How to Find (or Start) a Mothers' Support Group
by Nelia Odom
Please note: this article was written in 1994 - before the internet! So add "websearch" to the strategies you can use to find and contact support groups and other mothers in your communities.
When we invited Welcome Home readers to write and tell us about their experiences with mother’s support groups, we received a wonderful variety of enthusiastic letters from all over the country. All testified that friendships with other mothers are vitally important during one’s own mothering years. And, unfortunately, most agreed that meeting other mothers these days may take some doing. The “stroller approach,” in which one simply wheels one’s baby through the neighborhood, greeting and meeting other mothers and their offspring, has become entirely undependable. Today’s mothers often take a more organized route to finding the support they need and deserve. Here’s how they do it.
Finding A Support Group
Finding a mother’s support group may be as easy as making a few telephone calls. If you are new in town and your community has a Welcome Wagon or newcomer’s club, ask whether they are aware of any mother’s groups. Support groups often meet in churches and synagogues, community centers, and YMCAs. Try calling a few. Even if the organization you call doesn’t host a mother’s group, the person you speak with may be able to refer you to someplace which does. If you have a newborn or infant, call your local hospital and inquire about parenting classes for new parents. They are a good way to meet other mothers with children the age of your own, and support groups often evolve from them once the formal class has ended. In addition, there are a number of national organizations that help mothers form support groups. Their numbers are listed in the accompanying sidebar. Call and ask if there is already a chapter in your area.
If your phone calls don’t turn up anything, don’t be discouraged! Check every bulletin board you pass for notices of groups meeting in your area. Keep an eye out at the library, the grocery store, the neighborhood playground or recreation center, and the pediatrician’s office. Scrutinize the newspaper for notices of local happenings, and if your community has a parenting publication, don’t forget to scan the classifieds.
Put the word out. Start conversations with other mothers at the playground, in the pediatrician’s waiting room, at the library story hour. Mention that you’d like to be part of a mother’s group. It can’t hurt to ask your pastor, your real estate or rental agent, your neighbors, and anyone else who knows your community well whether they know of any groups for mothers. Sooner or later your inquiries will reach the right person’s ears and you may be rewarded with a phone call and an invitation to drop by and visit a group you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed!
When you visit an existing group, go gratefully and with an open mind. It’s important to remind yourself before you go that every group, particularly the one which has been in existence for quite a while, has its own “culture,” that is to say, its own purpose, values, leadership style, goals, and methods of operating. It can be tremendously disappointing when the group you have hoped for and sought out doesn’t quite meet your expectations. While all mother’s groups seek to support mothers, the structure of the meetings and the values which are emphasized, whether consciously or unconsciously, can vary quite a bit.
For example, in some groups children of all ages attend with their mothers and play in and around the group while the meeting is in progress. In others, paid or volunteer childcare is provided so that the mothers may attend to the program without interruption or distraction. Some groups provide a speaker or a discussion leader and a topic for each meeting; some provide a craft project as well. At others, mothers get together simply for the relief of one another’s company and the conversation depends on what’s on everyone’s mind that day. A Christian group might open with a prayer or refer often to the Scriptures. Controversies abound today and there may be overtones at any group which make it clear that most of the members are in agreement over issues such as birthing practices, food choices, schooling options, environmental issues, child discipline, political affiliation, and so on.
In short, the first group you discover may or may not be the one that can best support you in your mothering. But don’t make this judgment too quickly. It’s natural to feel a bit lonely and “out of it” when you come into a new group, particularly when it’s obvious that many of the other members have long-standing friendships already in place. Be gracious and attempt to get to know some of the other mothers individually. Focus on what you have in common. More than likely, you soon will find yourself developing respect and admiration for mothers whose opinions in some areas oppose your own, but whose commitment to mothering is nonetheless strengthening.
Growing Your Own
But what if your phone calls, inquiries, and other detective work don’t turn up an existing support group you can attend? Or the groups in your area just aren’t what you need or have in mind? There’s only one solution, but it may be the best one of all: start one yourself!
