Sunday, October 15, 2006

the problem of reciprocity

Sorry for the radio silence. Like many bloggers I am eagerly awaiting news from Alison - I expect it will be a while before we see her face round these parts. And what with my new job and all, it's been hard to wade into anything of substance to post about here.

But a couple of things have been happening in my world that have got me thinking. I've been thinking about mum's groups in particular and the reciprocal nature of community in general. For non-aussie readers who aren't familiar with mum's groups as they are here let me explain.

Based solely on geography and date of the birth of your first child, the local government health service for Maternal and Child Health organises a set of initial get togethers for new mothers. They start when your baby is between one and three months and usually run as organised 'sessions' for a couple of months. After this time it is up to group members to determine what happens to the future of the group.

As support groups in an age where extended family is nothing more than an ancestral memory for many women, they can be literal life savers. For those struggling with infant care, who are isolated, lacking information or just looking for someone who understands what's going on for them they are perhaps the government's single most effective initiative for battling the down sides of new motherhood.

There are divergent views on mum's groups - some become strong and binding extended families (I know one mum who still attends bi-annual get togethers for her mother's mums group!), others wither and die when groups find they have nothing in common and no interest in seeing each other. For me I simply can't imagine how I would have remained sane during that first year if it weren't for the women who came to be friends, allies, advisors, confidants and mutual time filler inners - and all in easy walking distance.

Next weekend my mum's group mums are getting together for a childfree evening meal. Although our day time kids oriented get togethers have dwindled to almost nothing and our members have moved suburbs, states and in one case countries, it seems almost everyone from our original group will be coming along next week. I'm really impressed about this and feel so happy to think that despite the pressures of our divergent lives we are all keen to keep that community alive. We still care for and support each other. But at the same time I feel kind of sad that one of the really important aspects of mum's group - the community we create for our children - seems to have withered on the vine.

And this had me asking myself - how much of mum's group is about kids and how much of it is about mums? Of course part of what scares me about this is looking down the barrel of a year at home with an infant and pre schooler and no other mum's around. Most of the mums had their second kids years ago already and have moved beyond those vomit and poo covered slightly hysterical sleep deprived days I am steeling myself for.

Who will I call on those afternoons when there are still hours to go before D gets home and I am up to my neck in feeling overwhelmed and really need someone to make me laugh? What will I say to Amy when she asks why no one wants to come and play, whatever happened to those kids she used to see? Who will I walk around the shops with when I don't need to buy anything but just have to get out of the house?

There's an expression in Thailand, mirrored I'm sure by sayings all over the world - it takes a village to raise a child. Mum's groups are a possibility for a modern village. The community we trust to nurture and keep our child safe while we as mothers are helped with our burdens and kept safe in other ways. One of the things that I've learned through experience, one of the things I used to 'know', but now really 'understand' is that healthy happy kids need healthy happy parents. My girl needs someone to play with, but so do I. The real promise of the mum's group is it's capacity to provide support to both mother and child.

So why don't mum's groups work more effectively than they do? Of course there's a million reasons, a lot of them are obvious and apply to all groups, all communities, all artificial social constructs - lives naturally divert people away from point in time shared experiences. Logistics and time constraints and personalities and other commitments. But there's a couple of things I think are particularly interesting about how people talk about these groups.

Much is made of the way mothers are judged for how they mother and the choices they make. From the brand of shampoo they use on their children's heads to their decisions to work or not, drink when pregnant, use dummies or cloth nappies there is no end of trivial decisions that are fodder for challenges. And the truth is that some of the harshest critics can seem to be other mothers. Perhaps because we are more defensive with people who know too much about what we do, perhaps because it is hardest to pass off criticism that comes from the people who face the same decisions we do.

Mum's groups can be microcosms of everything that makes mothering hardest. Support requires tolerance and when we are most needy, most confused, most overwhelmed and fed up is the time when we are least able to provide a non-judgemental helping hand to someone who has made different choices to us. Hosting other mothers in our homes raise all the questions we perhaps feel most ambivalent about. Do I miss out on that nap I want to clean the place up or do I say my sanity dictates cleaning remain at the bottom of my priorities, do I prepare healthy snacks or give in to my desire for some comfort food, do I discipline other people's children when they behave in ways I don't allow in my own child or do I let other mothers determine what is appropriate for their child? How do we deal with radically different mother behaviours?

The list of issues grows the longer you think about it and there are pretty much no easy answers. Communities which are diverse and tolerant require sacrifice - there's no getting around it. There are times when you do need to hold your tongue, watch possessions you didn't think to pack away get broken, disregard comments you feel are critical of choices you feel you are entitled to make and you have to prepare to feel let down by others who just aren't able to offer you the helping hand you really need. They are imperfect beasts.

