How my two very different playgroups saved me

Smiling toddler sitting on floor holding red balloon

By Laura G. Owens
@LauragOwens

We met at a local park. Three bleary-eyed first-time parents nervous about bringing our newborns out into the world. We found each other online, through a national stay-at-home mom support group. After we introduced ourselves we set our bucket babies down next to each other on top of a shaded picnic table and talked for two hours. It was easy to open up to perfect strangers because we all shared a private new language of numbing exhaustion, isolation, scary diaper colors and chronic terror.

In the coming weeks five more moms joined. Eventually we agreed to alternate houses every Friday from 9am to 12 or 1. Four hours turned out to be a ridiculously long time to overstimulate eight babies, never mind toddlers who ran helter skelter through our gated family rooms and backyards, batting each over the head with plastic toys, melting down from overextended naps.

I’m not proud of how often I pushed my daughter’s nap on those playgroup days. I was desperate to soak up every adult second with my friends before I headed home to solitude. Over four years I came to rely on these women for company, advice, and as my release from the stress of everyday motherhood. But I also remember the times I left at the end of playgroup secretly blinking back tears because my child was (once again) the one who started a toddler brawl or who wouldn’t stop screaming. And playgroup often felt like a constant parental proving ground, a silent yet reflexive competition based on our child’s developmental milestones.

And from the very beginning, our eight personalities and parenting styles naturally revealed some stark differences. This of course led to heated debates over the pros and cons of attachment parenting, pacifiers, breastfeeding, when and how to potty train. And pretty quickly I sensed where I was different from every mom in my playgroup. I needed more time to myself, more time away from my child, while the others seemed to adapt seamlessly to immersive 24/7 never-leave-my-baby motherhood. Or if they weren’t adapting well, they certainly didn’t let on.

The truth is, I dreaded my Friday playgroup as much as I craved it. I stood apart from my friends in ways I couldn’t quite communicate or change. Yes, of course I loved my child with every cell. I constantly worried and read and obsessed about her well-being. But I was the only one in my group who wanted two entirely different motherhood experiences to exist at the same time: to be home full-time with my daughter and to regularly separate from her. Not just once in a while. Not every other week. Every day. 

Part of me felt ashamed for wanting more time to myself, yet part of me felt strangely righteous. Did being a stay-at-home mom mean I wasn’t supposed to also nurture the other identities I’d fully inhabited for 31 years—spouse, friend, professional?

So from the beginning I went out on date nights. A few times a year I attended weekend workshops on health and wellness or social activism. When my daughter was 17 months I put her in a church Moms Day out program, begging the director to enroll my child a month younger than the minimum 18 months. And to the shock of a few friends (and one pre-school teacher) I enrolled my daughter in two half-day pre-schools four days a week so I had more time to write, to run errands, to be by myself. I knew how lucky I was to have the choice to be at home yet I was still conflicted.

When I shared these feelings with my playgroup, I hoped my honesty would reveal at least one ally but what I sensed instead was a subtle disconnect. The line was quietly drawn, however unintentional. While my friends bonded over how they couldn’t imagine leaving their newborns, I hoped to convince them, maybe convince myself, that taking time away wasn’t maternal abandonment.

During my most vulnerable moments I thought something might be broken in me. Like maybe when women become mothers the good ones instantly forget their own needs and instinctively shed their former selves. But I also knew without a shred of doubt that I loved and cared for my child as fully as my friends. I just needed more time to myself.

Over the next few years my playgroup friends and I regularly met with other local stay-at-home mom chapters. We socialized and commiserated while speakers presented a variety of parenting topics.

These meetings were always held during the day which usually meant kids in tow, which always meant working moms couldn’t attend.

Sometimes during these meetings and among some stay-at-home moms, I heard a few women criticize mothers who put their kids in daycare or who hired babysitters when their children were very young. And every time I heard these criticisms I cringed. Every time I felt compelled to defend the mother who wasn’t in the room to defend herself. Because I was that mother. The parent who took regular time away from her child even is she didn’t work.

I needed to find a mom support group that inherently understood this, that inherently understood me.

So when my daughter was 18 months, I found another national mom support group that offered the same structure as my current one (local chapters, playgroups, meetings) but with a few differences. The organization reached out to mothers regardless of their work status; they emphasized the importance of nurturing all our identities, and the meetings were held at night without kids unless the mother was breastfeeding. But what struck me the most was that their focus was mainly on the mother. Her needs. Not in lieu of her children’s, but right alongside them.

Their philosophy so fully resonated with me that I felt compelled to start a chapter that similarly embraced every mother. Where judgment about babysitters, daycare, attachment parenting, breast or bottle feeding was strongly discouraged.

Shortly after I decided to start this new chapter, I told my playgroup friends about it. “I really want to stay in our group. I love you guys and our kids are good friends. And of course everyone is welcome.” I nervously tried to explain that this new chapter wasn’t better, that it was just different. But everyone looked confused and a little hurt. Why was I starting this when I already had a playgroup? As if their friendship hadn’t been enough for me. So for two more years I stayed while I also ran the other group. Not one of my friends joined. But I understood why. They already had everything they needed.

Those seven mothers had been my lifeline from the very beginning. They’d talked me through sleep training, ear infections and introducing solid foods. We’d celebrated every child’s birthday as well as our own. We’d sipped countless glasses of wine, venting about and applauding our partners on every topic imaginable.

Our kids grew and played together, sometimes nicely but more often in a blur of chaos and imminent toddler battles. We threw showers, celebrated new babies, worried about our weight. And even when we argued about parenting, we were always there for each other. Every Friday morning for four hours. Every month for four years. That was something. That was big.

Perhaps during our earliest mothering years our friendships are born because we reflexively cling to each other. Drawn together like forceful magnets by a love for our children so new, powerful and terrifying we can’t possibly imagine how we’ll survive. Yet sometimes we gradually grow apart for reasons that aren’t obvious or unkind or even divisive—they’re simply visceral and, because of that, irreconcilable.

I stayed with my first playgroup until my daughter was nearly four. My second group gradually fell apart after our kids started kindergarten, although most of the moms regularly met for dinner and an annual girls’ weekend. Twenty years later and a bunch of us still get together, our parenting vents now brimming with teen and college kid worry.

I’m deeply grateful to both groups. Each nurtured different parts of me. The first saved me when I was a scared, isolated stay-at-home new mom, flailing and insecure. And the second reflected what I felt all along as a mother: that from the moment my daughter was born I knew she’d be the center of my life—but she could never be the entirety of it.

Laura Owens lives and writes in the Orlando area. Laura still regularly gets together for dinner with friends from her second playgroup. And sometimes she runs into friends from her first, which always floods her memories and deep gratitude. Her blog: Laura-owens.com.

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