Here’s the deal: We need each other. Yes, we human beings need one another to be healthy and to thrive. Brené Brown defines connection this way: “connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Thanks to recent advancements in neuroscience, we now know way more about the social brain. Our brains are literally wired – starting when we are in utero – to connect with one another. And even more amazing than that, our brains actually experience reward during social interaction, and sensations resembling physical pain when we are rejected or isolated.
The business sector knows this: in their quest for workplace satisfaction, large companies have applied decades of research that show that employees value connection and affirmation over every other aspect of their job. Those who serve the aging community learned long ago that the elderly enjoy greater health when they feel connected to others. Troops serving in the military often talk about their survival resting in the friendship they find in one another. And we know today, in this country in which there is so much division and disconnect, that sometimes the only solace and relief we find is in our connection to each other. We need each other, now, more than ever.
And just think. If we need each other so badly under normal circumstances, how much greater the need for connection is when we try to navigate life as a new parent. In the last few years, the research has taught us even more. Scientists who study the social aspects of the brain are beginning to see that perhaps it is not actually food, water, and sleep that are the most fundamental to human survival, but first and foremost the ability to connect socially with others. After all, how can a newborn baby successfully get fed if her social brain does not first enable her to communicate to her parent that she is hungry?
Many of us are in touch with the facts about babies’ brains. We know that the first days, weeks, and months of a baby’s development provide an opportunity unlike any other in its lifetime to lay the foundation for future health and success. With every smile, song, and feeding, literally millions of neural connections are being made. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience’s study, early adversity in a child’s life carries tremendous risks for social, emotional, and physical health problems later in life. There is simply no other time when the stakes are so high. For those of us in the early learning world, this is our fight song. Investing early is the most evidence-based, and economically wise decision a person, community, or government could make. The greatest predictor of tomorrow’s health is the wellbeing of today’s babies and small children.
But it is not simply enough to acknowledge what babies need. If we know that a child’s strongest resiliency factor is the relationship they have with their parents, we need to talk more about the parents. And we need to talk about what parents need specifically in the immediate days, weeks, and months following the arrival of their new baby, a time that carries a great deal of both risk and opportunity. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has invested years in examining parents’ needs and have arrived at the conclusion that we improve child outcomes when we invest in the adults who care for them.
At PEPS we hear from a lot of parents who say that PEPS saved their lives. Most often, they talk about the friendship they found. PEPS is known for cultivating friendship; fostering meaningful-and sometimes lifelong-relationships among families; building villages…. Perhaps what we do not talk about enough is why this is so crucial. We don’t celebrate friendships made simply because it feels good. We celebrate connection because without it, there is suffering.
At PEPS we celebrate friendship that brings parents out of isolation; that helps reshape identities in crisis; friendships that encourage struggling parents to seek help for PPD; friendships that serve as family when biological family is thousands of miles away; we celebrate the connections that allow parents to learn from each other and interrupt the cycles of unhealthy behaviors from their families of origin. We celebrate the neighborhoods that are brought closer together, who look out for one another.
For decades, PEPS has celebrated the power of connection. And it is this that drives our direction forward. While PEPS serves thousands of families each year, we know that there are thousands more who we are not reaching. Over the years, our growth has been heavily concentrated in communities that have stable access to resources. PEPS parents can attest to the fact that all parents need support and there is no amount of education, age, or income that equips a family for smooth sailing. AND, we also know that families who are at the greatest risk of the poorest outcomes – families who have the least access to resources – have also had the least access to PEPS. So if we believe that the greatest predictor of tomorrow’s health is the wellbeing of today’s children AND we believe in the power of connection in the early weeks and months of new parenthood, how can we not strive to promote greater access to PEPS?
What do we mean when we talk about growing to reach more families in the coming years? First, PEPS is diving deep into examining the equity in our programming and growth. Over the past year, we have requested feedback from the community about how we can better welcome diversity in our programming. We have been honored to hear from many parents-some who were in a PEPS Group and some who were not-about their experiences with PEPS. In response, we are investing significant resources into diversity and inclusion learning, reflection and action for our entire organization, including staff and board. We are committed to better acknowledging, honoring and celebrating the diversity that exists in each group-whether it is race, family structure, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, we will strive to hold space for and honor shared commonalities as well as cultural differences among parents in PEPS groups. This means a lot of listening, learning, adapting and engaging on a community level.
Second, we are focusing on partnerships. We are working with our Network Partners to allow PEPS to be more culturally responsive. Whether it is our partner MAIA midwifery, who is offering PEPS groups to LGBTQ families, or Temple de Hirsch Sinai, who is offering PEPS groups to the Jewish community at large, or any of the other incredible organizations in the PEPS Network, their partnership is helping PEPS reach the unique and vibrant communities they serve.
Lastly, we are looking at access. This means taking a look at where we offer groups in our service area. It means committing to providing even more financial assistance for families to participate in PEPS and examining what other barriers currently exist. And it means being willing to be nimble and to adapt our model to meet community and cultural needs. To help us do this, we created several new Community Connector positions who will work with local partners, engage with communities, and help us understand where there are gaps in parent support.
My hope is that you will join us on our journey to invest now-today-in communities and families to build futures for tomorrow that are bright, resilient, and strong.
Together, as a community, many of the wishes and hopes we have for our children are similar: we want all of the kids we love to be safe, healthy, to belong, to know justice, peace, and love. We are all connected in our hope for our little ones. And I believe that it is in this connection that there is power.
About the Author
Jessica Lawmaster is the executive director of PEPS and a mother of three young daughters. Jessica earned her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Oklahoma and is passionate about supporting ways to empower and build resilience in families. This summer Jessica joined a Second Time Around group as well as an evening Newborn Group with her husband, Patrick. Jessica and her family moved to Seattle in 2016 and are fully enjoying exploring the culture, opportunities, and natural beauty the city has to offer.