My sister-in-law rallied behind the idea, noting that groups are a good way to establish a community, get advice, buy and sell goods, get educated and, most importantly, meet other moms. My mom's best friend, on the other hand, said, “Don't enter the lion's den.” She saw the groups as judgmental sororities. You'll get eaten alive, she thought.
The reality is somewhere in the middle.
“Aside from the camaraderie and helpful resources, (mothers' groups) really do help build more of a balance for the moms,” says Demetra Paras, a 20-plus year marriage and family counselor based in Menlo Park. “I think these communities are important, but it has to be with like-minded and like-hearted women. If it's not, then it won't really work for you.”
Most moms need support after giving birth, says Traci Ruble, a mother of two and marriage and family therapist. Motherhood is full of confounding questions: How do you cook dinner while holding a baby? What are those bumps on my baby's cheeks?
Moms can't run to the doctor every five minutes. Many don't have family nearby. A mother's group provides a forum to work through these issues in a nonthreatening environment, Ruble says.
“(Moms' groups) become a practical extension of your family,” she says. Although it's been years since her mothers' group was active, she feels she can call on any member for support.
“I didn't cook for two months after my second child was born because all these mothers brought me food. It's that kind of practical stuff that's important, too. … If something happens, we have each other's backs.”
Something for Every Mom
Mothers' groups range from the basic emotional support organizations run by hospitals to parent-run entities that offer playgroups where women with similar aged children meet on a weekly basis while their children play, online message boards, events, lectures and resources. Parents can opt for co-ed groups or organizations intended for mothers or fathers. Some groups, such as the 35,000-member Berkeley Parents Network, host online forums only for free, while others sponsor weekly get-togethers and charge a fee.
The Burlingame Mother's Group, whose membership spans the Peninsula, has seen its numbers steadily rise by about 50 new members a year, according to former president Emma Duckenfield McCulloch. It offers playgroups, events, lectures and an online forum where parents can pose questions to a group, or buy and sell gear. Many moms choose to join more than one mother's group, finding that one has a useful online message board while another offers a neighborhood playgroup.
A lot of new moms definitely join for the playgroups, McCulloch says. However, in the beginning, most playgroups appeal to the mom, not to the child.
“The babies sort of look at each other and go, ‘Who are you and what are you doing?'” she says. “But moms get a chance to talk and get reassurance about whether what they are doing is normal. That's what moms at this stage really need. It's important to get out of the house. With a set play date each week, you have a purpose and a reason to go.”
As the children mature, so does the group's dynamic. Some mothers return to work, some families move and other moms outgrow it. McCulloch says her playgroup doesn't meet with the children anymore, but the women still see each other on a monthly basis.
Ginger Ogle, a member of the Berkeley Parents Network, says she formed a playgroup with another mother some 20 years ago.
“We were all women who had quit jobs to stay at home, and who now felt lonely and isolated during the day. We met once a week, had weekend potlucks, and went on camping trips together. The playgroup saved my sanity and also gave me good friends that I am still in touch with 20 years later,” she says.
However, a mothers' group is not for everyone. Paras issued a few precautions. First, pick a group that speaks to
your interests and needs. She had a client who joined a group and found the women talked mostly about their house remodels and shopping excursions. In this forum, her client felt worse about herself.
Huble emphasized that women need to find like-minded moms with similar ideas about parenthood. “Give yourself permission to know that this playgroup may not be what works for you. There are all different kinds of moms and there are a gazillion groups,” she says. “If you show up and it's not a good vibe, then don't come back.”
Be clear about why you are joining the group, whether it's to meet friends for you or your child. Although women are wired to get along, moms don't have to be best friends with every parent they meet, Huble says.
“You have to think of motherhood as a job. Sometimes you are going to go to this stuff for your kid, not yourself,” she says. “If you remember that, it doesn't seem so disappointing. It's helpful to go into these groups clearly understanding which hat you are wearing.”
Jennifer Christgau-Aquino is a Bay Area freelance writer and mother of two.