By Patricia Andre-Edgar (Estimated reading time: 10 mins)
Meeting new people in Seattle, the home of the Seattle Freeze, can be challenging, even in the best of times. Throw into the mix of a newborn baby and a governor-mandated quarantine; well, how does a new parent also go about meeting and getting to know other adults?
Julian and his wife, Bonnie, experienced precisely this with their baby daughter in the spring of 2020. And while it was initially a bumpy ride, these two new parents managed not only successfully to build a community of parenting allies, and they have also built confidence in their ability to parent. They are extending their hand to others to pave the way for connection and support.
Julian, Bonnie, and their baby girl, Ayla.
Journey into Parenthood
Not long before their baby arrived, Julian was encouraged by more than five colleagues and parents to enroll in a program with Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS). Julian and his wife signed up for a two-parent option Newborn group, a peer-support group for parents to gather with other new parents, meeting once a week for 12 weeks to share the highs and lows of parenting and have discussions with the guidance of a trained facilitator. The group began in February, meeting initially in families’ homes. The first of life’s curveballs were thrown almost immediately. Julian and Bonnie’s baby girl, Ayla, contracted an illness, and their focus was quickly shifted from figuring out how to swaddle to juggling urgent care visits. In the second week of the group, Bonnie was able to introduce herself to the group. The following week, Julian was able to join. “I wasn’t expecting much,” he remarked, looking back on the experience. “I figured I would simply attend to support Bonnie and her experience.”
It was a surprise for Julian then when he quickly bonded with this group of new parents. He credits much of the initial warm welcome to the trained facilitator of his group, Libby. Julian observed how his Group Leader genuinely created a space for him to feel welcomed and included in the conversations. Each week, Libby opened the floor, introducing topics for exploration and discussion, then would step back to allow families to share and discuss. “…That was the testimony of Libby…throwing something out there, and then we based on what we’ve built…and run with it…[She was a] Godsend.”
Support and Connection
The timing of Julian and Bonnie’s group was so that had begun before the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in Washington state, and the families were able to meet in person for a short time before being required to quickly pivot to solely meeting online as a virtual group, alongside a dozen others across King and Snohomish county. And while the group felt some hesitation and doubt about how meeting online might diminish from their experience, they were determined to find a way.
Julian, Bonnie, and Ayla (top row, center) with five other families from their Newborn PEPS Group during an online gathering over Zoom.
As the group would soon discover, sharing a situation of adversity – such as a worldwide pandemic that forces people to remain physically distanced from one another – can, in fact, act as a way of bringing people together. These families were pleasantly surprised when they found themselves looking forward to their weekly meet-ups once again once they had figured out the technology and got settled into a ‘new normal’. This group made the most of the weekly online gatherings, using it as an opportunity to continue sharing their highs and lows (of which there were many!) and build on the bonds created. “If parents are willing to put something out there to be real, agree they love their partner and their new child, agree they’re vulnerable and need support. So, what’s really, really palpable is a sort of curiosity and maybe sort of reticence, but way stronger. It’s like, I’m here to try to make this work.”, Julian shares. Hundreds of families who are bringing home a newborn or are expecting a baby in the coming months have joined PEPS groups across King and Snohomish county and will be gathering in a virtual room with a dozen other new parents to discuss their babies’ development and share their highs and lows. This cohort of new parents will be relying on the families they are meeting for the first time to be as candid, honest, and vulnerable as they are willing to be. This is no different than in any PEPS group meeting for the first time, whether in person or virtually.
Research shows that it can be more challenging to read nonverbal cues while conversing over a computer than in person. Research also indicates that support and connection to other humans are vital for the mental and emotional health of people, young and old, and especially for new parents. In effect, overcoming the hurdles of technology like figuring out how to mute the microphone or toggling between ‘gallery view’ to see everyone’s face on the call and ‘speaker view’ to mimic chatting in person can be worth it for new parents who are facing parenting for the first time during this pandemic.
Participating in a virtual meeting requires access to technology and Wi-Fi, which can not be assumed to be widely available. PEPS recognizes that barriers to such access exist and have worked with a local telecom partner to provide free hotspots to families. For more details, pls contact us. View additional offers for free internet coverage and Wi-Fi hotspots here.
