The Best Group I Never Wanted to Join

I am not a joiner. I like the company of other humans, and I love my friends – I’m just not crazy about partaking in groups. I understand that for most people, being invited to join a group is a pleasant thing, an embracing experience. But me, I get ornery and drag my heels and then this very reluctance brings on a cascade of guilt and who wants that? So sue me — I just prefer spending time with people 1-on-1.

It’s been this way my whole life. I was a Brownie but bailed after one year even though I adored the tunic and all the wholesome outdoors-based craft projects. I abandoned team sports as soon as I discovered I could opt for more individual ones, like tennis and gymnastics. And here’s a truth: As an adult, I have not brought myself to join a book club even though all I want is to be part of a book club. I like to move quickly, impulsively, incisively – and being part of a gang cramps my style. All the deliberating, considering, weighing and planning makes me restless and exhausted, a crazy-making combo. Down with groups!

That is, until my baby group came along. This group’s arrival in my life was unexpected, un-strategic, and rather unremarkable in most every way — except for the fact that it existed, and it pretty much saved me.

***

When I first had a baby, I was knocked off my game and there was nothing I could do to steady myself. For some reason, every single newness of motherhood surprised me. Wait, I have to feed my baby round the clock?! Wait, I have to wear an adult diaper?! Wait, I’m not going to get more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep for months?!?!  It was shock after shock – I took nothing in stride. Most of all, though, I just felt removed from life. I’d look out my apartment window at the hustle and bustle of my Los Angeles neighborhood down below and feel so separate and left out. Cut off. My freedom was gone, as I was now — and forevermore — tethered.

Mine was a murky and diffuse loneliness. It didn’t matter that I saw my husband every day, I missed him deeply — we were three now, not two as we’d been since I was 19 years old, and this shift felt like a loss. To me, that is, not to him; he was thrilled to be a trio and wasn’t homesick for anything. But what or who else was I longing for? I still had my tight-knit circle of friends who were wonderful and generous and kind and patient and would come over, platters of cookies in hand, completely working around my schedule – or whatever version of a non-schedule I had.

What I craved, I eventually realized, were people at my same stage, people on my same rhythms. I was out of sync with my old life, out of sync with the lives of my friends – most of whom had yet to have babies. This meant that as grateful as I was for folks to come over, I was also always making a manic effort to keep the messy particulars of my new world from spilling over into our time together – like timing feedings so I wouldn’t need to be stuck to the chair nursing the entire time, or have my boobs erupt alarmingly like the uncontrollable, milky volcanoes they were. For example. And then there was the challenge of just plain ol’ looking alive and not crying from exhaustion. Some days were better than others in the sleep deprivation department, but I will not lie: there were many times when I realized I probably should have used baby’s naptime to nap myself instead of drinking tea and gabbing with friends. Cookies notwithstanding.

 

The fog began to clear — slightly — sometime around the 4th month when my baby M and I started getting out more. I discovered that the lowest maintenance and therefore best way for me to be mobile with baby was to wear her and head out on foot. The Bjorn carrier became a happy, permanent fixture on my body. As it turned out, hands-free made me feel free.

We would trek everywhere — to Trader Joe’s for ravioli samples, to the green and gold hills of West Hollywood for quiet hikes, to a tiny urban pond nearby that — amazingly — had turtles, to the health food store to try various lotions free of parabens and phthalates. I loved the feeling of M strapped to my middle, warming and anchoring me with her weight. My partner in crime! The Thelma to my Louise! Just two easygoing ladies pounding the pavement! I loved imagining what people on the street took in as we approached: those big, blue saucer eyes and dangling, chubby limbs careening toward them.

Around 5 months in, a new daily ritual started to take shape where we’d hit the park post- afternoon nap. It was by then fall in L.A. and the air was a little crisp, the sky a little dusky, and something about the colors and smells reminded me of New England, my original home. The best part about these outings was discovering that M was big enough for the baby swing at the park if I tucked a little blanket in there with her. You guys. People talk about firsts — the first smile, first steps, first word — but how come they never mention the first swing? The joy — both hers and mine — was immense. My baby, moving through air! A burstingness rumbled within me. In these moments I was blanketed in peace.

It was around the time that I started to meet other new moms.

***

Normally I loathe small-talk and avoid it at all costs. Chit chat is for the birds (as all non-joiners know) and going into motherhood, if there was anything I was sure of, it was that I would not become friends with people simply because they, too, were moms; that wasn’t a reason in and of itself. Then again, this wasn’t “normally.” I was thrilled to encounter these other parents, and loved hearing every detail about how things were going with them and their babies — after all, these little bobble-heads were my daughter’s colleagues. Our chatter was marked by… I won’t say sisterhood because there were dads, too. But solidarity. Kindness that was real, and easy. Encouragement. I was surprised to find that I had a ton of energy for these strangers. Talking to them gave me energy.

