Having a baby in Vancouver is easy. Well, relatively, given the plethora of fertility clinics, acupuncturists, yoga classes, and other pre natal-support options available locally. And the rising number of upmarket baby-gear and maternity boutiques ($295 designer maternity jeans, anyone?) make pregnancy seem more like a trendy fashion statement than the awesome, life-altering phenomenon it is. But what happens after the baby arrives, when the reality of sleepless nights, extra pounds, and zero personal time shatter the yummy-mummy fantasy?
The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of new mothers experience "baby blues" (which can include weeping, irritability, and mood swings), and that somewhere between three and 20 percent experience full-blown postpartum depression (symptoms include despondency, guilt, and anxiety, as well as fatigue, headaches, chest pain, and hyperventilation), which can make it nearly impossible for a new mom to care for herself and her child. In-home visits from community-health nurses help ease the transition into motherhood, but their focus is primarily getting babies off to a healthy start. And the weekly parent/infant drop-in sessions around town are often massively overcrowded, which makes them less than ideal for venting about overbearing in-laws or bonding over leaky breasts.
That's why Meralon Shandler, a Kitsilano-based doula (a nonmedical helper who assists women throughout their pregnancies) with an MA in psychology, created Mamaspeak. "I'm actually hesitant to call it a support group," Shandler says, because she worries the term has negative associations for many people. "Mamaspeak is not therapy, although it is therapeutic. It's more of a supportive group of moms than a support group."
Following the birth of her son, Connell, in 2005, Shandler sampled many of Vancouver's existing postpartum resources. She found, however, that they lacked opportunities for human connection and overlooked the real issues that accomplished, educated, and fit new mothers face today. "As happy as I was to become a mom, I missed my old life," Shandler recalls. "I was lost without my routine and desperate for a place where I could connect with other women experiencing the same confusing feelings."
Launched last spring, Mamaspeak currently offers two programs: Trusting Your Intuition, a six-week introductory series, and Developing Your Parenting Wisdom, a four-week follow-up (full details at www.mamaspeak.com/). All sessions take place in Shandler's home, and pre-crawling babies are welcome. Topics range from coping with body changes and identity shifts to the importance of self-care to making sense of competing parenting philosophies. "Basically, we cover all the issues I was unprepared to deal with but really wanted to know about," Shandler says.
Each series is limited to six participants, to create a safe, intimate environment for sharing any and all emotions and experiences. The result: candid and personal discussions covering everything from first-time sex after childbirth to worries about missed career opportunities and fear of inadequacy as a parent. "My family lives thousands of miles away and my husband works insanely long hours," says Heather Wasserman, 35, of why she sought out Mamaspeak. "I needed a place where I could express my feelings without worrying if what I was saying was taboo."
Both courses also touch on cultural myths of postpartum bliss. "There are so many images out there of the 'ideal mother': happy, well-rested, organized, and in control," says 34-year-old East Vancouverite Mimi Beyene, a graduate of both Mamaspeak courses. "But when other moms in the group confessed to having a hard time getting themselves and the baby out of the house, I was instantly relieved."
Another popular discussion topic is the changes that babies bring about in marriages and romantic partnerships. "I thought having a baby would bring my husband and I closer together," Kitsilano resident Willow Smith, 33, says. "Instead, I often find myself seething with resentment because my world feels so totally transformed while his daily life continues on largely unaltered. Where else would I be able to talk about something like that?"
Ultimately, what distinguishes Mamaspeak is its focus on mothers' well-being. It makes space for and respects everything that women experience around becoming mothers. "We go through such an enormous change when entering motherhood," says Beth Calkin, 36, who, like many Mamaspeak participants, holds an advanced degree and worked outside the home before the birth of her daughter. "Yet most of the resources we're told about cater to the babies. Mamaspeak provides emotional and informational support for moms, so that we're better able to care for–and enjoy–our children."