But I do not want to teach my daughter that the answer to these difficulties is to walk away. The best response to difference is to disapprove and disengage. I want her to learn that with each complex social interaction she successfully negotiates, the better equipped she is to handle the next one life will throw at her. I want her to value her community and think that putting up with the hard stuff is a reasonable price to pay in exchange for being part of a bigger and brighter world. While I have no desire to expose her to certain perils, neither do I believe I am doing her any favours in teaching her that some people and some ways of living are not worth knowing and understanding, even if they are not what she chooses for herself.

So once every fortnight, despite diminishing interest, I tell everyone that they are free to come to my place. There's always something to eat, a cup of tea to be drunk and a kids room full of toys to be trashed. And if at times I feel ambivalent about how people behave in my house, if sometimes I have an inner dialogue that is less than charitable, then that's OK too.

10 Comments:

Blogger Penny said...

We have mothers' groups like that in the UK as well. I was part of two, one organised by the health service, and one organised by the NCT (National Childbirth Trust, an independant charity).

Like you, these groups were very important at the time I had babies. We were newcomers to the area, and without the groups I might have known no-one. They provided a social life and a framework to my days.

However they don't provide an important element of "the village" - the wisdom of older mothers. It can be a huge help to hear from someone with slightly older (or a lot older) children that it doesn't matter that your 2yo is still in nappies (when everyone else in your mother's group implies they have been trained for ages). Or to comment, slightly sadly, that they miss having toys scattered across the floor.

Part of the problem is that the mothers of older children are encouraged to go back to work. In the UK, I think there is increasing pressure on mothers of quite young children to get back to their paid work (and incidently provide employment for nannies and daycare workers).

This is not a condemnation of individual employed mothers of older (or younger) children. Each individual needs to make the right decision for their own family. Having many women out of paid employment also has negative side-effects. However one of the side-effects of policies that encourage paid employment for mothers also reduces the variety of child-rearing wisdom available to mothers of younger children by people who know their children.

7:22 pm  
Blogger sooz said...

Yes Penny, this is an excellent point. The cross fertilisation of the 'village' also helps to get that older advice from people who may have a more diverse range of experiences/beliefs/situations etc that helps to minimise the 'everyone does it this way' feel you can get in more homogenous groups. This type of resource is often referred to as social capital and you are dead right that (paid) work intensification in families contributes not just to a loss of family and mothering time, but also to the diminishing of social capital.

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Claire said...

My mothers group was formed in an inner area of Melbourne. Those of us young enough to have childeren, were not wealthy enough to have purchased a home there. As a result, every single family has moved away from there, and we are now spread out over Melbourne. Since our children started 3 year old kindergarten, and some mothers returned to work it has gotten too hard to get together. We are too far away to get together between kindergarten and work committments.
My eldest child is now 6 and in prep. I found my time at home after the birth of my 2nd child very lonley without a mothers group to entice me out. when I was longing for another group the second time around I was told that I would have to find my own playgroup rather than be put into another mothers group in my new area. I did not know other mothers in my local community, and going out with 2 small children seemed very hard. By the time i had my 3rd child last year everything was better. I had regained the sense of local community by volunteering on the kinder committee. I now have a child at kinder as well as one at school, and love the feeling of community that i get as mothers (and fathers) span a range of experience, ages and backgrounds. I really need the help of others now, as I juggle my time getting my older kids to their places of learning of time, while trying to fit in sleeps for the youngest. If possible I guess it pays to try and break into your local community before subsequent babies arrive, as the early newborn days are hard enough without having to break into new groups that have not been organised for you.

9:00 pm  
Anonymous tiel s-k said...

Having a second child when others in your group are not, can be difficult. Even though you are far more confident as a mother, you forget all those little things. Having someone there to go through it with you, keeps you sane for sure.

I had my firt child in Melbourne and had just established a mothers group, but we moved interstate. I fell pregnant with my next child when the first was only 9 months old..I was still on my L plates!

Fortunately I discovered a wonderful group of women, mostly first time mums, at a aqua aerobics class. We still try to catch up every week but almost 3 years on we rarely all can make it. Our lives are slowly starting to go their separate ways for many different reasons. It would be wonderful to remain close to some for as long as possible. Maybe when our children have children, we can pass on some of our memories and wisdom.

For me, tolerance is an important factor within these groups. We all might start in the same place and experience very similar stories, but once your child becomes older and parenting philosophies come into play, then you need to accept that friendships could drift apart.
The important thing is to hang on to the good memories with good mummy friends.

10:31 pm  
Anonymous rebecca said...

I am from the United States, and it is interesting to hear that you are provided with organized mothers' groups through the government. I think that is fantastic as long as you're given the choice to attend.

I attended a "Moms and Tots" group when I had my first child. Like every social situation I have ever found myself in, high school, college, even moving into a new neighborhood, there were obvious cliques that were already formed. I chose to hold strong, keep attending and eventually felt welcome, but not indoctrined. I did it all for the social interaction for my daughter. Every week I hoped that a new member may join and we would find some bonding similiarity, but no.

