Everyone has heard the oft-used phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." So too does a new mother need a village to survive motherhood.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I tolerated buckets of unsolicited advice and warnings about what was approaching. Sometimes the guidance was welcomed, but mostly it fell on deaf ears, and really for good reason.
I realize now nothing anyone could have said would have accurately illuminated the roller coaster ride into which I was about to be strapped. Motherhood is overwhelming, exotic, all-consuming and exhausting. If you're not a member of the club, it won't make sense until you've lived it.
Toward the end of my pregnancy, my husband and I enrolled in a birth class. It turned out to be a real lifesaver -- and not because of the course. Lucille's birth went exactly the opposite from what was outlined in our carefully typed and bulleted birth plan.
I had intended to labor at home for as long as possible, but my water broke at work and I had to go directly to Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. I wanted a natural birth but ended up getting an epidural because contractions came so hard and fast.
All our fancy breathing techniques went flying out the window, but the result of my ad hoc labor and delivery was a healthy, beautiful, perfect little girl. What turned out to be the real gem of the birth class was the simple mention of gatherings known as "New Mom's Coffee."
Our instructor, Kathy McGrath, told us about these sessions held at The Well, a public space sponsored by Kids+Pediatrics in Greenfield-Squirrel Hill, where new mothers convened to share their experiences. It was free, and we were welcome to join once our babies arrived. Somehow, when Lucille was just three weeks old, I managed to get us out of the house and walk into New Mom's Coffee.
Spread out in the open room were folding cushion floor chairs (think camp style) and fluffy pillows. I filled out a name tag with my and my daughter's names, took Lucille out of her car seat and settled in. Other women trickled in, and just after 10:30 a.m., we started.
Kathy introduced herself and made it clear that no topic was off limits -- the only rule was that we had to "be real." No pretense. Each mom had a turn to give an update on the week's happenings. Because it was my first time there, when my turn came I was allowed to tell my birth story.
That was more than four months ago. Lucy and I have been devoted attendees ever since, and this has become my salvation. These women whom I hardly know outside the space of New Mom's Coffee, I see as my community.
They listened with empathy when I revealed my struggles with postpartum anxiety, they cried with me when I dropped big fat guilty tears over being unable to breast feed and they nodded in solidarity when I reported successes with Lucy's sleep. There are days when I walk into the group doubting myself, and I leave feeling as though my spirit has been restored.
My new friends in this group handed over tissues while I wept about the breast feeding. They praised me for doing the best that I could, reassuring me that my daughter would continue to thrive even if I had to give her formula. Other mothers chimed in about their own struggles, and long gone was the feeling of being alone in my darkness.
In the months of going weekly to New Mom's Coffee, I have found a tremendous resource in my peers and in our fearless leader, Kathy. As my maternity leave comes to an end, I know that I will desperately miss the camaraderie of the women I have come to trust there.
On Oct. 9, I woke up having a mother, and I ended the evening becoming one. So instantly was I thrown into the swells of motherhood that had it not been for New Mom's Coffee, I fear I might have drowned.
Like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz," being a participant in this weekly group has helped me realize that everything Lucille needs, I've always had. It's always been inside of me.
I wish for every woman blessed enough to be holding a babe of her own that she is able to find a community as supportive and validating as I have.
Ilene Marshall of Forest Hills, a teacher at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, can be reached at email@example.com.