But hold on – can’t I just wait this out and meet people in person at the playground when this is all over? In theory, yes (although we do not know yet when that will be). At the same time, being in quarantine can feel very lonely, layering on top of what is often recognized as an already very isolating period. In the meantime, babies will be babies, growing at a rapid pace in those initial months. Newborns develop at astounding rates, with neurons doubling in size in the first year of life. In conjunction with that, the new parents of these infants are sleep deprived and may be looking for others to ask, “Is it normal for my newborn to poop out black stuff?” at 2 am. Connecting with other adult humans can be those flickers of light on a dark night filled with doubt and dirty diapers.
For some new parents, having a network of other parents to call upon has made all the difference. Danica, one of the mothers in Julian and Bonnie’s group, shares, “…I don’t know anyone else with children really and less newborn, so I like having other people who are gonna go through the same thing…the support being able to rely on the other families to, you know, when you have tough times, it’s easy to, like, kind of go into your wormhole…and it’s nice to look forward to something every week, and it’s something that you can build on the positive.”
The Highs and Lows
Some families have shared that they have found that meeting virtually with their PEPS groups has had clear benefits over meeting in person for their family. For several, there has been less worry about lugging the ridiculously heavy chunk of plastic that is a car seat from the house, to the bus stop, up some stairs, and back all over again. There has been less concern about disrupting bedtime because the bassinet is nearby, ready for the baby’s sleepy head. Forgot the pacifier? No big deal. Being able to meet in the comfort of their own home, in the comfiest loungewear, without having to contend with the commute or rain (oh, the relentless rain!) can be a relief for new parents. And parents with mobility challenges have expressed gratitude for being able to forego the anxieties of getting out of the house. Instead, they can spend their mental energy on engaging in discussions and connecting with others.
Are you – or someone you know – expecting or bringing home a new baby? Consider finding a community of support and connection with other new parents through a virtual PEPS group. PEPS is currently offering virtual sessions for expectant parents, parents of newborns, and parents of their second (or third!) baby all over King and Snohomish county. Find a group to join today!
While none of this can take the place of sitting next to a live person and being able to reach out a hand in an offer of comfort as they share their personal challenges, the sense of community that can grow out of being in the same electronic room during a time as intense as this pandemic can be invaluable. Liang Sim, one of Julian and Bonnie’s fellow group participants, framed it like this, ”I think to be in this intense group of people who are all in this intense moment at the exact same time is really valuable, even if it is virtual…I think it’s just the shared experience. And sharing everyone’s highs and lows, realizing we’re not the same, but we’re all in the same boat has been…incredibly helpful and that would be the case even if we didn’t end up being friends.”
Could parenting and finding a community of support during a pandemic be easier? Most definitely.
Sally, another of the virtual group participant parents, shared her perspective on feeling encouraged, “It’s easier to connect for sure when you’re in person, but one of the nice things that was good to have [was] the connection still, once we were essentially stuck inside. At least we knew kind of Tuesday night, we could talk to other people and kind of connect and so it was a way to know that there was still some form of connection during a time that is already very isolating, and then you add the quarantine on top of it. It was nice to at least still have some form of connection.”
Now that baby Ayla is older and Julian and Bonnie have wrapped up their PEPS group, what do they think about meeting other new parents during a pandemic? “Has it been helpful? A resounding YES! It’s a unique experience, going through new parenthood and COVID together.”, expresses Bonnie. “Parenthood is very humbling.”, Julian adds, “That is extremely valuable and is going to actually challenge a lot of the preconceived notions, but it’s gonna help you with what the journey actually is and allow a depth and a quality both of bonding and support that very early on, and you feel a bit stronger, and a bit better about jumping into parenthood…and so, if in fact, you can start out on the journey of parenthood [with] your best foot forward…that’s what I feel PEPS does.”
Have YOU participated in a virtual PEPS group? As the number of groups meeting virtually has increased, we are even more interested (we did not know this was possible!) in hearing how your experience was. How has your PEPS experience changed you? How have the discussions on race and social identity been going in your group? What questions and suggestions do you have for us about our programs? Share your feedback, ideas, and family’s story with PEPS!
For additional parenting support, visit:
- Perinatal Support Washington – local organization offering perinatal mood or anxiety disorders support
- Adjusting to Parenthood – a free virtual drop-in group for mothers offering additional support for the emotional changes and challenges of adapting to parenthood
- Families of Color Seattle (FOCS) – a local organization offering virtual parent groups for families with newborns, waddlers, and multi-age affinity groups for families of color