Harried mothers band together

June 30, 1993|By Torri Minton | Torri Minton,San Francisco Chronicle

On a Wednesday night, Leslie Harlib told her single-mothers group that she was worried. The day before, she'd gotten a pain in her belly that a surgeon told her might be appendicitis. She wasn't sure, but she thought she might need emergency surgery.

Her roommates were out of town, and Ms. Harlib, a San Francisco magazine editor, was alone with her 2-year-old son, Rory.

By Friday, she was so sick that her doctor sent her right into the operating room. "I had five minutes to call for help," she says. It came from a woman named Ann whom Ms. Harlib had met only during meetings of her moms group.

Ann took care of everything, picking up Rory at day care and taking him and her own son home to Ms. Harlib's house, where they all bunked in the same bed.

"She was incredible," says Ms. Harlib, 41. "She was like a sister, and I hardly knew her."

Her mothers group, she says, makes her feel a lot less alone "in a culture that really doesn't give a damn about the family. . . . If it were just me and Rory in America, we'd be lost souls, we'd be flotsam and jetsam in a sea of uncaring."

Mothers have come a long way since the days of bridge games and kaffeeklatsches. Isolated from neighbors and relatives, bombarded with career and child-rearing demands, they are admitting confusion and asking for help.

They're reaching out to other mothers, sharing intimacies, learning that they're not the only ones who are overwhelmed, learning to cope.

They're admitting the need for interdependence, says Katie Williams Hoepke, 38, a San Carlos, Calif., mother who has connected close to 2,000 San Francisco Bay Area families through the Mothers Club, an organization that brings mothers together. "It's going to spell survival."

"There are important conversations taking place," says Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Berkeley, Calif. "Women come in, and we get down to work."

The work can get downright personal. Painful postpartum sex. Layoffs. Divorce. Death. How to fight the June Cleaver image or deal with partners who have forgotten how to pick up their dirty socks.

The thousands of mothers groups in practically every part of the country are, depending on the women's personalities, everything from baby-care information centers to emotional support groups to baby-sitting co-ops to community powers.

There are groups for single moms, lesbian moms, moms who needed fertility treatment, moms with adopted babies, grandmoms.

"There is a commonality of concern that is very hard to find outside a job," says Ms. Harlib. "It's not like therapy, where people are wounded and bleeding all over the place. It's practical."

"I like to see it as the new form of extended family," says nurse and mother Sherry Reinhardt.

One of Melissa Mednick's problems was what to do with her very active, aggressive 3-year-old son, whom she couldn't even take to the playground. Through her group, the 35-year-old Oakland, Calif., technical writer learned not to give him attention for being aggressive. If she stayed home, she says, she might not have learned that at all.

Lottie Herkenhoff, 37, is the mother of three boys, 18-month-old twins and a 5-year-old. She felt as if she was going nuts when her first boy was born. She didn't know her neighbors. She didn't know anybody who had children.

"I was going crazy. I was having postpartum depression," says Ms. Herkenhoff of Los Angeles County, who quit her job as a technician in a geochemistry lab to raise her sons.

"For the first few months of life, your baby doesn't even smile. It cries and eats and doesn't sleep. . . . All of a sudden you've got baby food and diarrhea all over you all day long and you don't feel sexy. . . . There's a story that one woman piled all the dirty diapers up in the living room and set fire to them. I can relate to that."

She joined a mothers group and felt better just hearing familiar teary stories of other mothers.

Ms. Reinhardt, who in 16 years has helped form more than 500 mothers groups, says she's trying to help mothers realize what makes child rearing different from other professions: There are no right answers. Like other professional group leaders, Ms. Reinhardt encourages mothers to lead themselves.

Katie Hoepke, who organizes the Bay Area Mothers Clubs, has written a manual on how to start them, called "Mothers Club; Nurturing the Nurturers."

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