Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In defence of Mothers' Groups.

The other day I flicked through one of those free street mags; I've since thrown it out but from memory I think it was called Melbourne Mother. The magazine was targeted at well-off, middle class families and featured the usual stuff: ads for kids parties, articles on how to feed your toddlers etc. And even while I know that the journalistic content of such a magazine is padding for and subject to the advertisements they're selling within, and as such should not be treated as proper journalism, still I let myself be riled by the lead article.

It was to do with Mothers' Groups.

Now I don't know if you do this overseas, but in Australia the hospital where you give birth sends your details to the nurse at the local Maternal and Child Health Centre, and he or she puts you in a group with other new mothers in the local area. You start by attending a few information sessions (First Aid, settling techniques etc) but after 6 weeks they cut you loose from the MCHC and if you wish you can keep meeting up with each other, as a support network and/or friendship group . And a great many mothers DO choose to keep up the group. It means that new mothers have a chance to forge friendships for themselves and their babies, and is, as far as I'm concerned, a really great idea.

mid 2001; can you pick the baby Climber?

The article was a variation on one I've seen many times in various mother-based literature, and centred on the so-called awfulness of Mothers' Groups. It featured horror stories from anonymous women about how they had to leave their Mother's Groups because of the hideous levels of bitchiness and competitiveness. Look, I'm not saying this never happens. But I am pretty sick of seeing this article dished up as the only story about Mothers' Groups. I think people love to jump on the bandwagon of the bitchy woman, the competitive mother, the persecuted outsider. Personally I would like to see the other side represented occasionally; the story of how your Mothers' Group was an important part of your life as a new mother and an integral part of making you feel part of parenting community. Having a baby can make you feel isolated. A Mothers' Group can help bring you in. Even if you don't like everyone.

I have two beefs with the Awfulness of the Mothers' Group Story. The first is that I think bad experiences in this area probably have a lot more to do with group dynamics as opposed to mother dynamics. I think about the various groups I've been part of (or outside of as the case may be), and struggle to recall a group where everyone got on. I think that in any group, be it work-based, friendship-based or shared-interest-based, there will probably be at least one person at odds with another. Indeed, there will often be a person within a group who becomes the catalyst for bonding the rest of the group, because everyone unites in their dislike of that one person. I'm not saying this is a good thing, and when you are the one everyone dislikes, it's pretty horrible. But I don't think Mothers' Groups are the sole offenders. I've seen stories like the Melbourne Mother's article argue that a Mothers' Group is more likely to bring up bad group behaviour because the only thing you might have in common is that you dispensed your babies at the same time, but really, how is that not true for a group of people who all happen to work at the same cafe or all had the yen to learn a language? (And on the flip-side, being suddenly in charge of a helpless, demanding, non-verbal bundle of baby IS quite unifying when you think about it.)

My second beef is that the breathless recounting of those mean, competitive Mothers' Group stories seem to extinguish the many wonderful experiences that I and many other mothers have had. In my Mothers' Group, we have laughed, cried, complained, comforted, talked about serious and frivolous issues, discussed fashions for big people and small, exchanged recipes, taught each other skills, held each other's children when a toilet break was needed, passed round tips and clothing and toys and books, explored Melbourne's child-friendly attractions and spent many companionable hours over a cup of tea, some sugary nibbles and the cacophony of our children. I've got to know their children and they mine. They are there for me when I need them. And I've needed them. We are a smaller group than in our early days, as members went back to work or moved away or lost interest. That's the way it goes. But I am so glad I have these families in my life. Motherhood would have been a less happy experience for me if I hadn't had my Mothers' Group. And I think those articles should sometimes say stuff like that.

31 comments:

  1. Thoughtful words. Like every group it only takes one person to tip it either way - one bitchy to ruin it or one strong to hold it together. These stories often make global statements rather than realising that.

    I'm glad that your group provided you with everything that you needed.

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  2. I agree. My mother's group has been fantastic, even though we don't all get together all of the time. I have made some fantastic friendships and so has Holly.

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  3. Absolutely! There weren't Mothers' groups of that kind around when I had babies but I think back to some of the play groups that i was involved in and, quite frankly, there were days when they practically kept me from violence! And, yes, there were the Rich Cows at Gymboree. And the Gossip Mongers at play group. But if they weren't there I would have met them at work or somewhere else.

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  4. Ooh - I thought I wrote this post ( I checked, I didn't, although a search on my blog came up with a dozen or more happy MG tales :)

    I love my MG. I moved across town when MC was 2months old - it was lovely to meet these women, who many I count as some of my closest friends. And yes, we lost a few, but they were a bit weird to begin with :p

    I've read that bitchy-type article though, in the Good Weekend, I think. It made me mad - wimmen are bitches and all that.

