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See our guest post at the New America Foundation: Equality and Justice for All Families.


Support Groups for Moms

by Nelia Odom

Lonely. Trapped. Anxious. Depressed. Over fifty mothers wrote in response to our invitation to share information about mothering support groups. Many of them used words such as these to describe their emotions as they adjusted to their new role as an at-home mother to an infant or young child.

It’s not the picture you see in the advertisements for baby products, is it? Those mothers in their filmy nightgowns radiate joy, their hair and skin glowing, their house in perfect order, their babies nestled peacefully in their arms. Look again, the next time you page through a parenting magazine. Rarely is a friend depicted, or the baby’s grandmother, or even the father. And mothers don’t need them. And they certainly don’t need something as heavy sounding as a “support group.”

Aren’t support groups for people with serious problems? People struggling, for example, to overcome a disease or a bankruptcy, a divorce or an addiction? Or people who have, through no fault of their own, been victimized by others? Support groups for mothers? Doesn’t good mothering just happen? Isn’t mothering the most natural thing in the world?

Well, perhaps not, at least not right now. That vision of a mother and child, sufficient each to the other and cocooned in a seamless circle of bliss, is of course a fantasy. More than that, it’s an irony in a society which venerates child-care “experts” and devalues maternal care. Women who are mothers today know this, and mothers who are at home with children for the first time tend to feel it especially acutely.

New Identity, New Questions

An unsettled new mother is particularly prone to question her unfamiliar role. If child-care is a simple task, why don’t I understand my baby better?  Why is she crying?  Why do I feel like crying? And, the most frustrating question of all: If I’m doing what’s right for my family, why do I feel so alone?

With whom can a mother today share such feelings? Her own mother or mother-in-law may live many miles away. Her friends all may be at the office. If she has recently moved to the area and has not had time to meet people, she may not even have any friends nearby. Many mothers will readily identify with a reader from Golden, Colorado, who wrote to describe her feelings as a new mother experiencing a midwestern winter in a new city. “After working ten years, I suddenly found myself alone from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. with an infant whose care I knew very little about, in a neighborhood with few children, at a time of year when most people go outside only when they must. The first two months of my son’s life I felt so much anxiety about leaving the house that I very seldom did. Consequently, I felt extremely isolated, and my self-esteem plummeted as I struggled to fill each day and spent time watching the clock waiting for my husband to come home and talk to me.”

Sounds pretty grim, right? Perhaps even unhealthy? Yet on reflection, this mother’s reaction is not unreasonable given her circumstances: a major life change involving a tremendous new responsibility, a completely new geographical setting, the loss of close friends and family, the absence of peers from her daily life. Add that up and you have not so much an unhealthy individual, but an unhealthy environment in which just about anyone would struggle to find new bearings.

What Mothers Need

Mothers need friendships just like anyone else. They need the stimulation that contact with peers provides. They need information about child behavior and development that is reliable yet respects their own mothering intuition. They need playmates for their children and occasional help with child-care. They need other mothers to laugh and have fun and go places with, kids in tow. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask for but, unfortunately, fast-paced lifestyles too often work against the meeting of such simple, yet basic needs.

The good news is that support groups aimed at helping mothers develop friendships and gain confidence in their mothering abilities have proliferated in recent years. The letters we received described a wonderful assortment of groups: formal and fairly structured groups with newsletters and dues, often developed under guidelines from a national organization; informal playgroup arrangements, many of which came about serendipitously; babysitting and other types of co-op arrangements through which connections may be made with other families living nearby; and groups whose purpose is to help mothers cope with specific problems such as prematurity.

Comfort, Community, and Challenge

Whether her group meets weekly or monthly, informally within the neighborhood or more formally across town in a church or community center, every mother who wrote to describe her support group mentioned a number of personal benefits. The first is an enormous sense of relief and comfort in the discovery that her questions and emotions concerning motherhood and child-care were understood and shared by other mothers. The second is gratitude for the sense of community that a mothering support group provides. A third benefit mentioned particularly by those who assumed leadership responsibilities is that their support group provided an outlet for their creativity and a new recognition of their own skills in organizing and encouraging others.

In short, mothering support groups do so much more than help women survive a new and often trying period of life. In the face of our society’s unhealthy lack of interest in the needs of families in general and mothers in particular, mothers who get together regularly with other mothers to learn, work, and play are succeeding at creating for themselves a healthy social context in which they can grow as individuals while their mothering abilities flourish.

“I really credit the group with helping me to blossom and grow in my mother role,” reports the Colorado mother who initially felt reluctant to leave her house. “I gained so much confidence that first year and eventually became coordinator of the group.” “Having something to look forward to, planning and carrying it through has helped me overcome the sense of loss, isolation, and hopelessness I had as a new mother at home,” echoes a mother from Texas. Of the friendships she established through a mothering support group, an Oklahoma mother adds, “I don’t believe I would have had the opportunity to develop anything like those relationships had I continued working outside the home.”

Friends. Relationships. Fellowship. Happily, these words also appeared repeatedly in the letters we received from our readers. Women profit tremendously from positive relationships with other women, whatever their stage of life. Most of us have happy memories of young girls with whom we were “best friends” at school or in the neighborhoods in which we grew up, of college roommates with whom we shared dreams, plans, and riotously fun times, of female coworkers whose company we enjoyed even as we learned to respect and admire their competence. Should we allow ourselves to lose the benefits of female companionship when we return home to raise a family? The last thing women who are busy bearing and raising children deserve is to be cut off from the company of other women. “It continues to amaze me that we mothers at home feel so alone, yet we’re all going through the same feelings and experiences,” sums up a mother from Pennsylvania. “I believe that sharing these years is essential for good mothering.”