New parents who have grown up with the "information superhighway" at their fingertips may wonder if computer networking has made live, face-to-face support groups obsolete.
"Not at all!" says Margaret Hannah, M.Ed., who is the Executive Director of The Freedman Center at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology and a long-time group leader at The Freedman Center Parent/Teacher Resources. "Think of the importance of other 'in-person' relationships in your life: friends, family, co-workers.... Think of how those relationships enrich and sustain you through good times and bad. Adding a child to your life is a major transition - and sharing in-person support with others who are experiencing the same transition, at the same time, is invaluable.
"Lots of helpful information can be found on the internet," adds Margaret, "and in fact having computer-savvy moms and/or dads participating in a live group only adds to the richness of the entire experience.
"Still," Margaret cautions, "some internet information may be misleading or not appropriate to a particular situation. Participation in a live, professionally-facilitated group, such as those offered by The Freedman Center, gives parents the opportunity to learn about correct, current information on child development, to share quality advice and support, and to make new friends in their communities. There is real power in sitting with each other, in actually seeing each other and seeing each others' babies."
Furthermore, Margaret says, "We've found that when new moms and/or dads make a commitment to attend a small, time-limited group there is even greater intimacy among the participants, so Freedman Center groups work on a pre-registration basis. Parents who see the same faces each week experience increased growth, bonding, and trust."
Freedman Center group leader Anastasia Galanopoulos, Ph.D., agrees that a live group is important, for a variety of reasons. "Many new parents, moms especially, tell me the group gives them 'an excuse to get dressed' or 'a reason to get out of the house'." That's no small thing when you consider the overwhelming fatigue and emotions experienced by most new parents.
Once parents get out the door, says Anastasia, the group offers "a safe place to vent and to learn that they are not alone. Parents discuss everything: their new roles and responsibilities, in-laws, toys, pediatricians, coping strategies, partners or single parenthood, birth/adoption experiences, developmental issues, child care, work/at-home decisions, doubts, fears, joys.
"In addition to all of the above," says Anastasia, "parents who participate in a group are empowered to advocate for their children. Listening to one's inner voice about what's best for one's child is something I discuss at almost every Freedman Center meeting, and it's something the parents become more aware of and more likely to trust, as a result of their participation."
Margaret agrees. "Ultimately, the facilitator must empower the individual parents to find their own style of parenting, which grows from one's own culture, upbringing, and personality."
In fact, the facilitator is key to helping the diverse individuals who arrive at a Freedman Center new parents' meeting become a successful group, whether that group is for moms only, dads only, or parents of both genders.
For instance, a skilled facilitator helps "reluctant" participants open up, often through the use of humor, and tactfully redirects chatty parents. He/she may encourage reserved moms or dads to follow up on seemingly small connections to others. Through it all, the facilitator is aware that the parents in the group are experiencing the stress of birth/adoption, which sometimes strengthens families and sometimes reveals fissures. The successful facilitator not only finds a way to support and respect the individuals and the group, but through example inspires the group members to follow suit.
"The facilitator sets the tone for how comfortable people feel about sharing what's on their minds, regardless of the sensitivity of the topics," says Anastasia.
Margaret adds, "A trained facilitator guides the group members as they become models and mentors for each other. He or she empowers the group to find its own solutions. And, finally, he/she helps the group move on to life after the facilitator."
One indicator of a successful group is the promise that it will continue without the facilitator. Many moms and dads - and their children - form lasting friendships with families they met in Freedman Center new parents groups. They support each other through life's transitions, and find different ways to get together: daily phone calls, weekly playgroups, exchanged babysitting, monthly moms/dads night out, school carpools, potluck birthday dinners, and yes, even those internet chat rooms and email. And it all starts with the surprise of a shared feeling.
"New parents find that their perspectives on life have changed," says Anastasia. "Now nothing is as important as their child; they are even shocked by the depth of that feeling."
Margaret adds, "The epiphany shared by parents over and over again - whether in a Freedman Center new parents group or via a blog - is the enormity of the love that they feel for their tiny child. They are relieved to hear that feeling being echoed by others."
The Freedman Center at William James College