Childhood & Learning, Parenting, Personal, Social Change

Building Community – Home Start-Style

I wrote this article for the Mother Magazine in 2015, while volunteering for Home Start the year before my youngest was born. It never made it to the printing press for one reason or another so I’m publishing it here. The time I spent with my Home Start family was so worth it!

A few months ago, my lovely friend Luschka wrote movingly about finding her tribe at a time of great change and transitions (April/ May 2015). Looking back, that time nearly four years ago was a time when I was also still finding my tribe, and meeting Luschka, wonderful mum-blogger from Diary of a First Child, was the best thing that could have happened to me. We were both expecting our second baby, and the friendship we forged at the time is still deepening. She and her then new-born were at my second son’s birth and joined in the intensity and joy of that wonderful experience. She was there in the messy day-to-day of being a mum of two with a small age gap, and we both knew that what one went through the other could identify with.

I wasn’t alone in those hitherto unchartered waters of mothering two young, energetic, dependent and beautiful kids.

We met through a natural parenting playgroup I had set up at a local children’s centre a few months earlier with the help and encouragement of a couple of friends after finding the local playgroups impersonal and superficial – you went, your child played, you made small talk, you went home. The aim of this group was to be a safe haven for mums, a place where we could share our day-to-day experiences of parenting, both the joys and the woes, and to recharge our mental and emotional batteries. Even though I hadn’t heard about attachment parenting at the time, it soon turned out that this was exactly what this group was about. With hardly any input from my side, word about the group spread and more and more mums started attending. For many, it was a place where for once they did not feel out of place because of their parenting choices such as breastfeeding to term, co-sleeping, respectful discipline etc., and many formed lasting friendships. The playgroup has just stopped running, but the online community we set up is still flourishing. It’s been so satisfying to watch this network grow over the years as it is based on real friendships – members have a circle of friends within the group who live locally, whom they see regularly, who will do practical things for each other – a real, supportive community, a tribe. As for myself, my life was richer because of Luschka and others like her. I was definitely more emotionally stable – able to stay sane – because I knew I wasn’t alone in those hitherto unchartered waters of mothering two young, energetic, dependent and beautiful kids.

DSC_6127

However, I became aware of one drawback – we all had a similar socioeconomic background. While there was a huge variety within the group when it came to professional and educational backgrounds, we were all very middle class. And we were not reaching the parents who struggle the most to form healthy bonds with their children – parents from poorer backgrounds, teenage mums, parents with substance misuse issues and many others. According to the NSPCC, a staggering 26% of babies are estimated to be living within complex family situations where there are problems such as domestic abuse, mental illness and substance misuse (1). Similar to when children’s centres were first set up, these parents either did not know about us or did not feel comfortable turning up at a session. So even with a grassroots support network, they still fell through the cracks.

NSPCC: a staggering 26% of babies are estimated to be living within complex family situations where there are problems such as domestic abuse, mental illness and substance misuse.

And what cracks they are… Our fragmented society with its all-but-eroded social support networks and weakening family links has seen to it that early motherhood can be the loneliest time in a woman’s life. And this has been shown to have alarming consequences, for everyone. Sheila Kitzinger, who studied motherhood in many different cultural contexts, came to the conclusion that in a significant proportion of cases, postnatal depression is caused, not by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but by lack of compassionate human interaction and support. In many traditional societies, women band together to support a new mother in every practical way for the first forty days of the baby’s life. Meals are cooked, household chores done, older children looked after. In the UK and the US, these practices are no longer followed. Women and their partners are typically expected to do it all themselves; to be strong, not needy. According to baby guru Gina Ford, baby is supposed to fit in with your life, and if you do it right you can train it right from the start not to be a nuisance. You’re to be in control and if you’re not, well don’t come crying to me!

HomeStart Needs

Except that life doesn’t work that way. We were never meant to do this parenting journey single-handedly. We need to learn, and we learn best by seeing and doing while holding someone’s hand. Sometimes we just need to sleep. Sometimes, life becomes immeasurably more challenging through illness, bereavement or any number of obstacles that throw us off-balance. And our support network is crucial for coping. Later on, when entering the toddler years and discipline suddenly becomes important, it’s just as bewildering. Why did that sweet one-year-old suddenly become so defiant? Why is he banging his head on the floor? How do I get out of the front door before I lose my sanity with two children whose every waking thought seems to be about sabotaging me? Those things are faced and worked through by millions of mothers. But having to face them unrelentingly, every minute of every day without adequate support can and does drive mothers and young families to and beyond the brink of despair, especially if there are additional challenging life circumstances.

