'All are welcome' moms group celebrates families helping families

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Stephanie Braun, from left, Adam Braun and Marty Braun of Mountain View and Michelle Evans, Chloe Knapp and Kevin Knapp of Sunnyvale swing at a recent Las Madres gathering at Marymeade Park in Los Altos.

A parent is born at the same time as her first child, and remade again upon the arrival of a second.

Her relationship to place changes, too. Wandering down the pavement feels different at toddler speed, and local park proximity jumps from mildly relevant to crucially calculated in minute-by-minute drive time.

One local parents group organizes its chapters by neighborhood, not school boundary, because local parents cross many boundaries - language, origin, age, philosophy, affluence - but they are united, at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, by the need to find someone sympathetic to stand beside them at the bottom of a slide.

Las Madres was founded 60 years ago, when computer chip makers had just begun to share the valley with fruit orchards. It based its moms-helping-moms model on a kind of integration that can be hard to find these days in Mountain View and Los Altos. The nonprofit, volunteer group centers on free, self-organized events that don’t require discretionary spending or a native’s grasp of English.

At a recent gathering, moms hailed from locations as distant as Iran, India and Michigan. The only prerequisite for membership is a shared value for incessantly welcoming behavior. People find "The Mothers" because they know parenting is lonely, and they’re looking for a group intentionally oriented toward uplifting the newcomer.

"I knew I was going to be home with Ellie, and I knew that I was probably going to be super lonely," said Los Altos resident Emily Pan Shen.

All new parents struggle, but a postnatal health crisis had raised the stakes for Shen’s family.

"It was really scary for me at first to take Ellie out, because she was very sick when she was born, and I was really sick. I was super scared of germs," she said.

New moms know that having company is crucial, but with a new baby, it is really hard.

"It is so intimidating to get out the door on time on any particular day," Shen said. "I wanted to meet up in person and see other human beings who were going through the same things I was going through."

The strangers she met in Las Madres were conveniently desperate, too. Unlike at music class, day care or on the playground, where friendships form as a kind of collateral damage, never guaranteed, Las Madres exists for women who are open, by definition, to expanding their world to include you.

"You can make polite niceties, or try to make friends and invite each other into our lives," Shen said.

Know your neighborhood

As a Town Crier reporter, I thought I knew Los Altos and Mountain View pretty well. But you’ll never look at Armadillo Willy’s the same way after seeing its back room fill at 5 p.m. with "solo-parenting" grown-ups finding solidarity for the evening as their partners work. The fact that Willy’s space has doors - that close - to encase a posse of chaotic toddlers matters more than the awesome tap list or even the respectable kids menu.

Reporting on Los Altos’ 11 parks from arm’s length, I never understood the visceral gratitude and pride a parent develops for spaces that welcome regardless of work schedule, backyard size or ability to pay an entrance fee. Now I’ve galloped across McKenzie Park with a baby on my back, gone knee-deep in Adobe Creek at Shoup Park and crowdsourced play-structure shade ratings at Cuesta Park. I never planned to leave my soothingly anonymous spinning studio when I saw Fit4Mom gather women with stretch pants and strollers at Hillview Community Center. Now I get why it’s worth risking a little public exposure to move your body without worrying about child care.

That last sentiment - to try something you thought wasn’t for you - sums up much of how Las Madres accentuates the natural changes of parenthood. A community of toddler specialists will hash out local wisdom in deep and geeky detail. How OK would it be, really, to bring a raucous 18-month-old to Mountain View’s outdoor children’s theater productions? The greater Mountain View Las Madres community has more than 80 members. One of them will either know already or go with you next week to find out the hard way. You’re all exploring the same parks as you flee the house with a crabby child in tow - you can either do it alone or do it together.

"The thing about a neighborhood playgroup is that these are your neighbors - people you’re going to see again and be in school with - so there’s an added incentive to foster good friendships within this community," said Mountain View resident Sarah Morford.

Morford noted that this area can seem so friendly to outsiders in part because many people transition in and out. She’s lived in parts of the U.S. where neighbors have grown up together and already formed such set social worlds that they’re not likely to get your number, even when they like you. In Silicon Valley, every other family turns out to be a transplant - and generational residents often have spent time living away and move back needing to re-create a social world.

Los Altos native Courtney Sousa searched for Bay Area moms groups when she moved back to town this year. She and her daughter, Claire, appreciated library storytimes, her pediatrician’s mom/baby group and Music Together. But she wanted to find a more extensive support system as a second child appeared on her horizon and she knew her life was only going to get more over- whelming.

"I took the plunge in hopes of finding some other moms and kids to play with, especially during the week when some of my other mom friends are working," she said. "It’s always hard to take the step of showing up to a playdate when you don’t know anyone."

 Moms showing up for moms

Twelve mothers who met through a childbirth preparation class formed Las Madres in 1953 in San Jose. Over the next 64 years, nearby neighborhood chapters formed stretching up to Mountain View, with a focus on early childhood support and education. Because the groups for a given community such as Mountain View/Los Altos organize by birth year rather than micro-neighborhood, they continue to exist only as long as new mothers find and join them, and more experienced members pass an infectious culture of inclusion to newborn moms.

