done so within the limits of time and logistics: a “nonviolent parenting group” in Echo Park, Los Angeles; Freda Rosenfeld, a lactation consultant known as the “Breast Whisperer,” in Brooklyn, New York; Kate C. and her neighbors at their weekly “plastic picnic table party” in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartum Progress and a trailblazing activist about maternal mental illness.
Across class, geographic, and racial boundaries, I discovered we had more in common than politicians or news editors would like us to believe. We were mothers, all searching for the same thing: a way to raise our children while retaining—or remaking—our Selves.
The mommies about whom I have written here have generously given their precious time (and we all know how precious time is when you have a small child or children) to talk to me, to open up their lives and homes. I am moved and honored every time a mommy group invites me to sit in on their personal time and space, and I’m thankful that they have allowed me to share their stories. This is especially true for the mommies of my own group. Jane said to me when I started this process, “We all needed the book you’re going to write.” Here are our stories. Make them your own.