    When I came back from the hospital with the latest addition, there was a tray of hot lasagne on the doorstep when we got home. With a salad. And a little sachet of dressing. How special is that ?
    From an MG gal. We love her.

    Also - we had a Dr early on in the piece, who dismissed something I said with the 'only thing you might have in common is that you dispensed your babies at the same time'.

    And you know, I didn't like him. Went elsewhere next time.

    Don't diss my 'hood.

    I'm glad you love yours :)

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  5. OMG - I think i'm making up for not blogging/reading, by being the comment-rambler.

    Sorry !

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  6. Ack, just lost my comment!

    I was saying how my mothers group was my lifeline and sanity saver. We stayed together for about seven years, and even when we all began returning to work, where possible we scheduled our part time jobs around Tuesdays so we could still come. I remember one woman saying her week revolved around Tuesdays.

    And I picked the baby climber straight off. Easy peasy.

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  7. I'm here to represent the online mother's groups! We all meet on an Australian baby forum as we were all due in the same month. After our bubs were born the Melbourne Mums decided to meet up, and we've all been great friends ever since. All our bubs are about 18 months old now.

    We try and catch up in person at least once a month, but we share all our highs, lows, problems, questions and venting online. Most of us pop into the forum at least once a day to catch up on what everyone is up to.

    I love my online Mums. Go the Fab Feb Mummas!

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  8. My group (some of the dads came too) wasn't and isn't particularly intimate, but it was positive. Apart from anything else it gave me a reason to get out of the house once a week, a lunch date, and people to say hello to in the supermarket. I ran into one of the mother and daughter combos this morning and from across the road that little toddler pointed us out to her mother. She knows her hood, she remembers her buddy, how cool is that?

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  9. I am going on a girls ski weekend tomorrow with Domestic Goddess whom I met...at mothers'group. Mothers' Group was my absolute lifeline when Blossom was little, as was playgroup and of course Fairlie. These groups are so especially important when you don't have family around to lean on.

    Bah humbug to the mothers' group haters.

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  10. My Mother's Group absolutely saved my sanity. We haven't kept in touch but if I ran into anyone from it we would be able to take up where we left off - no question.

    I was a little sad when there wasn't a Mother's Group for each of the next two kids.

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  11. oh - and I picked the climber straight away.

    From:
    another mother of a big-headed child :p

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  12. Is the Climber the second from the left on the bottom, in blue?

    I'm so tempted to pull out my soap box on this one! I hate, hate, hate when people toss out judgments based on a few bad apples. Every group has at least one grump or naysayer. It's just human.

    But mother's groups are a brilliant idea. Who else wants to discuss the toilet habits of a 2 year old except another mother? Or understands what it feels like to run on 2 hours of sleep at a time?

    It reminds me of the working mother/stay-at-home mother debate. If you work, you're a bad mother, if you stay-at-home, you're anti-feminist. Why do we have to be lumped into pre-determined categories?! DO WHAT MAKES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAPPY!

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  13. I wish I'd had a mother's group. They don't seem to establish them in that manner here, so I've got nothing on the horizon either. Maybe I should go scout something out in the next few weeks. ;)

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  14. Write a letter to the editor. In fact, copy and paste this very post and (tweaking here and there to allow for the format difference) send it along.

    -J.

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  15. Wasn't around in my day. I joined Play Centre which is a group that involves the mothers in the whole thing. Have to take turns helping etc. Some support is nice, especially if you live away from family or other mothers with small children.

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  16. I'm actually on my way out now to attend a 2 year old's birthday party who is the daughter of a lady in my mother's group. Our group has been going for almost 4 years now. We are all so different, with not much in common except for our children of a similar age. But that is enough. We respect each other's differences and enjoy each other's company and camaraderie. And there is always at least one of us who has been hanging out for the Wednesday cuppa and debrief to come around. No-one understands the ups and downs of motherhood like other mothers - funnily enough! :P Yep - mother's groups are great. And can even be life-savers. Great post. Thank-you :)

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  17. I like mothers' groups so much, I've had two of them. There was so much age difference between my two, that my first mothers' group had pretty much run its course by the time The Impossible Princess was born, so I asked the MCH nurse to include me in the next 'new' parents' group - which she did (with, I think, a few reservations) and it has been fantastic! We still meet as a playgroup (Queenie gets dragged along and the littler kids all love her playing with them), and the mums get together for dinners every now and then. I agree with M, these groups are especially important when you are from overseas or interstate and don't have family around.

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  18. Hear, hear! Absolutely everything you said my mothers' group friend! I am so happy to say that 7 1/2 years on, I would still be lost without you girls, for all those things you mentioned. I love watching our kids growing into beautiful little humans together and knowing that we have bonded over the most important people in our lives.
    We are so lucky and so are our kids.
    I have wished all my friends a mothers' group experience like ours.
    Remember that and stay away from those joyless articles in advertising brochures!

