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Mothers Find Support And Connection in MotherWoman Groups

Published on BYO Family, October 10, 2012
By Sandra Dias

HADLEY – When a woman becomes a mother, it can sometimes be a rude awakening to discover that motherhood does not often look like it does in the glossy parenting magazines, particularly in the early months.

Along with the joy, hope, and anticipation of adding a new member to the family is the reality of how difficult the job really is.

Houses get messy. Babies nurse all night, keeping mom up, and often, at her wit’s end with sleep deprivation. Partners may grumble about a lack of attention and fail to keep up with their end of the housekeeping. Other children, and even the family pets, complain in their own ways when all eyes are focused on the new baby.

While some difficulties are particular to the first year or two, mothers are often surprised to find that the role of parenting is never easy and, with each passing year, new challenges replace old ones. Often, the only people who “get it” are other mothers.

Recognizing this, more than 10 years ago, Annette Cycon, a social worker and a mother herself, founded MotherWoman, where she developed a unique support group model where mothers could gather and safely share what it’s really like to be a mother, both the highs and the lows. Now based in Hadley, the nonprofit organization continues to run facilitated groups for mothers across the Pioneer Valley, including Springfield and Holyoke. Membership is free and snacks and childcare are provided.

The groups are designed to help mothers become less isolated in a world where many people no longer live near extended family or have adequate support from friends and neighbors.

In a nation where one out of four mothers suffers from postpartum depression, the groups offer a place for women to share difficult emotional experiences and also address the many unrealistic expectations about what it means to be a “good mother” in our culture.

“Our mission is to support and empower women to create positive personal and social change,” said Beth Spong, executive director of MotherWoman. “We believe that when mothers are strong, families are strong. And when families are strong, communities are strong.”

In Holyoke, a MotherWoman group at Holyoke Medical Center has been going for about five years, facilitated by Lisa Pack, CNM, a midwife from the hospital’s birthing center. Staff members at Fresh Start, a program in Holyoke that helps support mothers recovering from substance abuse, also took the MotherWoman facilitator training, and are using the support group model in the programs they run. In both Holyoke and Springfield, there are MotherWoman support groups geared towards teen moms through Providence Prenatal Center. At Brightwood Health Center in Springfield, a Spanish-speaking MotherWoman support group formed specifically for Latina immigrant mothers, and Spong is hoping to expand Spanish-speaking groups in both Holyoke and Springfield.

 “What was really exciting was that the Brightwood group wound up being women from different areas, including the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Mexico,” Spong said. “It’s unusual to have that kind of mixture across different international cultures.”

Spong said the women in that group were able to “build community” around a shared language and being Latina, despite geographic and cultural differences, and also talked a lot about the trauma of displacement from their countries and islands of origin. They also dealt with some of the specific cultural messages around motherhood unique to Latino cultures, such as a reverence for motherhood that may prevent some from openly airing any dissatisfaction with the role.

“It was really transformative for them to be in a setting of trust, where it was OK to share both their joys and struggles as moms,” Spong said.

Spong said what has been especially gratifying is to see mothers participate in a MotherWoman support group and then go on to take the facilitator training, so as to lead a specific group in their own communities.

“They find it so powerful that they want to become facilitators themselves,” she said. As a result of such personal transformation, mothers have started their own MotherWoman-style groups specific to parenting children with special needs, for nonbirth partners and fathers, groups for women of color, including Somali refugees, and more.

Spong said MotherWoman has a specific goal of improving the lives of families over two generations.

“Our vision is to impact the lives of mothers and their children, and then their grandchildren,” she said. “We ultimately want to see children thriving and we see the support of mothers as a key point of leverage in that.”

Spong said the groups allow women to share their experiences, without judgment, and without the goal of getting advice. Spong said facilitators have found that when people start doling out advice, conversations shut down and mothers may not feel like sharing. Mothers need to know that they are “OK” as they are and no one is setting out to “fix them,” she said.

“Women need a place to go where they can talk about their experiences as mothers and not feel like they are crazy,” she said. “All moms experience a range of struggles and it helps to know you are not alone.”

Participating in a MotherWoman group can be life changing and transforming.

 “We believe that when women are supported, they can listen to their own powerful inner voices and become leaders in their own lives and families,” Spong said.