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Odd Mom Out

Are you an Alpha Mom (you know, Type A) or Beta (slacker) Mom? SAHM or WOHM? Maybe you’re even a soccer mom, yoga mom, eco mom or punk rock mom. Where do you fit in?

Just as their kids jostle for popularity at the playground, moms tend to fall under the microscope in terms of the company they keep.

Because as we know, life (and your friends) change when you have children. You begin to network your way to a neatly well-rounded menu of social contacts: mom friends who pop in for lunch and playtime and baby-sit at the drop of a hat…walking buddies who religiously pound the pavement several times a week…playgroups where toddlers peacefully engage in cooperative play, and mothers tote casseroles to families with new babies…scrapbooking groups…lunch and coffee dates…preschool field trips…Mom’s Night Out…oh, and you are serving on several committees at school, aren’t you?

Socializing is becoming another “competitive” area in many parenting circles, with moms angling to get involved in all the “right” activities. It’s junior high all over again—only this time, you don’t want to be the odd mom out.

What a mom wants, what a mom needs
There is growing research that healthy social networks are vital to a woman’s emotional health and well-being. The more socially integrated a mom is, the better her mental health scores and overall vitality, notes Shannon B. Moss, Ph.D., director of behavioral medicine at the Baylor Family Medicine Residency. Just as social interaction has been shown to ward off dementia in older adults, it’s recognized to be key in fighting postpartum depression among new mothers, as well.

For some mothers, support from spouses and family members seems to be enough. “It’s a matter of degree and what the person’s needs are,” notes Dr. Yaprak Harrison, a psychiatrist with Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. Limited social contact raises a red flag only in situations where women lose regular face-to-face interaction.

Specific groups (where moms find common ground) fill another necessary and often-overlooked need: the need for leisure time and space to “reclaim my old self.”

“The main thing to remember regarding the question of ‘reclaiming’ yourself is to not lose yourself too much to begin with,” assures Christie Mellor, author of the cheekily titled The Three-Martini Playdate. “When you have kids, welcome your child into your life, but don’t center your entire life around your child. Of course you will love and nurture and care for your kids and your family, but an active, vital, curious, involved mom with her own interests will ultimately be a better role model than a mom who makes her children her full-time job and hobby.”

Striking a balance
What’s the right choice? a) Mothers’ groups focused on moms. b) Playgroups focused on children. “I think most of us would like to find both,” affirms Nicole Eades, a Frisco mother of two and founder of www.dallasareamoms.com, a networking site for local mothers. “We want our babies and kids to have the chance to be around other children and make friends, but we also feel the need to connect with other mothers. We need a place to go to ask for advice and gain support. It’s OK to want to join a group for you and not just for your child.”

Striking a balance between mother and child has never been easier. Sites like Yahoo Groups and Meetup.com offer real-time, online community. In addition, there are a bounty of preschool PTA groups and mothers’ organizations in the Dallas area (see www.dfweverythingfamily.com for a resource guide).

“You can find people who are at the same stage of their life but who also have something to talk about that you’re interested in listening to,” says Tracy Dower of Dallas, mother of three and leader of the North Dallas/Plano chapter of Attachment Parenting International. Eades, Dower and others recommend that if you seek a connection on the Internet, you should take the relationships to “real life” for maximum benefit.

“I see a lot of people using [the Internet] too much and not making the transition from people they know online to people they know in person,” Dower explains. “You cannot replace your need for human contact by e-mail. You have to get together with people. You have to get a hug every so often and have people laugh at your jokes.” The warm tone you model will be the one your children naturally emulate. “I think it’s important for [children] to see their mothers interact with other mothers in a direct way, rather than sitting at the computer,” cautions Harrison.

Moss reminds women to explore safely, arranging casual meetups in public places and not divulging too many personal details when meeting people for the first time.

She loves me, she loves me not
So you’re all fired up and ready to make some connections. Who you gonna call?

“I’d say that maybe it’s a little like dating,” muses Mellor. “You need to find activities and do things that interest you as a mom, and you’ll find other people with similar interests. There are so many organized groups for parents these days that many people forget that you can still meet moms and dads at the park with their kids, or at local farmer’s markets, or at the Children’s Museum or the children’s section of the library.”

Working moms face additional challenges. Local Mom Laura Boyer, who has four boys and a full-time job as a teacher, says time is a major hurdle to an active social life. “I am only able to hang out with my friends from the group during summer and school breaks,” she explains. “Other than my [moms’] group, I have a best friend who I get together with at least once a week for dinner and scrapbooking, but she moved about 30 minutes away, so I don’t see her quite as much anymore.”