    A
    xxx

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  19. That's a great idea you Aussies have. Too bad it's not common practise here. After childbirth everything can be at such a low ebb, and if you're new in the area it's even worse...Glad you have such a great supportive group. And you know, some people just can't be happy if they're not complaining!

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  20. Couldn't have said it better myself.

    I remember once a friend of mine (before she had a kid of her own) expressed surprise that I went to mother's group, not thinking I was "the type". What the??

    I said, "I'm a mother."

    Also, my mother's group has now morphed into craft group, hooray!

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  21. Okay. I need to take the line of the article here.
    First, a few disclaimers:
    - Not all women are awful, competitive, whiny, bitches.
    - I don't hate mothers groups
    - I appreciate its about group dynamics, not MG dynamics.
    - They can be wonderful support networks.
    Its just that, well, mine sucked. I probably contributed to its overall suckiness.
    We had the queen of all uber competitive mothers in our group.
    She asked me how much my husband earns, how much my house is worth and loved a bit of one up manship.
    Oh, and she constantly told me how small my child was.
    I didn't last there long.
    Now that I read over what I've just written, I realise I don't hate mothers groups per se, I just hate her.

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  22. I could not agree more. I really feel like some much of this so-called animosity between women is manufactured to provide dramatic fodder and it really angers me.

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  23. I'm with Joke ..send your comments to the mag & give them the alternate positive view ...the negative voices always seem to be the loudest...unless challenged

    ..and I'm prett sure Climber is on the bottom with the blue shawl..it's the eyes..

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  24. It sounds wonderful.

    Poor Stacey. At some point, confronted with a continuous, undeniable tendency toward rudeness and one-upsmanship, I might have been inclined to say "I'm so sorry that your husband has a small penis."

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  25. Broad generalisations always give me the sh*ts! Like many book reviews I read I am sure articles like that are written bypeople who have not even experienced what they are writing about - just passing off some more tired cliches.

    Like you said, the institution of the mother's group is very sound - but as in any group, not everyone will get along. It's up to the individuals within the group to decide whether there is enough cohesion to see the group move forward - or not, as the case may be.

    Personally, my mother's group split in two after about 4 years - the half I belong to now meets as a book group (surprise surprise!) and we are about to head off for a weekend away at the end of next month. We have been meeting for nearly 7 years - long live mother's sanity saving groups, I say :-)

    Oh and many thanks for your email after my last comment on your blog Stomper - I am around and reading and commenting sporadically. My blog is "on hold" for the forseeable future - I hope to return to it one day ;-)

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  26. I had all my kids OS however there was a play group for English Speaking Mums - as the playgroup was quite large smaller groups would form and meet at other times. It saved my sanity and possibly the lives of my kids!!! A friend who had a baby recently wasn't sure about the whole Mothers Group thing - and I urged her to join one. I said in that whole group you will find at least one person you really connect with.

    I agree with whoever said - Send your piece in to demonstrate the other side.

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  27. *sigh*

    I miss my old Sth Melb mother's group. Sure there were one or two mum's I personally couldn't stand but all in all I enjoyed my Mother's Group.

    Great post btw...

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  28. nope, my MG was shite. absolute shite. i stuck at it for almost a year and it never got any less shite.

    i found my best group experience with the ABA.

    i found it far better to have a variety of families with a variety of age in the kids, so you could see what was normal at different stages and there was far more sharing and never competition.

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  29. oh, yay. love to hear happy stories about mothers' groups.

    i am yet to meet/join my local in-person mg, but have an online community of fertility treatment gals who all got knocked up and "dispensed" around the same time. whilst we are yet to meet, we have shared stories, talents, supported one another... it has been amazing. i can only imagine how this would be in person...

    i read that article too and felt the same as you. it's a shame we don't celebrate whast we do for each other as women more often.

    thanks lovely for doing this xo

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  30. You are sooo lucky. Unfortunatly for me not a single girl from my mothers group meshed and we all went our seperate way after the intial few weeks at the health centre. I've always been in awe of girlfriends who have kept in touch and formed a true mothers group and lasting friendships. I think they're a great idea.
    Em

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  31. Well said. Some are great, a few are not. Why women pussyfoot around and let bitches rule is beyond me. If nothing else, leave if the party continually heads to the shitter and re-form a group without the Shittee! Haven't you found that people who bellyache about groups seem to like the martyr role?!

    My mothers' group lasted over 2 years, and was formed when all our kids were over 8 mos old - we met at a mom & baby play gym. Still keep up with 2 of them - even though we've moved out of the area (25 mins away). Since both boys are now in full-time school, my 'group' now is whomever kids/parents the boys are involved with at school, scouts or sports. Luckily, you can be as social or unsocial as you please here.

    I'm glad you're getting what you need out of your group. Just by the sound of you on your blog, I think you would be FUN to hang with! So you're attracting other good folk like yourself.

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