When you have a baby, your life as you know it ceases. Fast-paced careers become laborious feeds and menial housework, corporate suits are swapped for pyjamas which are sometimes worn around the clock, and Friday night drinks are replaced with late-night milk parties of a different kind. So when you throw a random group of sleep-deprived, first-time mums together in a room and feed them cake and tea, it’s a wonder they don’t start a food fight.
Mothers’ groups are a lifeline for many people in the early months with a new baby, but just because you all happen to have a new baby does not mean you will automatically click. Some mothers’ groups bond immediately and last a lifetime, while others descend into unhelpful gatherings that are a joy to leave.
Melbourne author and social commentator Monica Dux says mothers’ groups can be an invaluable support system for new mums, but it’s not surprising that many groups fail. “Mothers’ groups are a really difficult place to navigate. Some people do find a place, some don’t,” she says. “They are good in theory, but I don’t think they always work. And the reasons why they don’t work make perfect sense; they are fraught.
“If you put a group of people with nothing in common – other than that they have procreated – in any social context, it’s going to be complicated. Parents are feeling scared, insecure and frightened. It can spell a social disaster.”
Monica, who has written two popular parenting books, Mothermorphosis and Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting), says during her research she found just how passionate new parents were on this topic, albeit polarised. “I heard a lot of strong language. A lot of people said their mother’s groups were a pack of judgemental b*tches. One lady said it saved her life.”
The mother-of-two says she was most alarmed by the stories she heard of judgement and insecurity.
“One woman was so scared of judgement she put concealer on her baby’s blemishes, and another woman saw a mother run her finger on the coffee table (to show the dust to everyone)...the worst examples of humanity in one room.”
But Monica says for some women the experience can be positive if mums go into the group being open and supportive. “We compare ourselves constantly, but for a lot of mums comparing gives them a chance to see how other women are doing things. This can be a good thing when you realise you aren’t the only one. If mothers can get past that and not judge each other, then it can be a wonderful support.”
Sunshine Coast early learning teacher and mother-of-two Tania Brown met her two closest friends at her mothers’ group. “Those friendships took over for me outside of my traditional friends, because we were sharing a huge part of our lives,” Tania says. “There were times when you had showered, and other times you hadn’t, and they would completely understand. Whether it was teething issues or the fact we were all tired, we were all going through the same thing and we could relate to each other.
“It was also important to have friends outside my family, who knew my baby well, and had also bonded with my baby. That way I could call on them if I needed them to step in for me. It’s so important for kids to attach to other adults.”
Tania says the biggest benefit was knowing people with babies the same age, who you could meet at age-appropriate places, whether that be a coffee shop with babies and later, playgrounds.
While mothers’ groups are usually organised by state government health centres, parent groups can come in many different guises such as antenatal and breastfeeding groups, playgroups, music or Gymboree groups, online support groups and meet ups, or simply friends and family who have children and organise one of their own.
When Tania moved from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast two years ago, she remained in touch with her mothers’ group, but made a point of joining as many parent groups as she could to meet like-minded people and stay sane. “I have kept in touch with my original mothers’ group, but it was also important for me to continue to find more similar parent groups when I moved. Otherwise you isolate yourself and that’s when you have problems.”
Brisbane mother Emma Rennick wasn’t so lucky when finding a mothers’ group. Emma joined a group arranged by the midwives at her antenatal class, but what she thought would be a triumph of sisterhood turned out to be like a scene from the movie, Mean Girls.
"Immediately there was competition and conflict," Emma says. "One mother lined all of the babies up and measured them to see which was the biggest, which wasn't very nice for the mother who had a 35-weeker premmie. Another mother invited some mums to join a cast-off group that was for professionals only, so that meant she outwardly omitted my friend who was a pharmacy assistant. She kept telling everyone loudly that she couldn't relate to anyone if they didn't have a professional white-collar career. I went a few times and then stopped going. It was hideous, worse than high school."
Monica says if a mothers’ group doesn’t suit you, don’t feel defeated as there are other options.
“It’s not that anyone failed; it is really hard. We put so much pressure on mothers that they will become these angelic beings and form a perfect mothers’ group. They may not be your best friends forever, but if it gets you out of the house once a week then that’s great. If it’s not working for you, find a new one.”
Whether it’s working for you or not, Monica says it’s crucial for new parents to find alternative ways to connect. “If you can’t find support in a mothers’ group, attempt to create a community of women going through the same experience, whether they are friends with kids or through online support networks. If it doesn’t work, find another way to connect. It is crucial to stay connected.”
Parenting author Monica Dux’s top 10 tips on navigating mothers’ groups