When my mother was born, my grandma did not know how to drive. She did not have a car at her disposal during the day throughout her young motherhood in the 1950s in suburban Detroit. This baffled me when I was a child. How did she survive without a car?
But of course, the other women in her neighborhood were at home, too, and most of them did not own cars. Grandma would visit her neighbors daily, and they visited her. Kids ran from yard to yard and in the street until it got dark. If Grandma needed a cup of sugar, she would walk next door and borrow it. This was foreign to me.
The “villages” that helped raise my parents’ generation were often close-knit neighborhoods with support within walking distance. But in my generation, the challenges to that paradigm are myriad. Fewer mothers stay at home. We spend more time in cars as communities spread out. People move. So how do we find parenting support if it isn’t next door? I had the chance to find out when a group of far-flung friends and I started a small experiment in mentoring new mothers.
This story starts when I had my own daughter, Mary. She was a joy — born just two weeks after my husband Dan and I moved to Nashville. But I also remember two weeks after she was born, when Dan was back at work and my mom had left. I sat down amidst the laundry that was piling up and looked at her. What do I do now? I thought.
I was happy, but I felt very alone. I had no one to meet up with and no real reason to leave the house. Besides the conversations with Dan when he got home from work and my daily hour-long FaceTime calls with my mom, most of my time was spent alone with Mary.
So two years later, when my friend Jo emailed me with an idea for supporting new moms in our friend group, I was happy to participate. I remembered those early, lonely days with Mary. Jo and I had once been roommates in Austin, but our group of friends there had since moved all over the country. And our typical feelings of missing old friends had intensified since we were starting to have children. Jo’s idea was simple: we would collect parenting advice from the veteran moms in the group, and would form a text chain with a new mom. For the first 30 days of the new mom’s motherhood, Jo would send out one piece of advice to the text chain.
So I set to distilling my parenting wisdom into pithy text messages. And when our friend Samantha’s baby arrived, the text chain began: four young mothers, far away from each other, wading through parenthood together.
I enjoy reading back over the “official” pieces of advice we offered each other. They can be basically categorized into two types of messages: expertise and affirmation. Advice on topics like post-partum care, laundry, and sleep issues abounds. If you can’t stop the baby crying at night, try walking outside, reads one. Another advises, Nursing isn’t as intuitive as you think it will be. If you are struggling, don’t wait — call your lactation consultant right away.
Other texts affirm the new mom. Isolated new moms wonder whether they’re the only ones who struggle with patience, with their new definition of daily “productivity,” or with anxiety or depression. Our text chain aimed to dispel those feelings. One text says: Between the hormones, the sleep deprivation, and frustration, you are going to cry a lot. That’s okay. One of my favorites was when Jo urged Samantha to Log off the mommy blogs and do what works for you. Another reads, Trust your instincts. You’re exactly the mom your baby needs. The simple act of normalizing the new mom’s feelings gave a sense of confidence that what she was doing and feeling was right.
The most important function of the text chain, though, was to offer the new mom a chance to respond. Parenthood is overwhelming. Transitions can be painful. Feeling isolated can exacerbate anxiety. Mom-guilt, and occasionally post-partum depression, are very real. Having someone reach out every day for 30 days afforded at least 30 opportunities to respond. When challenges arose, the new mom had a way to engage with friends who understood her. When something unexpected happened with the baby or with her body, she didn’t have to turn inward, she could reach outward. Our group of friends couldn’t physically pop over and check in on the new mom like my grandma could with her neighbors, but our text chain became the virtual equivalent of flopping on our friend’s couch and crying, or sitting over coffee and laughing.
Those 30 days have turned into four years. We kept adding mothers to the text chain. We still text each other almost daily. Someone always has a funny toddler story to share, someone has a potty training question, someone’s child has received a difficult diagnosis, or someone has a good rainy day pastime for active kids.
The best part of our evolved text chain is that we all get to play the role of mentor and mentee. As our expertise has grown, so has our confidence. Struggling with a son throwing things? Ask the “boy mom.” Have a kid health concern? Ask the nurse, or the mom of four. Feeling guilty about going back to work? Two of the other moms have, too. Dealing with post-partum depression? So has someone else on the chain, and she’ll give you a call later. These moms, thousands of miles apart, are the same neighborhood moms that supported my grandmother.
This forum offers such consolation, humor, and affirmation for me that I now start a text chain for every new relative or friend who has a baby. And several of those moms have asked me for the list of advice I sent them, as they want to start their own text chains. So perhaps what we’ve built up is not the “village” based on proximity, but existing friendships, even distant ones. And though we miss having our friends physically near, we feel grateful for what we’ve built. We know, as one of the texts reminded us, that if you get to the end of your rope, you can put the baby in her crib and call another mom. We’ve all been there.