A Playgroup that Became a Family
I've recently had the opportunity to reflect on the value of my playgroup--the group of moms (and one stay-at-home dad) that I met with almost every Wednesday beginning when my first son was 2 weeks old and ending when we moved away. And actually, not really ending…our group has a closed Facebook group where we regularly post funny stories, questions, and requests to get together (with kids or without.) Every year we reserve the last weekend in September for Moms' Weekend, a time to get away (well, except for that one year that we did a stay-cation, decidedly our least-favorite), drink wine, play games, stay up late, talk, get pedicures, go on walks, eat grown-up food, sleep in, and perhaps take in a non-animated movie where we can drink caffeinated pop and not have to share our popcorn. What we had in common to begin with were newborn babies, a desire to do parenting "right", and a need for community. What we have ended up with is a circle of support that extends from the mundane to the extraordinary.
I'm a joiner. I always have been. As a self-described introverted-extrovert, I've always gravitated toward places where I can be with people but on familiar terms. I need to be with people but not just any people; I want relationships.
Having a baby can be extremely isolating. Your world suddenly shrinks down to a microcosmic level. This one tiny being is relying on YOU to do EVERYTHING for him. You are providing his food supply, for the love of god! Remember how you used to do all these things? Like, have a profession, go out with friends, volunteer for causes, have hobbies? Uh-uh, you have one cause now: KEEP THIS CHILD ALIVE. But not just that-- make this child into the best child that has ever existed in the world. Okay, maybe it isn't that lofty, but it sometimes feels that way. Why aren't newspapers stopping the presses to record this life-encompassing work you are now undertaking? You are keeping lists of bowel movements! You have a safety pin on your bra to remind you which breast you nursed from last! You are using fragrance-free, environmentally-friendly detergent to wash the tiniest pairs of socks that have ever existed! (Socks which, by the way, don't even stay on your charge's wrinkly little feet, and yet you wash them still.) You sleep in small bursts. You eat meals of chocolate chips and triscuits when you pass through the kitchen on your way down to the laundry room. You fold those tiniest socks (or maybe just leave them in a heap in the laundry basket) and wonder at the ten tiny toes wiggling forth from that beautiful, mysterious, terrible, glorious creature that you have learned to balance in one arm so you can type with the other. It's very easy to get overwhelmed. It's very easy to get lost.
Perhaps the biggest blessing of Playgroup was the feeling of solidarity. The affirmations of the small, boring, everyday moments, that hardly seem small, boring, or everyday at the time. It doesn't really matter that people have been having babies for millennia; when it's your first baby, it sort of feels like the World's First Baby. Those moms with older children can kind of come off like know-it-alls. Plus, they don't remember. Does anyone remember? Like, REALLY remember how hard it is? My playgroup moms were my fellow soldiers in the army of child raising. You're not the only crazy one who stares so long at your baby's head that you start wondering if those lumps on his skull are normal. And when someone else sheepishly brings it up their baby's bumpy head, you all laugh and sigh in relief. You're not the only one obsessing about rolling back your baby's circumcised foreskin so it doesn't grow back--never in your life have you spent so much time examining a penis, but, thank God, you have someone to giggle with about it. You learn the symptoms of Hand, Foot, and Mouth, you passionately detest the mere idea that your baby might encounter BPA, you shun the mall on the north side of town that doesn't have a nursing room, you buy the Bumpkins bib with the sleeves, you join the Baby Laptime class at the the public library, you reluctantly learn to use the rectal thermometer, you demand tummy time, you find the better swaddle blanket. You do all these things with and because of your mom friends who are gently, lovingly, raucously and beautifully steering you through motherhood. In the olden days, when you used to have a job that gave you a paycheck, there were lots of people and indicators that gave you feedback on your performance. You had data and test results or annual reviews. You might have received bonuses or recognition. The mom gig can be weak in these areas. But the Playgroup moms cheer you on. They celebrate the milestones (or inchstones). They encourage and affirm that you're doing things right (or right-enough). They offer suggestions when they can or just sigh and nod their heads at the frustrations that don't have ready answers. You look at them--with their messy ponytails, bags-under-eyes, stretchy-waist pants and spit-up stained shirts--and see that you are not the only one, you are not alone.
And then sometimes the baby diarrhea hits the fan, so to speak.
My oldest son was 2 1/2 when his brother was born--his brother who decided that 40 weeks was too long to wait and so enthusiastically burst (quite literally) onto the scene four weeks early, before his lungs were quite ready to do the actual work of breathing. The twelve days we spent in the NICU were some of the longest days of my life. Spoiler alert: he turned out fine, no one would ever know he was a preemie. But a sick baby hooked up to tubes and wires and machines is scary. A post-partum mom is a little bit scary, too.
Not everyone knows how to deal with scary. Or wants to try. It can be surprising when the people you expected to be there are glaringly absent. I've found it's much better to focus on the people who surprise you in the ways they show up, like my playgroup moms. Like Kate, who visited with whole-grain chocolate chip cookies for my milk supply and a cd of Sarah Groves songs for my soul. Like Sarah, also a doctor, who would stop up after her rounds to check in. Like Laura, who figured out how to send electronic well-wishes that were printed out and delivered by the hospital volunteers. Like the moms who responded to my desperate, depressed, and ranting emails--emails I can barely stand to re-read now, because the person who wrote them was weak and scared and scarcely resembles who I think I am. They responded with prayers and encouragement. Like Carrie, who looked past my sleeplessness and anxiety when too many unhelpful nurses had me questioning my commitment to breastfeeding. She brushed past the weepy, worn-down me, reached down for the determined and tenacious me, and cheer-leaded me back to nursing. These women had my back and propped me up when I started to slump.
One of the things I value about church is the fellowship of family who will celebrate your greatest joys and grieve your deepest sorrows. Another side of church is having those same family members be a witness to your everyday life and stand by you as you inhale and exhale the monotony, routine, and the slow-and-steady journey that makes up the majority of our living. Our learning and growing and becoming happens in the small moments just as much as the big ones. Playgroup has been like church family to me in that way-- deep and shallow, wide and narrow, we have lived the blessing and discipline of mothering together. And we are not the only ones, we are not alone.