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NAMC Helps New Moms Through Difficult Times
by Leslie Knowlton

Twenty-three years ago, a social worker at Family Service Association (FSA) in Nassau County, N. Y., expressed concern about the high proportion of women who described pregnancy and the first few years of child-rearing as a profound struggle marked by conflict, uncertainty and diminished self-esteem.

That concern led to a research project involving 50 women and the subsequent formation by about 15 founders of the first Mothers' Center, a program where women together with the professional community explore motherhood and attempt to minimize the effect of "baby blues" and prevent postpartum depression.

In 1991 the organization became the independent and nonprofit National Association of Mothers' Centers (NAMC); today the group consults and offers training to more than 100 centers and developing sites nationwide, most with an active membership of 50 to 100 women, and some with as many as 300 members. Similar centers were started in Germany and are now expanding into Eastern Europe.

Recently, NAMC, which also publishes a national newsletter and fields thousands of queries on their toll-free number, held the 17th Annual Mothers' Center Conference in Hauppauge, N.Y. The three-day event included committee meetings and 24 workshops on everything from women and attention-deficit disorder to how to develop dad's potential as a parenting partner.

Lorri Slepian, CSW, one of the founders of the first Mothers' Center, said about 250 mothers, physicians and mental health professionals attended the conference.

"One of the key needs we meet is educating people that the transition to motherhood should be recognized as a normal developmental crisis in the life of a woman and family," she said. "We validate the mother's experience, which many people don't understand."

Slepian said each center is run by the participating mothers, who determine its activities, raise funds and train new participants. In addition to learning from other mothers and professional consultants, most of whom are social workers, members learn decision-making by consensus and leadership development in a nonhierarchical setting.

"[New mothers] need information and support," she said, "but they're out of the hospital before they even know what hit them. Here, women can air the complex conflicts they experience in their struggle to balance family life with their role in society."

NAMC has four cornerstones of learning for its members: psychoanalytic understanding of unconscious conflicts, importance of taking care of one's own physical health, history of women's social change and group process, which she calls "enlightening, empowering and revolutionary for women."

Terry Baver, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice, has been a consultant to the Mothers' Center on Staten Island for a decade.

"I was 31 when my first child was born," she recalled. "I was living on Staten Island and had a private practice in Manhattan. My friends didn't have kids and I felt like an outsider. I knew Lorri and ended up running groups at the center here."

Baver's groups meet for an hour and a half weekly and deal with everything from toddlers to marriage and self-esteem.

"My role at the Mothers' Center is not the same as most consultants," she explained. "In most centers, social worker consultants train the women to run their own groups and that's really the model of Mothers' centers."

Baver said one of the most important roles of the centers is to teach women to value the role of parenting. "Women for years have felt apologetic [about saying] they were at home taking care of their kids," she said. "It's really important to say that that's a job. Not doing so is bad for the women, the men and the kids." Baver advocates having centers "everywhere, including on-site in companies."

"Industries and unions have not been strong in helping families function," she said. "The whole country gives a lot of lip service to the importance of so-called family values, but not enough gets done." Baver also noted a "desperate need" for psychiatrists who are knowledgeable about postpartum disorder.

"Like in all medicine, women's health issues are under-researched," she said. "I also feel that psychiatrists medicate women more than men and medicate too quickly. Very often the medication is wonderful, but too often women say they are unhappy and are put on antidepressants by everyone from internists to dentists."

Baver stressed that going to Mothers' Centers can help women mitigate or even avoid postpartum depression and other problems.

"Although medication can be very useful, the support and understanding women get here is a good adjunct and important in itself," she said. "We need more psychiatrists who understand the problems women face, but Mothers' Centers break the isolation of and also normalize the postpartum period.

One workshop she teaches is on critical thinking.

"Women are given advice by pediatricians and other physicians without understanding that knowledge is subjective and driven by economic and political factors," she said. "They need to learn to use their own minds to evaluate what they hear."

For more information about NAMC, call 800-645-3828, online at http://www.motherscenter.org/, or write to NAMC, 336 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550.