“If only you’d been there when I was little…”

Enter Home Start. This wonderful charity operates on the premise that “prevention is better than cure”, that helping a young family in need to reach a place of stability will prevent a host of potentially serious problems down the line and that the best people to help are those who’ve been there: parents. At a recent conference, the Chief Executive of Home Start movingly related how he used to work with homeless young people, many of whom were delinquent to the point of committing violent crimes and murder. Again and again, they would say to him, “If only you’d been there when I was little…”

HomeStart Monitoring

The concept is simple – one family in need of support with children under the age of five is paired up with a volunteer who has completed the Home Start training and who commits to giving two to three hours of his or her time each week to this family, in the family’s home, to befriend, support and mentor them in whatever way needed. The families supported by Home Start are as varied as life itself – in one family I know of, twins were born very prematurely only a year after their older sister and had complex medical needs, but the parents received little practical support from the medical community. There may be a disability in the family, parent or child, a recent bereavement or change in relationship. Multiple births are challenging, and even more so if mum is single or suffering from postnatal depression. Giving two or three hours may seem like very little in the face of such circumstances, but families receiving support consistently report that it often makes all the difference – the time spent with the Home Start volunteer can be a mum’s only time where she does not have sole responsibility for her children, it may be the only time a stay-at-home dad has a meaningful conversation with another adult during the whole of his week. Mum may have been kept up all night by a colicky baby and the nap she has while the volunteer looks after little one may be what keeps her sane for another week; knowing that she will get this contact is often as important as the support itself.

One of our key roles as volunteers is to promote attachment between parents and their children – to help that love flow more freely. Attachment is the single most important factor when it comes to the prevention of child abuse. Parents of securely attached children are much less likely to lash out in frustration, or when frustration levels rise, keep their actions in check because of being aware not only of their own feelings, but also of their child’s. This awareness translates into more sensitive care-giving; being able to read your child’s cues enables you to first see and then meet their needs. Thus, modelling sensitive and caring parenting behaviour is invaluable, especially when supporting parents who have had little experience with young children, or parents who have experienced trauma or neglect as a child. It is just so important. I remember my mother always being interested in what I had to say, even when I wouldn’t stop talking as a three- or four-year-old. Interacting with my children right from the very first gaze has been pretty much second nature for me.

HomeStart Impact

I love their constant chatter, although I have to admit that by 8:30pm I’m pretty worn out. I love their questions and marvel at what goes on in their minds. But I am also very aware that this is by no means every child’s experience – far from it! It has been really rewarding for me watch the mum I support. As her self-confidence grows, she is becoming increasingly open and playful with her little ones, inhibitions falling away as she is discovering the joys of connection and intimacy.

Another thing I love about Home Start is its ability to reach every stratum of society. The charity receives referrals from the people that do see everyone – GPs, health visitors, children’s centres and social workers, among others. To me, this is a unique opportunity, the ideal setup in which to take attachment parenting to the places where it is most needed and least known. It has also demonstrated to me that attachment is not a theory, it’s what happens when circumstances are right. I support a mum with a very different background to my own, yet what we have in common as mothers far outweighs our differences. We resonate through this shared experience of mothering and she instinctively and increasingly understands attachment, even though I’ve not mentioned the word or the theory. No doubt it can be tough, and especially so when child protection issues are part of the picture. I have learnt to not internalize concerns and to make full use of the fantastic support my local Home Start co-ordinator offers. This has enabled me to build a thriving relationship with a mum whose case on paper looks like a very tough one, and to grow as a person myself.

I cannot think of a more beautiful calling than to help facilitate love between a mother or father and their child.

We all learn best from what is modelled to us by those around. If the prevailing parenting culture in a certain community is one of neglect (to whatever degree) and lack of knowledge, it is very hard for a parent to go against that. But one example of a different way to do life can make all the difference! Throw plenty of practical support into the mix and you are likely to end up with a family that maybe for the first time experiences what it is like to have a tribe. And who knows what the long-term consequences may be? In these increasingly dark times of ideologically-motivated violence, we’d do well to be aware that the perpetrators are disconnected, hurting individuals, unable to be vulnerable and experience intimacy. The ability to form close and loving relationships is developed in infancy and childhood, and for me, I cannot think of a more beautiful calling than to help facilitate love between a mother or father and their child.

If you would like to find out more about Home Start and the fantastic work they do, or would like to support them, either by becoming a volunteer or in other ways (there are many), have a look at their website where you can find your local Home Start.

Home Start’s most recent impact report also makes fascinating reading!

[1] 2013 NSPCC All Babies Count Campaign

 

 

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