How local support groups are helping new mothers stay connected
Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
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There are 17 of us—twice that many including babies—sitting cross-legged on the floor of Kidville on Bethesda Row. Some babies sit in our laps, others sleep in car seats parked on the carpet next to us. A few infants are crying, the mothers quick to shush and soothe. “This is a nursing-friendly environment,” says Robyn Cohen Churilla, who leads the group. The oldest baby is 7 months, and the youngest, at 5 weeks, is my own son, Ezra. When the music starts for the “Wee Wiggle” program, Ezra perks up—this is the most stimulation he’s had in his young life.
For many of us, this is the first time we’re meeting, but it won’t be the last. We’re part of Mamas Link, a Bethesda-based moms group founded in 2007 by Churilla, a former Montgomery County teacher, after her son, Shane, was born. “I saw how important it was to connect with other moms going through the same thing at the same time,” she says.
I heard about Mamas Link from another first-time mother, who found it helpful to spend time with other moms and babies while she was on maternity leave. We meet every week in the Bethesda or Rockville area. With babies in tow, we take music and yoga classes, paint ceramic tiles and meet with family therapists. We even have a professional photo shoot.
“I remember waking up the day of the photo shoot and thinking it was a great day,” says Rockville mom Laurie Ehrlich, director of marketing and communications at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, who joined the group with her son, Jake. “I could straighten my hair and put on makeup.”
Mamas Link is one of many moms groups in the area that has seen a steady rise in enrollment in recent years. The benefits are clear: Joining a group gets new moms like me out of the house and helps us meet other new moms. We get to vent about everything from feeding and sleep schedules to adjusting to our post-baby bodies.
“You can prepare yourself all you want, but if it’s your first child, you have no idea what you’re doing,” says Amanda Kaiser, a Potomac resident who participated in Mamas Link with her son, Liam. “Some kids were already sleeping through the night; Liam wasn’t. I needed that sounding board to know that I am figuring it out and not doing such a bad job. I needed to know I’m doing OK as a mom—and as a new mom.”
Lynne McIntyre, a psychotherapist who lives in Cleveland Park, joined Parenting and Childhood Education (PACE) nine years ago when her son Calvin was 3 months old. PACE is a discussion-centered organization, founded in Montgomery County in 1973, that offers educational and emotional support for moms. Its leaders have graduate degrees in education, social work, psychology or counseling. Each group meets for eight two-hour sessions with an assigned discussion topic, such as eating, sleeping or crying.
“Washington is such a transient area—most people do not have family nearby,” says PACE President Judy Itkin. “They don’t have the support of grandmas, aunts and uncles down the street.”
When McIntyre joined, she was suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. She had terrible insomnia that pushed her to her breaking point. “It’s one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had,” she says. She could no longer eat or take pleasure in things she had once enjoyed, such as listening to music or visits from family and friends.
“These groups are important to create the community that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” says McIntyre, now a facilitator for Postpartum Support International (PSI), a drop-in support group for new mothers that meets in Silver Spring, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. “When new mothers create that community from the beginning, they are less likely to suffer from that depression and anxiety. A lot of that comes from isolation.”
McIntyre credits PACE with saving her life. “I was suicidal,” she says. “I remember my group leader said, ‘This is really hard, and for some of you it’s going to feel extra hard. There is help, there are resources, and I can connect you to them if you feel like you need more.’ I don’t know what would have happened to me if she hadn’t opened that door.”
New moms often ask McIntyre, “Why did this happen to me?” She says groups like PACE and PSI help mothers realize they aren’t alone in feeling this way.
“The single most helpful feedback for moms with postpartum depression and anxiety is to sit in a room with other new mothers who say, ‘I love my baby, I love my partner, I have support, and I’m totally miserable. I can’t stop crying and I don’t know why,’ ” she says. “And they have other mothers who nod and say, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ It’s a safe place to articulate what they are experiencing.”
Jenny Rittberg, who moved to Potomac from Brooklyn, N.Y., a year before her daughter, Amalia, was born, says PACE meetings helped her connect with people as she was getting adjusted to a new area.
“The format where you are talking about emotional things, opening yourself up and being vulnerable, allowed us to connect in a meaningful way in a very short period,” says Rittberg, a math specialist at the Norwood School in Bethesda. “Every single week, someone talked about breastfeeding—either having trouble with it or being hesitant to switch to formula, and someone who did switch to formula feeling guilty about doing so. What was beautiful was that everyone was affirming of each person’s decisions. They said, ‘That’s OK, you’re doing your best. You can’t push yourself too hard, you have to do what feels right.’ ”
Feeding is a common topic at La Leche League, a monthly moms group that meets to promote and support breastfeeding, with locations in Kensington, Takoma Park and Silver Spring. I went to a La Leche meeting when Ezra was 4 months old and I was transitioning back to work at Roll Call. The other moms were incredibly supportive, sharing their personal tips on how and when to pump. “We encourage mothers to recognize that they are the experts on their babies,” says Marie Beam, a La Leche League leader with the Kensington group who counsels women struggling with breastfeeding. “Mothers learn to trust themselves.”
Judy Itkin recently heard from a PACE group that celebrated 25 years together. They’ve stayed close through confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, high school graduations, even weddings. “One PACE group has been meeting for 38 or 39 years,” she says.
The first group of women Churilla worked with at Mamas Link still vacations together. Ehrlich turned to her moms group friends when she was struggling with the decision to go back to work. “I felt less alone with the idea of leaving Jake all day, knowing that there were others in the group having the same experience,” she says. Rittberg still meets with her PACE group, both for moms’ only brunch dates and trips to a playground in Potomac.
“We tell women, ‘Reach out to the person next to you and invite them to lunch,’ ” says Pat Shelly, founder of the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington, which offers weekly group drop-in meetings. “We make a special effort to make the new people feel at home.”
After the end of our six-week Mamas Link session, our group stayed in touch. Some formed weekly playgroups, others organized a monthly moms’ night out, and sent invitations for first birthday parties. We’re no longer strangers with infants, but mothers of toddlers who are walking, talking, even sleeping through the night.
“I talk to some of these girls every day,” says Kaiser, who still organizes group dinners. “Liam will be going to school with some of their kids. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
Rebecca Gale is an editor and reporter at Roll Call and author of Hill Navigator, a workplace advice column. She lives in Bethesda with her husband and son. To comment on this story, e-mail com email@example.com.