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Experience-Sharing Groups for New Mothers

A new mother adapting to the changes a new baby brings needs to know that others are treading similar ground. She needs to exchange stories, experiences, desires, and worries with others who have been and are exactly where she is. She needs to feel “normal.”

She needs to feel free to bare herself in an accepting and understanding environment where she can trust her peers to handle her feelings with sympathy and understanding. She needs to know that she is not the only mother in the world who experiences negative feelings toward her offspring and that she is not a “bad mother” as a result. She needs to know she is not alone if her interest in sex has diminished and that this is not a sign of “too doting a mother” or an “indifferent” or “frigid” wife. Conversely, she needs to know that she is not alone if she has an increased interest in sex since the baby was born. She needs friends. She needs reinforcement of herself as a mother and a woman.

Often, the new mother is alone after the mist has cleared, the baby visitors have waned, the helping hands have been withdrawn, and she must settle into her new routine in the unfamiliar baby world - alone with her infant.

Her daily fears and concerns for the baby's health, development, and sleep patterns might be in need of expression to someone other than her mate. She may have conflicting feelings about her new role and need someone in the same situation to express them to. She may feel overwhelmed by the amount of time that baby care involves. She may need practical advice on how to get through each day more efficiently and how to take time for enjoyment as well as work, work, work. Or, she may simply need the sympathetic ears of other mothers with similar problems and feelings. She may need to compare notes with other mothers to be reassured that her baby is “normal” and that other new mothers have made the same mistakes she has in the learning-to-care-for-baby field. She may need to know that she's not “crazy” for feeling the unexpected feelings she's been experiencing. She may need to have a buddy to call during a difficult day to help break the tension.

In urban areas, a young mother who lives in an apartment building may get to meet other mothers and their babies in the laundry room, the elevator, or the park. Mutual interests can serve as natural means of starting an acquaintance leading to friendship. However, a mother living in a suburban area or a building without many young families often experiences strong feelings of isolation. It is such a woman, one with no natural access to other young mothers, friends, or relatives to help fill her special needs, who must find such people. How? By starting or joining a postpartum rap group.

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In some communities, rap groups are already available. You can locate such groups by contacting local childbirth educators; your physician or hospital; or any organization you can think of which might have some knowledge of the existence of new parent discussion groups.

Some of these are strictly self-help groups consisting of peers in similar situations. Others are led by professional counselors, therapists, or specially trained rap leaders. Some are free. Others involve a small fee, still others cost more. Rap groups are not encounter groups and should not be substituted for needed therapeutic counseling.

lf there are no groups in your area, seriously consider forming a self-help rap group yourself. This is easier than you might imagine. The ideal times for rapping are several weeks before or soon after you give birth. The first weeks after becoming a parent are the most confusing; having a well-established group to share feelings with is extremely beneficial.

We've found that the most successful groups are comprised of women who have similar backgrounds in terms of age and education and live in the same general area. lf this is your first child, try to locate other first-time mothers, or at least try to achieve a fairly even split between first- and second-time mothers. Also, your group will be more successful if all members have children who are close in age, perhaps covering a span of six months. This does not mean you should scrap the idea if all potential participants are not your age with children who have the same birthdates. Homogeneity may be the ideal, but if your group comes as close to it as possible it can still succeed.

When you have a list of ten to fifteen names, start calling. You can begin the conversation with how you received that person's name and number. As you've probably found out through experience, new parents are deluged with calls from photographers, baby furniture manufacturers, and diaper services. Therefore it's helpful to say, “Hello, my name is , I got your name from . Please don't hang up! I'm not selling anything.” Identify yourself further as a new mother with the need to meet other new mothers to help each other through the early months of parenting. Explain that you’d like to form such a self-help group and be sure to state that it is not intended as group therapy or counseling - but as a form of experience sharing. Specify a time and date for the first meeting and invite her to join. Many first-time mothers prefer meetings to be one afternoon every other week for about three hours, with their newborns in tow. Unless you have facilities for many babies, suggest that all participants bring blankets to spread on the floor for their infants. Ask second-time mothers to try to arrange for a sitter for their older children because their presence is a distraction and some women do not feel comfortable discussing things in front of a child old enough to understand. Hostessing the meetings can be on a rotating basis, unless the group agrees to another alternative, such as regularly using one or two of the women's homes because they are more spacious.

As the initiator, your function at the first meeting is to introduce the idea of experience-sharing in a rap group. Tell any experiences you may have had which would illustrate how talking things out can help. Make it clear that the purpose of the group is to provide a forum for women to talk out their feelings without fear of being judged or criticized. Ask each member in the group to introduce herself and talk about what she hopes to gain from the group experience. Share childbirth experiences if you like. Begin to get to know each other. Draw up a set of ground rules for ensuing discussions. (You can use our recommended ground rules as a guide.) Explain the necessity for the group to decide how often it will meet, for how long the group will continue (three months, six months, etc.), when the group will discuss renewing its commitment to continue for the next few months, when, how, and if the group will accept new members, etc. Propose that these be discussed and decided upon at the next meeting. Before the first meeting ends, select a location, group leader, and time for the next meeting, as well as two topics to be discussed. One topic could be of a practical nature, such as whether or not to let a baby “cry it out.” The other topic could be one relating to emotions, such as feelings about being a parent.

At the next meeting, ground rules can be formally adopted, decisions about how often to meet, etc., can be made and the group members can continue to get to know each other through a discussion of areas of common interest. Each meeting should end with a selection of a location, leader, and topics for the following meeting.

