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Visiting Moms provide support and encouragement to new parents

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – You have a new baby, and she won’t stop crying no matter what you do; you don’t think you’ve slept longer than two hours at a stretch for a week. It wasn’t like this with your first baby.

Or your son is two months old, and you hate breastfeeding. Everything you’ve read online says it’s a wonderful experience and so good for the baby. Something must be wrong with you.

Or your mother and your sisters and your best friends live in another country, too far away to help. You don’t have anyone to talk to, and you’re alone with your baby for hours every day.

Every child, every parent, every family situation: all of them different and none of them comes with a rule book.

For 27 years, the Visiting Moms program at Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS) of Boston has provided a ready ear and encouraging presence for new parents, primarily mothers, at absolutely no charge.

Trained and supervised volunteers, all mothers themselves, meet with a new mother during her baby’s first week at home and every week thereafter for the first year. Those regular hour-long visits from an experienced parent, willing to listen and offer counsel and comfort, can offer inestimable support at a stressful time.

Now the Visiting Moms program has come to Central Massachusetts, available through JF&CS of Boston’s Worcester office.

Deb Shrier who is director of Community & Program Development in Central Mass. notes that the expansion offers wonderful opportunities not just for new moms but for volunteers as well.

“It’s a program that everyone can relate to,” she says. “Helping a new mom become comfortable in her role is so key to the success of that parenting and feeling good about herself as a mother. Whether it’s her first child or her fourth child doesn’t matter; every child is unique.”

Currently, there are 75 volunteers and from 110-115 mothers in the program run through JF&CS of Boston’s central office in Waltham.

“There is something to be said for someone being a non-critical presence in your life, there for no other reason than to give you support,” says Debbie Whitehill, director of Visiting Moms.

Visiting Moms, which is supported entirely by donor contributions, began in 1989 at JF&CS of Boston as the brainchild of Peggy H. Kaufman, who now heads the agency’s Center for Early Relationship Support.

The expansion of the program into Central Mass. occurred last year through the generous contribution of Judy and Ken Rosenberg of Westborough. After attending JF&CS of Boston’s annual women’s breakfast and hearing a presentation about Visiting Moms, Judy Rosenberg was so moved that “she sent me an email that night saying that she felt so strongly about it that she wanted this to be her mission, to bring Visiting Moms to Central Mass.,” says Deb Shrier.

The first two volunteers in the Worcester area stepped forward after Rosenberg held an informational meeting at her home. There are now four, actively working with four mothers who live in Worcester, Shrewsbury and Marlborough. The ultimate goal is to create a group of ten volunteers, some of whom may eventually be able to work with more than one mom at a time.

Fran Friedlander, who runs the program in Central Mass., addresses the delicate balance of matching the number of volunteers with the right number of moms.

“As much as we want to recruit volunteers, we also need to generate buzz in the community so either moms refer themselves or are referred from a variety of places,” she says. “That’s been the tricky part about starting from scratch. Not too long ago, we got two referrals and we couldn’t provide services because we didn’t have the volunteers.”

Volunteers are carefully screened to make sure they are a good fit for Visiting Moms and the program is a good fit for them. They then undergo ten hours of training in Waltham in five two-hour sessions. Asked to make a year’s commitment, they are matched with a mom and begin to meet with her for an hour each week, ready to listen and to talk through any issue, problem or concern.

Whitehill says that it is helpful to have someone who is not a family member whom they can open up to and be honest. Parenting is challenging, and it can be even harder to ignore the myth of the perfect mother constantly splashed across the media.

There is well-meaning – and not so well-meaning – advice everywhere, from family and friends to the Internet and the woman in the grocery store line who thinks you haven’t dressed your child warmly enough for the weather.

Referrals might come from pediatricians’ or OB/GYN offices, family members, or a nurse or social worker who notices that a mother seems particularly anxious or teary before she leaves the hospital to go home.

Volunteers meet weekly with their assigned moms, but they also meet bi-weekly with a supervisor in order to ask questions, share concerns and raise issues that might have emerged from their interactions. In Central Mass., the four volunteers connect as a group with Fran Friedlander twice a month at B’nai Shalom in Westborough.

As nurturing as a volunteer mom can be, there are things that she does not do.

“We don’t babysit, clean, or bring very much,” says Debbie Whitehill. “It’s about being with a person during a once-a-week visit.”

Volunteers range from their mid-30s in age to the low 80s. They must be willing to drive to their assigned mom – within a range of 30 minutes – and able to walk upstairs. In addition, they need to be comfortable holding a baby. For liability reasons, visiting moms cannot be alone with a baby or drive the mother and baby, although they can accompany them in the mother’s car if necessary.

And while the volunteer is there to answer questions when she can or find out the answers if she cannot, “we don’t espouse a philosophy of parenting,” says Whitehill. “We help people figure out what they would like to do and what works for them.”

Mostly, though, Visiting Moms is about moms talking to moms, sharing the moments of joy and frustration, exhaustion and elation that come with taking care of a brand new human being. When you’re not changing a diaper for the fifteenth time or worrying that she isn’t nursing well or wishing you could take a shower.

“Really,” says Deb Shrier. “Who couldn’t use a visiting mom?”

Interested in becoming a Visiting Mom? Contact Ava Harder at (781) 647-5327, ext. 5007.

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