It's obvious that parents of special needs children need support and that often they will turn to support groups, relatives, friends and acquaintances for that support. In this series, we're looking at how these support groups can sometimes turn into your worst nightmare.
This time, it's the turn of the "Mother's Group"
So, What are Mother's Groups Anyway?
I'd better clarify this because I'm sure that the support structures probably differ from one country to another. In Australia, Mother's groups are usually local groups of mothers who have all had babies at around about the same time. Hospitals and Neighborhood centers often put new mothers in touch with them.
I'll agree that mother's groups have their place. They provide a sounding board for mothers with questions about babyhood and motherhood. They provide much needed social contact for otherwise housebound mothers during that critical first year and they provide a great early warning system when your child is slow to hit those all important milestones.
There's a flip-side to all this though. Dysfunctional mother's groups can make you feel like a failure as a parent. They can make you set unrealistic goals for your children and they can make you feel excluded. It doesn't take much to tip the balance in a mother's group from functional to dysfunctional.
The Natural Parenting Influence
Mother's groups often force "natural parenting" concepts upon you - and can exclude you if you fail to follow them. Some of the terrible ideas which come from natural parenting include;
- Cloth Nappies are Better: In fact, cloth nappies are more likely to give you child nappy rash and are quite expensive in terms of time and effort than their disposable cousins. I'm sure that there a situations where cloth nappies are better but really, it's a mother's choice to use whatever works for her.
- Immunizations should be avoided: Some mother's groups get very pushy about the idea of immunization. Some claim it causes autism, many claim that it's unnecessary. There's enough research to suggest that immunization does more good than harm. Again though, it's a mother's choice.
- Children should not be allowed sweets: It's amazing how many mothers freak out when there is confectionery at a child's party. They claim that it makes children hyperactive and fat. Maybe it does but only in large quantities. Again, it's a parent's choice what they expose their child to.
There are lots of other examples including television viewing, McDonald's food and herbal remedies instead of medicines. Note that I'm not saying that these things are wrong - just that mother's groups have no right to impose their own personal viewpoints on other mothers.
Breastfeeding is probably the greatest example of the natural parenting influence gone wrong. There's enough research around to suggest that usually "breast is best" but ... sometimes, it isn't.
Sometimes mothers need to be on medication which seeps through into the milk, sometimes they're not well equipped for the job, sometimes mothers have other issues like anxiety and PND which interferes with feeding and sometimes mothers just don't feel comfortable doing it.
Whatever the reason, there are times when breast is NOT best - but nobody will tell you this, least of all those other breastfeeding mothers.
Even worse, breast feeding is pushed really hard from outside the mother's group. Hospitals, neighborhood centers, doctors and the media often present a one-sided view of the issue. Mother's group is full of mothers who make breastfeeding seem easy and who talk about it as being a crucial part of motherhood. You can imagine the pressure on a new mother to conform and the feelings of failure when it just doesn't work. These mothers receive a whole lot of unnecessary advice about the various things that they should try and they're constantly fending off questions about whether or not their mother was able to breastfeed them. They receive incredulous stares and snide comments when they take out a bottle and when their children are sick or slow to meet their milestones, there is the inevitable stream of comments about this being caused by not breastfeeding.
This is bullying at it worst. There's no other name for it.
Then there are those milestones. When did your baby first sit up, look around, walk or talk. All babies are different and while it's nice to know when those milestones start, you don't need constant reminders that your child isn't hitting them at the appropriate ages. Mothers worry about this enough without constant judgement and comparison from their mother's group.
Some mothers will proudly insist that their child is toilet trained at amazingly early ages. This is despite medical evidence which proves that children can't possibly be trained below a certain age. What these parents are really doing is "toilet timing". It simply means that their child is so regular that they are able to anticipate the times they need to use the potty and make sure that the child is in position.
They'll never admit it of course - and pity the poor mother whose child has delayed toileting. You can imagine the kind of pressure these mother's groups will put her under. When the other mothers are happily taking their children off to toilets, it's painful to be still changing nappies under their critical gaze.
It's not just the looks and the comments though. It's the fact that the new mother has to sit with her crawling child while all the other similarly aged (and younger) children run around. By being delayed in its milestones, her child singles her out as being "different" and as the constant stream of well-meaning advice "have you tried this..." and "this is how I did it..." begins, that fragile self esteem begins to crumble.
Gifted and Special Needs Children
Then of course, there's the mother with the "gifted" child. These children usually aren't really gifted but somehow the mother makes her child out to be super-special with comments like, "my child is writing her name" or "he's already reading". They talk about special schools, interviews and how their child has been accepted.
If your child has delayed speech or is showing signs of difficulty with simple tasks, these comments only serve to "rub it in" and make you feel worse. The mother of the special needs child will begin to question her own abilities as a parent not realizing that at least half of what is being said is simply "keeping up with the Joneses" style competitive comments. A lot of it simply isn't true.
There's also the other special needs children - those with a formal diagnosis. These are often the children of experienced parents or teachers who recognize the problems before they begin to exert an influence. Their child gets an early diagnosis and whole lot of early intervention and funding. They may even start reaching academic milestones before many of the other children in the group. The first "special needs" child in the group will tend to define "autism" for the rest of the parents. If he has poor social skills but good mathematical or reading skills then suddenly your non-academically minded child looks even worse in their eyes.
If you get a subsequent autism diagnosis, you may get some sympathy but the other mothers will still wonder why your child isn't doing as academically well as the other "special needs" child in the group. Again, there may be comments about your abilities as a parent.
Finally, there's the point at which formal separation begins. The other mothers increasingly notice that your child is different. They may notice a lack social skills, frequent meltdowns or simply poor use of language and increasingly they direct their children's play towards other children.
The exclusion of the child leads to the exclusion of the mother. These parents want to talk about "happy" things. They're simply not interested in the plight of the special needs child and they don't want to understand the mother's feelings.
As the affected child is increasingly excluded from social events, such as birthday parties, so to is the mother - she's simply not invited. It starts with kiddie events but it soon spreads to adult events like "mothers nights out". The irony of course is that the mother of a special needs child probably needs the company of other adults more than most but the exclusions take all of this away from her. If she has any insecurities, the exclusion will only make them grow.
If you're in a mother's group and you're in this kind of situation, you need to get out fast. This is a sure sign of a damaging and dysfunctional mother's group. It's only a matter of time before you overhear something that you shouldn't or before these exclusions become so overwhelming that it leads to confrontation.
You're better than that.
I'd just like to acknowledge the help of my wife in writing this post. A lot of the things here are very feminine and there's no way I would have picked up on them without her help. Thanks a lot Joey!