The shell-shocked, milk-leaking moms of Mountain View 2017 inherit "big sisters" from the year before to help show the way, but it still falls to each new group to continue turning up to the picnic blanket with infants in tow.

"You’re passing the torch of knowledge to the next generation - it’s been alive for so many years and helped a lot of people," said Nataliya Starostina, who volunteers as a Las Madres board member. "I think the generational continuity (is powerful). We have several moms in Las Madres who are themselves Las Madres babies."

While reporting this story, I learned there’s a former Las Madres baby in the Town Crier office - new staff writer Grace Hase. Her mother, Dena Hase, remembers organizing via the White Pages and a phone tree during the analog days of the early 1990s. Her group used poker chips to tally and trade babysitting hours among their tight-knit group of 13 women, and continued to meet from babies rolling across blankets until their children were several years into elementary school.

"This was my support network so that I would not feel like all I did was change diapers, pick up toys and do the same thing every single day," Hase said. "I had something to look forward to - my scheduled outing."

Shen became director of her year’s Mountain View group at one of the earliest events she attended - actually "volunteered" for the role while out of the room in the bathroom - and saw over time how overwhelmed parents still make time to follow through when it comes to finding their community.

"It’s up to everybody how involved they want to be - how much space they have in their lives," she said. "They might already have older children, a work schedule, but we will meet you more than halfway - especially in the beginning, when it is so hard to get out."

Starostina relocated to the Bay Area from Orange County when her son was 1 month old and had a common experience - "I found myself very lonely, and I’d been pretty much stalking people on the playground and asking questions."

After confirming that it wasn’t a Spanish-language-only group - many moms join knowing next to nothing about Las Madres’ history, as I did - Starostina joined Las Madres for fellowship, but also for the body of local knowledge it transmits. As I write this sentence, I’m sitting at a coffee shop across the street from a tiny preschool multiple Madres moms in my neighborhood discovered and pointed out to me. It’s located walking distance of my home, yet I’d never heard of it in a year of vetting options.

In addition to parent-initiated playdates, day trips and informal information sharing, Las Madres organizes a speakers series on early-childhood development and parenting education, as well as other programs focused on the parent-child relationship. Starostina is now helping plan the group’s 10th annual Education Fair, which invites members and the public to learn about day care options and preschools in Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino and Santa Clara. This year’s fair is scheduled 6-9 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Bay Area Community Center, 1257 Tasman Drive, Sunnyvale.

 Expanding horizons

Parents use Las Madres outings as a chance to venture farther abroad in the Bay Area when a mom volunteers to show others around a destination she knows. In the last few months, Mountain View members have launched joint ventures to the Daniel Tiger exhibition in Sausalito’s Bay Area Discovery Museum, Gilroy Gardens, Happy Hollow, Vasona Lake Park’s railroad, Santa Cruz’s beaches and Saratoga’s Hakone Gardens. Driving an hour to pay to visit a new place can seem like a chancy endeavor when you’re alone with a baby. Knowing a friendly face is going to greet you at the entrance and hold the door can be a game changer.

For Shen, the Los Altos resident whose baby began life medically fragile but made a strong recovery, the group provided a safe place to (re)learn what "normal" looks like when it comes to babies interacting with each other and a germ-y world.

"It helped me to focus not just on myself and my transition, but get out more and get into life," she said. "The first time I put my kid in a swing, I literally had never thought I could do that - but they said, 'She has good neck strength, she can do it.'"

"Even if a mom never shows up, at least she knew we were there. That’s why I post pictures - it’s proof of life; we are living, breathing people," Morford said.

And a cultural expectation that members drop mean-girl cliquishness helps women navigate new relationships.

"Because we don’t want to be judged as moms, we do less judging of each other," Morford added. "None of us is an expert, none of us has done this before - we really want to foster just good relationships."

Hase said that a generation ago, the same dynamic was in place. Because everyone arrived looking for support during a particularly challenging stage of child-raising, they all had something in common.

"There’s really no pause in the conversation - we were all going through the same thing," she reminisced. "Your friendship grows because you start to understand what each other are going through. We had a very diverse group as far as how people raised their children and the kind of schools they wanted their kids to go to. But we’re all still vying to go to the bathroom with the door closed and no one banging on it. Those things knit us together."

The crazy thing about this system of good-intentioned, ad hoc group formation is that it works. After several months of watching pictures of Las Madres events I’d missed due to shyness and uncertainty, I started turning up. There’s a momentum that comes from being invited over and over, regardless of whether you’ve made it in the past or stalled out on your own doorstep. Once you finally arrive, you know how sympathetic you feel toward the next mother/child duo to come along - even if you seem to have nothing in common past the baby.

"For women, we have to totally redo all the female friendships in our lives when we become moms," Morford said. "I can probably count on one hand the number of people I would be friends with in the real world if we weren’t moms, but there are weeks when I spend more time with them than I do with my own husband."

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