It’s easiest, of course, if you already know another mom or two you can approach to help you. But you can take the plunge even if you don’t. Try mentioning your plans wherever mothers go: the library, the pediatrician’s office, the playground. Speak to women in your childbirth class, or call that “friend of a friend” you’ve heard is expecting. Place a classified ad in the personals section of the newspaper, or design a flyer to post at the grocery store. Again, if you’d like to organize as a chapter of a larger group there are several national organizations that can provide start-up materials, including handbooks, posters, ready-to-run print ads, newsletters, leadership training, and more.
Once you’ve sparked some interest, call an informal organizational meeting. Don’t worry if it’s only you and one or two other mothers. Take the time now to discuss your vision for the group. How do you see it? As a ministry or service organization to mothers in the community? As a small, warm circle of close friends? As a vehicle for educating yourself about childcare and child development? Do you really want to meet regularly with other mothers, or are you more interested in playmates for your children and occasional help with childcare? If the latter, you might prefer to devote your energies to developing a playgroup or babysitting co-op instead. Or, your goal might be for those types of groups to develop later under the umbrella of your support group.
If your group is content to start small, you may be able to meet in one another’s homes. If you’ve received quite a bit of interest or if you feel confident that publicity will draw more than a few mothers, you’ll have to address the practical issues of finding a meeting space, making childcare arrangements if necessary, and covering whatever costs you’ll be incurring. Make a list of local organizations you could ask to help with these needs. Churches and community centers are often happy to provide meeting space during the week. Remember though, that your group’s use of a room or two will cost your hosting organization something in the way of increased utility bills and janitorial service. You may want to offer a monetary donation or volunteer hours in return.
Although the group’s character and purpose will undoubtedly evolve over time, you should give some preliminary thought to how your meetings initially will be structured. Do you envision hosting speakers? Reading and discussing books together? Finding ways to be politically active as a group? Working on crafts projects? Organizing community service projects and fundraisers? Planning social events for the entire family? Or, more simply, just serving as a “time out” place of rest and conversation for busy moms? Any one of these can serve as a starting point for a support group.
Once you’ve reached an agreement on a time, place, and general approach for your group, it’s time to post some more flyers, make a pot of coffee or a pitcher of juice, and offer a warm welcome to all comers!
If starting a support group from scratch is beginning to sound a bit too overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. You’re not setting yourself up to run the entire thing, you’re just trying to see it successfully launched. Once the group is meeting regularly, you can afford to sit back a bit and let others find their niche. One of the biggest challenges facing a group that wishes to grow and reach out to others is finding ways to attract and assimilate newcomers. And one of the best ways to overcome that hurdle is to make sure that everyone who wants one has a job to do or a role to play.
Yes, some mothers, particularly those with very young children, will be grateful just to find a group that welcomes them to come in and sit down. But others will have energy to spare and will be glad to take on more responsibilities. In fact, mothers who have been feeling acutely isolated or who have been struggling with self-esteem issues often find that the sense of purpose and achievement they receive from their commitment to their support group helps lift any lingering feelings of self-doubt or depression.
It’s startling how many new jobs potentially reside in a support group. Your group may profit from having a treasurer, a childcare coordinator, a field trip planner, a newsletter editor, a program chairwoman, a phone tree coordinator, a fund-raiser, an outreach chairwoman, and so on. None of these are essential, but all can be beneficial. Rather than backing away from all the extra work such a multi-faceted program brings to mind, encourage mothers who show an interest to jump in and get involved. Their personal relationships with the other women who attend will take root that much more quickly, and their growing commitment will help ensure a steady future for the group.
Starting a new project of any kind, much less something as purposeful and serious sounding as a “support group” can be intimidating. Starting one that will involve working closely with people you don’t know yet, in ways you haven’t fully conceived of yet, can be particularly so. You may not see yourself as a “leader.” You won’t know at the outset whether or not the group you start will take shape in the particular way you want it to, whether many women will attend over time or only a few, whether you are getting in over your head or not. That’s OK. In fact, the most repeated advice our readers who wrote asked us to pass on was this: Go ahead and do it. The risks involved are actually very slight, but the rewards in store are great.