By Jamie Birdsong Nieroda, API Leader & Support Group Co-Leader
When did your group form?
I decided to go through the leadership training shortly after my son (and second-born) came along. We had a challenging adjustment, even following the ideas in Adele Faber’s helpful book Siblings Without Rivalry, and something about having a support group resonated for me. I had attended one support group meeting in New York City (API-NYC) years before and found being able to post questions to their Yahoo! group (like how to handle exclusion in four-year-old girls or naptime with two young children in the home) so helpful. That community was such a conscientious and wise group of women, and I longed for that on Long Island! Thus began my journey. I completed my training and held my first meeting in March 2008 when my son was just over a half-year old. My first meeting had about six attendees and my last one (September 2012) had 18 attendees. The group has grown in strength each year, and while it has ebbs and flows, it’s always a positive experience for me witnessing parents providing each other support and community!
When a parent comes to your group, what can she/he expect? What meeting format do you have?
Parents can expect a warm welcome as soon as they walk in the door! As we all arrive, we visit with one another and help our children acclimate to the meeting space, which is a library room typically (although we do meet outdoors in the summer at Port Jefferson’s harbor). We always start with an icebreaker question (“What is the most challenging thing going on for you as a parent right now?” “Share an example of how knowing ‘where your child is’ developmentally helps you respond more compassionately or appropriately to them and their behaviors.” “What was bedtime like for you as a child, as in what routine did you have (if any), which parent handled bedtime, were you welcomed into a family bed or did you sleep by yourself or with a sibling, etc?” “What is one way you attempt to feed with love and respect?”).
Beyond that initial icebreaker that gets everyone comfortable, I like to switch things up. Sometimes, we just have an open meeting where people can bring their own meeting topic based on the Eight Principles of API. I’ve been doing that more since our meetings have been drawing so many new mommas (and the occasional father, which is always wonderful)! Sometimes, we divide into breakout groups, particularly when we are over 12 or 14 attendees (or have a high ratio of older children), and I provide a point of discussion or give a behavioral scenario for parents to discuss different gentle discipline approaches. Often, we have a round robin where everyone gets to expound on the principle we are covering or offer feedback to others. I want everyone to have time to share, to ask questions, and to feel like they’ve gotten some answers or at least discovered that others are experiencing the same questions. I want parents to leave with new like-minded friends. No one ever has to speak; responding is not required. A lot can be gained by listening as well! Everyone tends to want to share though, because there is such power in coming to a meeting where you feel heard and understood. While a meeting can feel therapeutic or healing, we are really parents (and other caregivers) sharing with a community. It could just as easily happen around someone’s kitchen table, though we wouldn’t all fit! At the end of the meeting, we often have a Circle Time for the children where I or another mother leads seasonally appropriate songs and fingerplays. It’s a nice way to re-connect with the children and to bring the energy level back down as we break up and disperse. We stay in touch between meetings through a Yahoo! and Facebook group to continue the conversations: Much that happens in our parenting lives can’t wait a month to get feedback!
Besides our regular meetings, we love to have supplementary meetings every few months to discuss Attachment Parenting-related books.
What kind of discussions does your group have? What are some common questions that parents answer?
We discuss variations of API’s Eight Principles. A hot button topic for many of us is specific discipline concerns and questions; a lot of great feedback is received by parents on this topic. Sometimes, hearing specific words and examples gives parents the words they need the next time the situation arises. A parent recently told me of a situation with her five year old protesting bedtime (possibly having an adjustment to a new sibling coming along). We discussed specific phrases and approaches she might use; the suggestion the parent liked was similar to what she already was saying to her child but different enough that she felt it might be more of a soothing balm for her daughter to hear.
Sleep and bedtime rituals come up a lot, as well as first foods fed, breastfeeding in public, dealing with criticism from family or friends, how to support a firstborn when adding a new baby/sibling to the family, preparing for childbirth, and finding balance with personal and family life. I always leave refreshed and with renewed inspiration. Our meetings are like a large Sharing Circle with a bit of a playdate feel as well and also with a “we’re family” feel: It is so nice to see some of the same women each month over the course of years and to feel that camaraderie and community.
Are kids welcome?
Yes, children are always welcome to API meetings, and at API of Suffolk County’s meetings, it’s more the anomaly that they are not with their parents, but it does happen on occasion. I set out crayons and paper and some wiki sticks that a parent donated. The kids use those to form “sunglasses” or other 3D objects and they also place them on the library walls since they don’t harm the space in any way. We also set up chairs to serve as a “train” or “airplane” and the children make tickets for anyone to ride the train. On occasion, we bring a parachute for parachute play. The meetings have their limitations in that we always need to be aware of what the children are doing and step away if needed. That, too, is part of parenting and a part of attending a support group with children.
There is a stigma associated to support groups as well as support in general. What would you say to a parent who said that they didn’t need a support group because those were for “people with problems”?
I have my Master’s in Social Work and have worked as a Social Worker counseling both foster children and their families, whether biological, foster, or adoptive. I’ve worked in other therapeutic milieus as well, so I understand this concern people might have and the stigma associated with attending a support group. However, it’s almost hard for me to wrap my mind around that perception, because I view these meetings more as simply community, a parenting community, like a large potluck or Women’s Circle but with a group of mothers, fathers, caregivers, aunts, whomever shows up! It’s like meeting with a bunch of your friends one morning a month to share about your life and to leave inspired! Really, who doesn’t need to discuss parenting with people who understand, who aspire to the same principles (though how it unfolds may look very different, which is part of the beauty of it!)? To someone uncertain about attending, I would try to listen to their fears and empathize with their concerns while also providing some perspective about how relaxed and normal these meetings are!
I’d like to share here something I noticed recently at our September meeting: I looked over to see one mother wearing another momma’s child in an Ergo carrier, as the child slept contentedly. This image speaks to the community we’ve built and the relationships that have grown between API of Suffolk County’s members. So I’d say get yourself to an API meeting, wherever you are! The connections you will make are a gift that you (and the receiver) need as a mother or father doing the work of parenting. And the eighth principle of parenting, Finding Balance in Personal and Family Life, speaks to that!
Anything else you’d like to share about the importance of parents attending API Support Groups?
We have a lot of fun! It’s community at its best, because you are with people who understand you and do not judge. I’ve noticed that, on occasion, a meeting attendee will preface their comments to the group with, “I’m not as AP as you all are, but…” One attendee pointed out how she has uttered those same words in the past and how, when she hears others say it, she finds it so amusing because it is evident, as each woman speaks, that all of API of Suffolk County’s attendees are coming from a respectful and nonjudgmental place, and conscientiously trying to find the answer that “fits” for their family and their unique child that presents him or herself.