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Talking about their babies

The Record by Barbara Aggerholm (with commentary by IO Grad Diana Parry) 10 May 2013

After her first child was born, Diana Parry had to resort to what she now calls “stroller-stalking.”

Parry was pregnant when she and her husband, Troy Glover, moved to Waterloo in 2003. Both had joined the faculty of the University of Waterloo’s department of recreation and leisure studies.

Once their baby was born, Parry was anxious to meet other mothers to swap stories and tips — or just to chat.

She was receiving postpartum support from the midwifery clinic that had delivered her daughter.

“But that social piece was missing,” she says.

It was difficult to find other women who were at home with babies the same age as her daughter, she says. Furthermore, she and her husband were often on the road, driving to and from Burlington where her mother-in-law was dying of cancer.

“I just didn’t have a good chance to build a social network.”

Parry’s solution was to bundle up her daughter, Claire, and take her out for walks in the stroller. She watched for other mothers with children about the same age.

“I literally engaged in stroller-stalking,” she says.

When she found someone with a new baby, she would introduce herself and suggest they get together.

“Stroller-stalking is when you’re out with a baby looking for connections, anything to connect with other moms,” Parry says.

It can result in “bad mommy dates,” she says. “You don’t know if you have something in common. It’s not enough to have parenthood in common. That gets you in the same circle, but it’s not necessarily lasting.”

The experience made Parry, 39, an associate professor, wonder how other new mothers made connections.

Claire is now nine and the couple’s younger daughter, Charlotte, is five.

Parry discovered that instead of “stroller-stalking,” many mothers are logging on to a Canadian social networking site called Momstown.ca to find friends and a supportive community.

The business was started in 2007, before the dawn of Facebook, by three southern Ontario mothers who wanted to make connections with other mothers.

Along with her husband, now a professor, and Caitlin Mulcahy, a PhD candidate who has since received her doctoral degree, Parry studied the impact that Momstown.ca is having on new mothers today.

They found that the social networking site plays a vital role in helping women during an important time of transition.

They coined the term “momance” for the “deep, platonic friendships” that moms were cultivating through Momstown.ca.

Some mothers even reported that Momstown membership reduced the symptoms and severity of their postpartum depression, Parry says.

That led researchers to look at Momstown’s impact on postpartum depression, something that will be assessed in a separate, not-yet-published study, she added.

“For many people, it’s what got them through.”

The Momstown site focuses on mothers with children from zero to age six. (Expectant mothers are included in programming.)

The site grew quickly and today, there are 20 chapters in Canada — including one in Kitchener-Waterloo and one in Guelph — with a total of 5,000 paid members and plans to expand, says Ann-Marie Burton, a Burlington woman and the president of Momstown.ca.

There are about 300 members in the Kitchener-Waterloo chapter, which covers the region.

For a $45 annual membership fee, mothers see a calendar of local events, many with an educational focus.

A 24-hour message board “allows women to meet online, connect, chat, ask advice, and if necessary, vent,” says Parry’s study, which was recently published in the Journal of Leisure Research.

There are ads targeted toward moms, “e-blast” email messages and blogs.

Momstown.ca provides a virtual community and it also helps mothers form friendships with other mothers in their geographic area, says Burton, who has three children.

Members’ online profiles allow women to identify other like-minded moms, Parry says. Both pieces — the online connection and opportunities to meet face-to-face — are important, she says.

“It’s almost like dating. It sets up mothers for an active life in their community,” Burton says.

“What I hear a lot is that they (mothers) don’t feel like they’re alone,” says Paula Garceau of Cambridge, a “local mom entrepreneur” and the owner of Momstown’s Kitchener-Waterloo chapter.

“There are all these programs and message boards,” says Garceau, who has one child.

A mother might write: “My three-year-old is not keeping her clothes on at home and I feel my child is not normal,” she says, laughing.

Then, “25 of us will jump in and say, ‘It happens at my home, too.’ ”

Today, there are more online sites available for mothers, but “it can be isolating if they’re only connecting online,” Burton says.

A computer “can’t give me a hug after a really tough day,” she notes.

Parry says new mothers living in her own mother’s time a few decades ago were less likely to be isolated than new mothers are today.

“I grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood in Toronto and my mother says when we were kids, all the women were at home,” she says.

Those were the “Dr. Spock days,” she says, referring to the American pediatrician Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book, Baby and Child Care, was like a bible to new mothers for many years.

“They’d get their kids on the same schedule” and meet for walks or lunch, Parry says.

Today, women are less likely to live near family members or live in neighbourhoods with other women with small children.

More women are working and more women are single parents, Parry says.

They’re experiencing rapid change in everything from their emotions to sleep and work schedules, the study says.

“We tend to romanticize the early days of motherhood, and they’re tough,” Parry says.

For the study, researchers interviewed 22 mothers, ages 26 to 40, who were members of Momstown.ca. Most were white, middle-class and Canadian-born and all had a college or university education.

Their increased happiness after they connected with Momstown was noticed at home, Parry says.

“They talked about having more confidence in their decisions and enjoying not relying solely on their husband for (emotional) support,” she says. “They talked about being happier in their marriages.”

One woman said she was part of a group of Momstown moms who got together for dinner once a month.

One evening, she hesitated in going because she was tired, but her husband urged her to keep the appointment, Parry says.

“He said, ‘You’re so much happier and we’re so much happier.’ He totally recognized she needed to go to this event.”

Parry says she recommends Momstown.ca to people as a gift for new moms. Isolation is a social problem and it’s “a very good solution” that deserves more attention, she says.

“It’s the gift of social connection and camaraderie and care.”