Sometimes, even connection points (refer back to SAHM, Alpha, Beta labels) aren’t enough to make things click. Amy Philo, a Frisco mother of two, passed on joining a new church based on the social atmosphere. “I was actually at a fellowship group with my husband and some other couples, and we were trying to get to know some of the people,” she remembers. “Some of the women started to gossip about how awful it was when they saw someone nursing a toddler. At the time, I had a 1-year-old and I was pregnant, and my child was still nursing. It made me feel so unwelcome that I didn’t even bother to nurse my child in front of them. I just left and never went back.”

“If you find yourself in a group that makes you feel uncomfortable or puts you on the defensive about your lifestyle and/or parenting choices, it’s time to move on,” Eades advises. “There are too many options available to you to stay in a group that you do not enjoy.” But don’t overlook the insights and options you may find in a more diverse group, she urges; you can also join numerous groups to find a comfortable balance.

“Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect match,” Dower agrees. “I’m in a lot of groups where the moms are all passionate about different things. We accept that we’ve come together for one particular purpose …we like to sew, our kids like each other or we talk about attachment parenting. We don’t talk about religion—we just don’t go there. We stick to sewing or parenting or whatever.”

There are always ways to make the best of a less-than-perfect situation. Carren Joye, author of A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Complete Guide to Playgroups and mother of four children, suggests adjusting your goals for a particular group that doesn’t quite fit. “Put on the back burner your personal desire for best friends for right now, and concentrate instead on whatever it may be that the group does provide, such as exercise, or friends for the children, or time out of the house or parenting advice,” she advises. “In the meantime, keep a lookout for new members who may click with you or other groups that may start up next month or next year.”

Consistency keeps you busy
Experienced moms who know how to “break in” to a new group say being assertive and persistent are the two keys to success. “Go to as many mom-type activities as you can,” Dower urges. “Be bold. Exchange phone numbers, and go to lots of things until you start finding a group you click with. Then get their phone numbers and then do the smaller gatherings, because that’s where you really form the friendships.”

Go to meetings at least three times before writing them off, she says, since many groups won’t invest emotional energy into a visitor until they know you’re likely to stick around. Also, remember that there’s more to meeting people than what happens in the meeting. “The value of coming to API is not so much what you get during the official meeting but meeting those moms and getting together with them later,” she explains. “If you come several times, and you put your hand out and make eye contact and smile and exchange phone numbers, you’re gonna get invited—or better yet, invite them to meet you somewhere for coffee or at a playground to watch your kids play or whatever, and then you’re in…You’re in like Flynn.”

Consistency is a big part of building relationships. Susie Williams, a mother of two from the Dallas area, says making playgroups a priority is the glue that’s bonded her with her mom friends. “Rain or shine, we meet every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.,” she explains. “I think time has brought us together, and even though two of us are planning on moving in the next year or so, we will still meet every Tuesday until the kiddos start kindergarten. I am bonded with these women for life!”

Volunteering can provide an automatic “in.” Philo recommends bonding with others by serving on boards and helping out. “When you are committed to help with the events, you are forced to communicate or spend time with the other members,” she affirms.

In her article “How to Join a New Homeschool Group” on www.homeedmag.com, Kathleen McKernan cites four tips for “breaking in” to a new group:
• Come every week. Even the most cliquish group of people won’t be able to ignore you if you’re there all the time.
• When you’re new, come early, before the children have established their games. It’s easier for children to make friends with new kids when they don’t have a choice of playing with anyone else. It also makes it easier on the mom, since it’s as hard to approach a whole group of adults who are talking with each other as it is to jump in on some new kids’ game.
• Participate in as many group activities as possible. When there’s a group effort to help someone out, be one of the first in line. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it also will establish your family as part of the community.
• Don’t let the fact that the group doesn’t fit perfectly dissuade you. Yes, it’s nice to find like-minded people, but it ultimately expands your mind more to learn from many different kinds.

And the consensus of all the moms and experts we spoke with: Keep at it until your heart and date book feel full.

Find a Group in 5 Simple Steps
1. Decide what it is you’re looking for: a playgroup for your kids, a group of other moms to hang out with, a preschool organization, an exercise group, a hobby group, an activity group, a support group or some combination.

2. Look for local groups that meet your needs. Check local parenting sources, bulletin boards at schools and libraries, doctors’ offices and hospital birth areas. Ask at churches. Visit library storytimes, swimming pools and other activities where mothers and children go, and strike up a conversation with other moms. Ask if they know of any groups in the area.

3. Use the Internet. Look for local chapters of national organizations such as MOMS Club, MOPS and Mothers & More. Use any search engine to look up “playgroups” plus the name of your city.

4. Make contact with as many groups as you think have a chance of fitting your needs and start visiting them. Be sure to give each group more than one try.

5. Don’t be afraid to start your own group if what you’re looking for doesn’t seem to exist. Post fliers, post on Internet meetup sites, talk to other mothers you see around town. Set a date to meet at a park, playplace or library, and away you go.