maternal influence

Through her free support group, Dee Dee Franke has been wiping away the tears of overwrought new moms

Family Matters

July 18, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

Jill Talbott is the picture of the put-together mom: makeup, nice black sweater, khaki shorts, black sandals. Her 5-week-old daughter Emma, nestled in a pretty pink outfit, seems content in her stroller.

But Talbott has brought this composed exterior to an overcrowded room in the depths of Greater Baltimore Medical Center only to explode the illusion.

"She's been smiling all the time," Talbott, 33, says of her daughter to the room full of new mothers. "And then she throws up on me."

Her tiny insides roiling from acid reflux, Emma has been screaming around the clock. Talbott's incision from her Caesarean section still hurts. Her husband keeps looking at her as if she's crazy. The Sparks mother jokes -- with that kernel of truth that makes a joke good -- that she has thought about flinging herself through a window or fleeing the jurisdiction to escape this new existence.

The mothers listen as best they can. Their babies, many still small enough to fit along a forearm, are alternately eating, wailing, sleeping, filling their diapers and coolly appraising their surroundings.

The mothers are here to consult with Dee Dee Franke: registered nurse, baby whisperer and, to many new mothers, patron saint.

By the end of a four-hour session of "Mother to Mother," the free weekly support group Franke has run at the hospital for 12 years, two of more than a dozen mothers present will have confided that they are seriously depressed. Several others will have raised their hands to confess that only with the help of medication did they start to feel themselves again.

Nearly everyone admits to crying -- a lot. And to mourning the unexpected loss of their former identities. And to loving their tiny companions more than they ever thought possible.

Taking it all in, Franke, 44, is part confessor, part motivational speaker, part one-woman comedy show. Her voice is permanently raspy, from shouting from the sidelines in her other job as a girls' lacrosse coach, and from years of talking, talking and talking to mothers. They cling to her as one might to a field guide with the only map out of the jungle. No question is too small or too stupid.

Psychiatrist Ildiko Hodde made her way to Franke's group after she delivered her first child three years ago. New mothers "are in a very vulnerable stage, and there's really not an outlet or forum where they can get their questions answered," she said.

Hodde was so impressed with Franke that the two teamed up to start an evening group at the hospital for mothers with postpartum depression. Neither is paid for that work.

'Surrender to chaos'

For the main mothers' group, Franke's got secrets and strategies. When shopping with a hungry baby, nurse in a dressing room. Wrap a crying infant in a blanket tight as a burrito. Take regular walks with other moms. Buy a rectal thermometer; you'll get a more accurate temperature, and, trust her, the baby won't break.

The biggest secret of all: The baby magazines, books and prenatal classes don't give a clue about how crazy early motherhood can be.

"Where do they tell you in the baby book that you may find yourself sitting on the toilet, nursing your baby?" she said during one session.

She ticks off seemingly impossible numbers with the aim of making mothers feel better about them. Three blown-out diapers a day? Perfectly normal. Only three hours of sleep at a stretch? Also normal. Zero sex? Comes with the territory.

She calls babies peewees and butternuts and firecrackers. She believes in bringing the baby to bed with you if she's had a bad night, and using a pacifier for a while if it helps. She thinks that you can never hold an infant too much. Her motto is "Surrender to chaos."

And surrender to new love. Rita Blackwell, 37, is going back to work. How will she leave baby Langston after just 12 weeks? "I just love him so much, I don't want to leave him," she says. (Franke's advice: If it makes you feel better, call the sitter every five minutes to see how he's doing.)

Franke tells Jill Talbott about www.reflux.org, a Web site with information about the disorder. As for the incision pain, Franke wonders whether Talbott is doing too much.

"I don't think so," said Talbott. "I carried the groceries in yesterday."

"You know what I would say?" asked Franke.

"Don't do that?"

"Don't do it."

Tips and friendships

The mothers share their own tips. One confided that she'd used a bag clip to hold her swaddled baby's blanket closed. Another raved about the women's restroom at the Towson Nordstrom, which has a room for feeding and changing.

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