It is a luck of circumstances and a tolerance issue sometimes I think. Oh, it is so wonderful when you meet that mom who seems to share the same morals, disciplines and interests, AND has children that bond with your children.

Now I have 3 children and whether it is the park, or his preschool, or library hour, I am finding it difficult to connect with anyone. For alot of the mothers are first time mothers, and seem to have found more bonding with other first time moms. This is my first experience with my boy making, finding friends, and the friends I have, have girls, older girls because that is what I was all about obviously.

I definately think that you are right on when you say that what kids need to be around the most is happy, healthy parents. And everyday, I hold out hope to find that bond with another woman, and hope that she has a little boy. And one other thing, I have learned to not judge too quickly, cause I have found the most interesting, loving friend in a woman I never would have guessed! She may not have the same artistic interests, but our morals and family background are similar. We can talk at least about child rearing and families. I guess you really can't have your cake and eat it too. But I am still holding out hope.

12:11 am  
Anonymous joanne said...

I still meet up with my mothers group every week - this has been going on for 4 1/2 years.They are the best bunch of girls and I would be lost without them. I realise I am very lucky that we all clicked however we have all made a conscious effort to make this work - for all of us - children and Mums included!

8:51 pm  
Anonymous Marnie said...

My girlfriends and I have also been thinking about the problem of "the village", and there's a general consensus that the generation before us (i.s. generally those brave women who paved the way for equal work and opportunities for their daughters/sons) left us with a bit of a missing link problem (and we're still debating how it happened). In the past two years, in speaking with different new mothers, we've found that only one (out of maybe twenty or thirty) had a mother who breastfed (this is in Toronto, Canada). Their mothers all bottle-fed. This is not a judgement on the merits of, but if you are a new mom looking for someone to be there and teach you, who do you look to? (Thank goodness for midwives, who are covered under our medical plan in the province of Ontario, Canada, and for Google)

I think that the wisdom passed down might get lost a lot more easily than we expect. Personally, I found it a little surreal when my Aunt asked me to explain about breastfeeding (how, what is it like, how often, etc.) and she's had three kids! Each generation has it's own way of raising children, but choosing a path that's different to the generation before (but maybe not so to our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, for instance with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and cloth diapers) seems to lead to criticism rather than support, as if our choices now somehow make negative comment on their choices in the past? Has anyone else run into this obstacle? How do new moms tap into the older generation's social capital? Host moms' groups at homes for the elderly? I'm not being trite - this seems to be a real problem that leads to real isolation....on bothe ends.....

I like the idea of opening one's house - that kind of vulnerability and ability to "let go" as a parent is brave, I think - kudos!

5:05 am  
Blogger sooz said...

It must have felt darn strange to be quizzed on breast feeding by an older and more experienced mother! Luckily the anti breast times here don't seem to have been as extreme as our experience Marnie.

I think the loss of the village probably excaserbates the extreme changes in philosophy and practice in mothering - precisely because so many are not influenced by a range of mothers, but instead read the latest phase or pick up tips from peers instead of previous generations. In some ways it might be beneficial in that the most up to date research and knowledge has a chance to take hold quicker, but on the downside women are vulnerable to the pasing whims of mothering fashion.

For a lot of women there is a hostility to older geneations too, based on the idea that their knowledge is out of date and behind the times. I think this is especially true for women who feel strongly about becoming a mother in their 'own way', making their own choices based on what they have read or been told by doctors or by other people they trust.

I think a bit could be written here too about the very real experiences many women have of being 'bullied' by older women in their lives. Older family members or community workers who have no time for the 'silly' modern practices a new generation of mother believe in and who resort to the well worn line of "that's how I raised my child and there's nothing wrong with him!" For some of these older women seeing their own mothering replicated by a new generation is their goal, not supporting a new mother to discover her own way of being a mother. I think this is particularly problematic for new mothers who are well informed about the things we have recently 'discovered' or 'proved' to be true, that we used to believe differently about (like the value of breastfeeding to name but one).

12:54 pm  
Anonymous red swirl/ginevra said...

Interestingly, the hospital gave us (new mothers) a sheet for grandparents, particularly grandmothers on "how to support your daughter who has chosen to breastfeed, even though you didn't breastfeed". Didn't give it to my Mum, didn't have too. But I guess I could have ...

11:23 pm  
Blogger Alison said...

My mothers group is a life saver. I feel incredibly lucky I have a close group of mother friends, all within walking distance, with children I adore and who Max adores, whose husbands all get along. These women are my family where I have none in Sydney. They have given me confidence, council, baby stuff, food, a shoulder to cry on, a phone call to join in celebrations, humour and joy. We have moved beyond the grasp of a Mother's Group and have become our own little community. We all parent differently, but the same, and we all learn off each other, take relief in difference and sameness, and trust each other with our children. For all of that I am eternally grateful, and very lucky.

10:00 pm  

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