 

After a few weeks of impromptu park hangouts we all exchanged email addresses and formalized things ever so slightly. We’d gather a couple afternoons per week at the park – a loose, come-if- you-can kind of thing, which is, obviously, my kind of group. But I was there most days. OK, I was there all the days.

We’d spread out a few blankets, put the babies in the middle and loll around together. We talked about baby stuff some — Tylenol vs Advil for teething, tummy time, the ridiculousness of wipes warmers. We talked about TV a lot. Politics. Food. Speaking of, we always had snacks. SO MANY SNACKS. We dressed our babies in ludicrous accessories for our entertainment, like ascots and headbands with animal ears. We cheered each other on through sleep training. Some of us were heading back to work or considering it or reconsidering it – and we hashed it out. We met each other’s parents in from out of town. We set up our own baby music class that wouldn’t hurt our heads. Together we rode out those interminable, relentless hours between 3 and 6pm when time slows to a crawl and the real, final, end of the day — and silence, a book, a chance to lock eyes with one’s partner — seems impossible to reach. You know those hours. And then at some point, it was time to come to each others’ babies’ 1st birthday parties. And then 2nd birthday parties. We were each others’ rousing hometeam.

We were an unlikely crew: a teacher, a hairstylist, a screenwriter, a recent art school grad, a stay-at-home mom just landed from France. I’m not sure if we had anything in common other than we had new babies, lived near one another, and respected crunchy snacks. But honestly – that was enough. Now those babies are nearly nine, that slice of time forever ago, and I still think of this crew with the warmest and fuzziest feelings. Those were the simpler, good ol’ days, but make no mistake, I have not rewritten history; that period was also one of the most challenging in my life. Both these things are true.

Over the course of our toddlers’ second year of life, we started to see less of each other. Our kids were spread out at different preschools, and soon we all got absorbed into our respective school communities. Eventually, some from our group moved away — beckoned by family, by actual affordable real estate. Some, including me, have had more children. We run into each other occasionally, but mostly see each other on Facebook. The official school photos, the pics of gap-toothed grins post-Tooth Fairy, and the ones of Halloween getups, in particular, make me smile. I know remarkably few details of these peoples’ lives anymore, but still, my brain classifies them not so much as friends but as extended family. My daughter has no memory of these people.

***

My way into a rich, supportive network of parents isn’t the only way; the good news is that for new parents seeking community, there are avenues galore. Some of my friends did mommy-and-me yoga and stayed close with their cohorts. Others found their people in a breastfeeding support group. City by city there are organizations that run official chapters for new moms. There are working-moms groups. Stay-at-home-mom groups. Babywearing groups. Moms-of-twins groups. Still, other communities exist online, and for some, these virtual forums provide real camaraderie and support. Then of course there’s the DIY route where you stalk moms by the slide at the local park. Not that that’s what I did. Exactly.

My babygroup was an impromptu, accidental creation that evolved in real time, which turns out to have been key. If faced with the option to join something concrete I’d most likely have done what I usually do, which is to demur. Even though I craved it. I’d have found a way to bristle at the structure, at the collective need, at my own need – and would have probably concluded sounds nice, but it’s not for me. But because my group grew organically, I wasn’t even aware that it was happening and that I was inside it. There was nothing to resist.

So am I still a non-joiner? I mean, I want to say that this experience changed me and I’m a whole different person and now embrace groups of all stripes, but… yeah, I’d call myself a reluctant joiner and I accept this as part of my make-up. But in the years since becoming a parent, I am also challenging myself to be more of a “yes, and” person. If you’ve ever taken an improvisation class, you know that “yes, and” is improv’s central tenet, like the core principle. “Yes, and” forces a certain gameness, an openness, a plasticity that’s necessary for the art to even happen. So let’ say you’re on stage, and your performing partner says something to start building the scene. It doesn’t matter how bonkers their information is, you just respond with “yes, and,” then add something of your own, and, together, you continue building. I accept, and I’ll see where this goes. Their turn, your turn, their turn, your turn. No assessing, no analyzing, no judging.

It’s way easier to say no than yes, but yes keeps you in movement – and for me, that movement was away from my apartment window and into the fray. Yes, I’ll chat with you, yes, I’ll give you my email, yes, I’ll eat your snacks and sit on your blanket, yes, and – yes, to whatever may be next.



Meredith Hoffa is the Managing Editor at WhatsUpMoms.com and lives in L.A. with her husband and two kids. Her work as been published in the NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, FitPregnancy and several anthologies, among other places. Send her funny videos of people falling (but not getting hurt!) at meredith@whatsupmoms.com.