By Vida Foubister
By the sounds of it, the moms and babies at the first playgroup Stacey Steeg hosted literally had a ball with the food she served. "I had the absolute wrong menu," admits the Thornwood mother of twins. "I put out grapes, the number one choking hazard; cheddar cheese sticks, cheddar meaning orange; and liters of cola with plastic cups and ice."
Hours later, she found herself staring at grapes that had been crushed into her carpet and orange cheddar cheese streaked "like Zorro" all over her black and white chairs. There was also a spattering of soda here and there. "It’s a huge mistake to have any kind of colored liquid," says Steeg, who is president of the Putnam/Westchester (NY) Mothers of Multiples Support Group. "Now I only serve dry things and very neat things, like pretzels, graham cracker sticks and bottles of water."
It’s not surprising that a big mess comes along with hosting a group of small children and their mothers. The important thing is for the mothers in the playgroup to agree up front how they’re going to handle it. Lynda Merchant, director of the Mamaroneck Community Nursery School , recommends "creating some ground rules so that nobody feels uncomfortable."
"It’s such a fragile relationship to start out with," adds Sunny Park Suh, co-president of the Larchmont Newcomers’ Club, which organizes playgroups. "You’re all so eager to get along that people might be reluctant to rock the boat."
Once these ground rules are in place, it gives people a framework to bring up and resolve concerns as they arise. Deborah Crystal Rosenberg, for example, attends playgroups where members view clean up as one of the responsibilities of hosting.
"Even though people offer to help you, when it’s your day to host, you just have to expect it’s your day to clean up," says Rosenberg. "Then when you’re at somebody else’s home, they do most of the setting up and cleaning.
Mix and Match
When Jennifer Madrid joined a playgroup with her 15-month-old son, Nico, she found herself thinking, "I don’t have anything in common with these people." Today, she can’t wait to go on maternity leave with her second child because she knows she will be able to spend more time with these same women.
"I was never part of a sorority. I work in a man’s world, in a man’s job," explains Madrid, who commutes from the suburbs to Manhatten. "Something really special about being a mother is being able to have a child and being able to share that with other women who have just gone through the same thing."
Priya Tambe, who organized Madrid’s playgroup, says that it's important for people to recognize that "it’s not meant to be a system where people are alike." Adds Nicole Katzman, a former playgroup coordinator for Mothers & More, "People need to go into playgroups with an open mind. You have to meet with people more than a few times to assess whether or not it’s going to work."
Tambe encourages playgroups to work out personality conflicts themselves, but she can step in and switch people to another playgroup if the situation becomes "completely explosive."
In contrast, mothers who form playgroups independently of an organization, are forced to solve these problems themselves. "They need to talk about what happens if someone doesn’t work well in a playgroup," Merchant says. "There has to be honesty."
If playgroup members can’t find a way to talk about problems like this, Lori Robinson, head of The New Mommies’ Network, recommends dissolving the group and restarting it at another time and day with the members who do get along. Her playgroup experience includes one that worked and another that fell apart. "One woman was very high-strung and nervous and she was making us all very high-strung and nervous," she says of the failed playgroup. "It just wasn’t meant to be."
Once solid relationships develop, the real fun of a playgroup begins. Madrid’s playgroup, for example, started to have different themes. Members contributed $20 each into an arts and crafts kitty and started to celebrate holidays and other events as they came along. "I was very fortunate to meet women who are similarly minded," Madrid says.
Initially, it’s the moms who do all the interacting at playgroups. And then, not so gradually, the focus of attention shifts to the children. "When they’re really little, they’re not socializing," says Rosenberg, whose twins are now 2 1/2 years old. "Now, they’ll do ring-around-the-rosie and give each other hugs. It’s nice to see that evolve."
Along with these shows of affection, however, come tussles over toys. "One week your child might be the aggressor and the next week your child might be the victim," says Katzman. "You need to have the expectation that scrimmages are going to come up and roll with them and handle them as they come."
Though children should be encouraged to share, parents also need to recognize that some toys should be put away before the playgroup starts. "There are toys that your child isn’t going to let somebody else play with and that’s OK. Favorite rabbit has to go away for those times," Merchant says. "You just don’t want to put away everything and have one box of old blocks in the corner."
Sometimes, mothers shouldn’t dwell on these scrimmages but chalk them up to the child’s stage of development. Steeg, for example, was pleasantly surprised to find her 3-year-old daughter, Lindsey, sharing playdough at a recent playgroup with a child she had not been getting along with. "Me and the other mom were like, ‘Hey, they’re getting along without coaching from us.' It’s great," she says.
Robinson, of New Mommies, also recommends that parents don’t simply try to avoid problems. "We had one little boy who used to bite and the mother got embarrassed each time, packed up her children and left," she says. "We kept on saying he had to learn how to be social."
It’s also important to expose children to settings beyond playgroups, such as playdates and classes. "Playgroups are one cog in the wheel of the socialization process," Tambe explains. "They should not be relied on solely."
Finding a Playgroup
Sue Odierna still remembers a mother who came up to her in a music class she took with her oldest son, Noah, now 6, when he was an infant. "She said, ‘Your kid is so adorable’ and you know she was saying it because she wanted to get along with the mom," says Odierna, a mother of three. "It was definitely hard finding people."
Odierna eventually became part of a weekly playgroup that originated with three women who met at a library class and "hit it off." Two more women joined the group within a few months and the five of them continued to meet, even as siblings came along, for about four years. "The reason that this playgroup worked is because we all have similar values," explains Odierna.
Infant classes aren’t the only option for new parents looking for companionship for themselves and their children. In fact, Robinson believes that people who seek classes for their babies too early can end up disappointed when the class ends up being full of nannies. "Your three-month-old doesn’t necessarily need a gym class," she says. "The idea is just to connect with other adults and have real conversation."
Local women's groups and community organizations that organize events for new mothers are a good place to start. "Westchester is more of a driving community and you really do have to make an effort to get out rather than going to a park randomly and maybe stirring up a conversation," says Steeg, who coordinates playgroups for a Mothers of Multiples chapter. "Playgroups are an automatic way to have something to do each week, which I adore."
‘The Rules’ for New Moms Meeting Moms
There are some social conventions that everyone follows. Then there are those that nobody seems to know about. Playgroups, which have become a rite of passage for new mothers, can be a disaster without the right ground rules in place.
Priya Tambe, who has coordinated playgroups for the Larchmont NY Newcomers’ Club, recently put together an "All About Playgroups" information sheet. "I figured this was the best way to disseminate information in a clear-cut way," she explains. "A lot of my friends would laugh if they read these rules, but people do need them."
Here are some of her guidelines, along with those gleaned from other playgroup coordinators – and survivors – in Westchester.
• Establish ground rules
• Limit group size
• Keep children’s ages within six months of each other
• Schedule meeting locations several months ahead
• Rotate hosting duties equally
• Call the host if you can’t attend
• Follow host house rules
• Tell people if you have pets
• Put away special toys before people arrive
• Ask about food allergies
• Solidify relationships through other activities
• Frequently change a playgroup’s meeting time or day
• Leave a mess
• Form cliques that exclude a member
• Ignore your child’s bad behavior
• Discipline another mother’s child
• Take a sick child
• Arrive too early or too late
• Assume a nanny can go in your place
• Use the playgroup as a baby-sitting service
• Brag endlessly about your child
Vida Foubister is former editor for Westchester Family, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.