Sally Livingstone has heard many heartbreaking stories from the women she’s helped adjust to motherhood, but one in particular stands out. The founder of Spectrum Mothers Support Society was at a young mom’s house, sitting on the carpet with the teen and her baby, when the girl opened up.
“She said she remembered as a child having one parent on one couch drunk and the other parent on the other couch drunk,” Livingstone recalls in a phone interview. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to play with my baby. I never had anyone play with me.’ ”
Spectrum is a charitable organization that provides respite for women on the North Shore who are caring for their children in difficult circumstances. With the holidays approaching, this time of year can be especially trying for those facing financial troubles, women who have little or no social support, or moms simply having a hard time coping with the demands of motherhood.
Then there is the fact that automatic home visits to new moms by community-health nurses have been cut back throughout the province. Although the nursing support is being steered toward young, poor, first-time mothers as part of a program called Healthy Start, there are still many moms out there who fall through the cracks or who are in dire need of support.
Moms have to be referred to Spectrum for help by social workers, community nurses, pediatricians, or certain family- or women-centred organizations.
Care is provided by volunteer and paid caregivers and mentors, women who are mothers themselves. Clients get six hours of support a week at no charge. They might have a mentor come in and help them with breast-feeding, or they might have the caregiver take their baby for a while so they can shower, do laundry, go to the gym, attend a support group, or just sleep.
Money raised through donations or via grants is used to pay caregivers. Spectrum currently has about 14 caregivers supporting approximately 30 families in North and West Vancouver.
Livingstone started the society in 2005 after vowing to herself several decades ago, when she was working as a nurse in her native London, England, that she’d one day help moms and their kids.
“I vividly remember one young couple who had twins; one was healthy and one had spina bifida,” says Livingstone, who operates Spectrum on top of working full-time at Capilano University and caring for her adopted elementary-school aged daughter. “They took one [baby] home but left the other one to die in the hospital. She lived her whole short life in that hospital.
“I knew I wanted to take babies like that home with me to live for however long in a home and not in a hospital.”
Livingstone began fostering kids with severe mental and physical challenges, but she still wanted to find a way to help moms as well. Spectrum serves women with kids aged five and under, giving priority to low-income families, including teenage moms and recent immigrants, as well as moms whose kids have disabilities or developmental or behavioural challenges.
In other cases, moms may be facing physical- or mental-health conditions themselves or have drug- or alcohol-use problems. Some have other children with colic, developmental challenges, or chronic conditions. Women might be fleeing from an abusive relationship.
“These women are simply trying to survive,” Livingstone says. “They’re mothers who need other mothers; it’s really as simple as that. They need someone to be a friend, to encourage them, to just be there for them.”
North Vancouver mother of four Allison Keir started working for Spectrum last year. She’s helped a young mom who didn’t have any food in her cupboards and another who needed help with breast-feeding because she had no money to buy formula. She’s seen moms struggle because they don’t have transportation and others who need guidance finding resources and services from which they could benefit.
“I’ve worked primarily with teen moms, and usually as soon as they get home from the hospital, I go in and make sure they’re set up for baby and help them through that initial transition,” Keir says in a phone interview. “Many have not had strong relationships with their mothers themselves and don’t have that support.
“If you don’t have anyone to help you, how do you learn? Most of us learn by example. We’ve been taught by our moms, who were taught by their moms. Many of these young women have no one to help them. This is moms helping moms.”
Keir, who lived in Australia for 10 years, says the kind of service Spectrum offers reminds her of that country’s Tresillian residential program, which allows parents and their young ones to live in one of its centres for five nights and work on challenging parenting issues with health professionals and other families. Day stays are also available.
Livingstone’s dream is to do something similar on the North Shore, wherein a five- or six-bedroom home would be made available to moms and their children facing hard times.
She sees the society as filling a gap in services—and as giving credence to the adage “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“I really feel we have a responsibility to care for members of our community,” Livingstone says. “By supporting our community, the community will see the benefits.”