Playgroups Help Moms Keep Sanity
Written By Rona Sue London
Photographed By David Stuck
I was in love, utter complete love. I wanted nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom, my days filled to the brim with this tiny creature looking to me to satisfy his every need. Then, one day, about seven weeks into this amazing adventure with the wind blowing and snow still on the ground, I found myself facing one of life’s most interesting paradoxes; I had everything I wanted and yet I had never felt so completely alone.
I looked out my window at the leafless trees and realized that there I was by myself with this crazy little being who consumed my every waking (and sleeping) moment in a never-ending parade of diapers and naps, bottles and burping. From sun up to sun down and beyond, he commanded me — mind, body and soul, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But something was missing when I left my professional and married-before-kids life behind. I quickly realized what it was. I desperately missed my girlfriend time.
My need, I discovered, was universal. Moms, be they stay-at-home, part-time or full-time employed, have been known to furiously stalk other moms down the pet aisle of the grocery store even though they don’t have a dog, plan nursing sessions around shopping trips to Nordstrom so they can hang in the mothers’ room, and take endless stroller laps around the park all in an effort to “casually” meet other moms.
Nowadays moms are just as likely to boot up their computer and find a blog or online support group. As if by sonar, moms find ways to connect with one another.
Playgroups are often a bridge to the civilized world in a situation that is fraught with anxiety and solitude. After moving to Baltimore from Tennessee with her then 6-month-old, Sara Fried recalls, “I was consumed by loneliness. I sat in my town house in New Town and felt lonely and lost. I didn’t know anybody and didn’t even know how to get to the grocery store.”
The Jewish Community Center became her refuge. It was there that she found friends, other moms who understood that the window between a child’s morning and afternoon nap is slim and the need for adult conversation vast.
Playgroups satisfy the need for companionship, distraction and girl time in the trenches of motherhood. This need for support transcends boundaries and oftentimes becomes a family affair, bridging gender and generations.
Many playgroups are long-remembered and long-lived. Some friendships last a lifetime, both for the moms and the children. Though fraught with the inevitable ups and downs and awkward moments of any social group, and sometimes found through less conventional means, in the end most agree that these relationships are some of the richest and most rewarding in their lives.
Michelle Gold, 44, director of Goldsmith Early Childhood Education Center, contends that there are countless benefits to playgroups. For the youngsters it is an opportunity to meet children of the same age. “A playgroup may be the first social interaction and exposure to sharing opportunities. Of course sharing is somewhat easy when you are in another person’s house and you want to play with their toys. The challenge is when children are in their own home and are expected to share their toys. These are wonderful teachable moments.”
Gold firmly believes that the greatest benefit may not be for the children, but rather for the mothers. As people move and are more isolated from extended families, playgroups serve as an outlet for moms. They even can make moms better parents.
Many experts agree that, as important the connection a playgroup provides is for the children, it is crucial for the mother. When isolation and exhaustion set in, having a reason to leave the house may be a lifeline. It lends structure to a time that can be an endless loop of feeding, sleeping and crying.
In addition, interaction with other mothers satisfies a part of the brain that a baby cannot. Speaking with others about concerns can normalize feelings. It becomes illuminating to see how other mothers deal with their children, and can lead to more insightful parenting.
Sometimes, these interactions lead to bonds that not only span the preschool years, but also last through school and beyond. Fathers, often overlooked in these early family dynamics, also may find companionship with the husbands of playgroup buddies. Occasionally, entire families become intertwined.
Casey Gelber and Abby Himmelrich were in playgroup together when they were babies. Today, they are college students and remain good friends, texting from afar and getting together when on break from college.
“What always surprises and impresses me over the years is that even though we are now in totally different college environments, when we come home, we still mesh. Although we don’t see each other on a day-to-day basis, what we have transcends distance. We grew up in each other’s families,” says Gelber.
Regardless of how relationships are formed, there will always be rewards and challenges. The rewards are, for the most part, obvious. The challenges, however, may be more difficult to anticipate.
One mom may be quite strict about manners, sharing and cleaning up. Another may be more relaxed. One may serve snacks of Cheetos and Hawaiian Punch, another flaxseed muffins and soy milk. As siblings join the fray, it becomes difficult to have a 3-year-old playing with small Legos who doesn’t know her own strength in the same environment as a youngster who is just crawling and putting everything into his mouth.
New ways of connecting are inevitable as technology continues to evolve. As a new mom, Jen Gaither, experienced this first-hand when she was given the name of a Yahoo group by her childbirth instructor. The group provided online support and also met as a playgroup. Gaither, who today is mother to Jessie Pearl, 7, Sammi, 4, and Yael, 7-months, is part time assistant director of Baltimore Hebrew Religious School.
“I made some wonderful friends and many fun acquaintances, but the group had its challenges.” For one, the playgroup became so large it was impossible to meet in a family home. Varying discipline styles led to conflict. Because the online component avoided face-to-face conversations, Gaither occasionally felt judged as members offered advice on issues.
“I was not so wise,” she says. “There is not just a single right way to parent and people do not always need to hear your opinions. Sometimes, being a good listener is the best support.”
On the other hand, “I would never have had three kids had it not been for the playgroup. I would definitely have stopped at one!”
As my winter of despair transitioned in a rainy spring, I found my gaggle of moms. One glorious day as I ventured out to our weekly playgroup, I realized that I was quite suddenly feeling at home with my new place in the world. I had found my community.
I realized that if I was happy, my sweet little boy was happy. My playgroup gave me routine, a reason to shower, wash off the spit-up forever encrusted on my shoulder, put on actual clothes and get out of the house. As we made the rounds of basements and family rooms watching our kids play and grow, we marveled at what we had created. We had found our world.
My new girlfriends reminded me that I was still a human being with thoughts, feelings and a sense of humor about this bizarre world into which I had willingly and enthusiastically stumbled.
Our playgroup met for five cycles of seasons and then parted ways as the children began preschool. Although my playgroup hasn’t met for years, I remember our time together fondly.
We spent years sharing horror stories of nights without sleep and the joy of first words. We shared the tears of worry and the laughter of the first drunken baby steps. We met for playgroup and then for girls’ night out and even took a huge family vacation to Deep Creek one glorious autumn.
We met as nervous, tentative moms, embarked on a journey, and discovered that our lives were richer having been shared.
Wanted: Moms With Small Children
Purpose: support and schmoozing
Requirements: ability to engage simultaneously in baby babble and adult conversation
Challenge: balance solutions with sympathy
Reward: immediate gratification and possible lifetime friendships for parent and tot
Locations To Stalk:
• Charm City Kids Club,
1500 Riderwood Ave.,
Lutherville, Md., 21093
• Jewish Community Center,
Park Heights and Owings Mills
• Library Story Time
• Tot Shabbat at Synagogue
Meadowood Regional Park,
• Barnes & Noble