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All may not be smooth sailing. It has been our experience that at some point in the early weeks many groups go through an adjustment process. It may be that side conversations are happening too often during a session and there is a loss of the all-important over-all group interaction. There may be personality conflicts, or not everyone in the group may feel comfortable in the leadership role. The important thing is that the group talks out the problem and works to find a solution. Realize also that not everyone who comes to the first meeting will want or be able to continue. People do relocate, return to work, take care of sick relatives, etc. We suggest that you try to invite twelve women to the first few meetings, hoping eventually to end up with a group of ten.

Some people find it beneficial to form groups consisting of couples. This way, men and women together share their feelings and offer advice to each other. The men discover that their mates are not so different after all from others in similar situations and that other new fathers react the same as they toward new parenthood or that they have quite different reactions. Similarly, the women find their mates are not so different from others in similar situations, etc.

Opening up in such a controlled non-judgmental atmosphere amidst peer couples can be an asset to a couple who otherwise might not experience such valuable communication between themselves.

Below are the materials you can distribute at meetings of your rap groups. You may want to use them as a guide to forming your own groups. The Ground Rules, Suggested Topics for Discussion, etc., which your group develops should reflect your personalities, needs, and situations.

Some groups meet only for the first few months. Other rap groups continue twice a month for several years, enabling members to get through the trying periods of coping with growing children's changing behavior patterns as time goes on. The need usually determines the life of the group. Some groups expand their functions to include the formation of babysitting pools, group purchasing power, infant care and parenting book discussion groups, parent pressure groups, etc. Ideally, your group can be whatever its members want it to be.

Parent Rap Groups

Purpose

Rap groups provide a welcome environment for new parents interested in sharing their joys as well as their problems with others in similar situations. There is a need during the early months of parenting for supporting each other, bolstering self-confidence, and giving encouragement. There is also a need to know that you are not alone; others experience similar feelings, fears, etc.

In addition, there is also a need to have free talking space during which time the individual can speak freely without interruption, airing and sharing feelings (negative and positive) without fear of being cut off, attacked, put down, ridiculed. The aim of the rap sessions is to accept each other's feelings for what they are, true and individual, to encourage the venting of individual feelings on each topic covered, to offer helpful advice and comments when needed.

Schedules

The group should agree on how often and where to meet. It is suggested that group meetings be held once every two weeks, that group members commit themselves to continuing the group for a six-month period, after which time the commitment can be renewed or terminated, that there should be no more than ten members in a group, that meetings should be rotated and that the leader of each meeting should be the person in whose home the group meets that day. The group should decide what its rules are concerning the admission of new members, how many meetings in a row may be missed by a member before that member is considered out of the group, etc.

Ground Rules

1. No judging or put-downs! Disagreeing is okay, but not disapproval. (“I don't agree with you. I think it could be handled this way… ”, not “You're wrong. My way is right.”)

2. Be helpful, supportive, encouraging. Point out the good things of a given situation; then, if you can offer helpful comments or suggestions, do so.

3. Share feelings and experiences. (“I tried this way and it worked” or, “it didn't work.”)

4. At the end of each session, the group should choose a topic for the following session so there is time to think about what you might want to say or ask.

5. Each person takes a turn at speaking on the topic without interruption. The aim is to allow the person speaking to “get it all out.” Questions, suggestions, or sharing of feelings by the others must wait until she finishes what she wants to say. (A reasonable time limit may at times have to be set.) When she is finished speaking, the interplay between her and the rest of the group should not be permitted to veer off into private conversations - or to go on too long, thereby taking time away from others who have not yet had their turn.

6. After everyone has had a turn, the leader asks if anyone has comments or additions to make.

7. Alternate homes for meetings. The leader in whose home the meeting is held provides the refreshments (which should be limited to simple beverages such as juice, coffee, tea, and simple snacks and/or cookies so there is minimal preparation and expense involved). The person hosting also assumes the role of session leader, unless that person chooses not to, in which case someone else may be asked to assume this role (another group member). The session leader must see to it that there is no interruption, that the chosen topic is adhered to, that reasonable time limits are upheld, that a new leader is chosen for the next meeting. If there is anyone felt to be attacking, interrupting, etc., or otherwise going against the rules, the leader must gently state something like, “We cannot have judgments.. . no attacking … if you want to disagree, that's fine, but no disapproval here … ” And these possibilities should all be discussed and mutually agreed upon at the opening session. Everyone must agree to the rules!!

8. If there is a particular problem someone is having, the group can give up part of its prearranged topic time to the new problem. Members can hear the problem and each can take a turn reacting to it, making suggestions, etc. It is good to allow the problem question to open the session and then go on to the prearranged topic if there is time.

9. It is also a good idea to prearrange the ending time of each session. Those who want to stay and informally chat may do so, but the formal part of the session is over.

10. A list of each member's name, address, and phone number should be given to each participant.

11. It should be mutually agreed in advance that if one member seems very distressed, disturbed, or so in need of more help than the lay group can give, the group can and should gently, lovingly, as friends, suggest outside professional help. The group should explain its inability to help in such situations.

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Suggested Topics For Discussion

These topics are suggestions only, based on the Situations we know confront many new parents. Feel free to add or delete topics and/or change their order. A rap group is a living thing that grows as its members' needs change. Topics should be selected that reflect the needs of the group members as these needs arise.

1. Finding time for yourself

2. Finding time to be with your mate

3. Feelings toward the baby - positive and negative

4. Feelings about parenthood - positive and negative

5. How to handle advice and suggestions

6. Relationships with grandparents and other family members

7. How to get outside help - babysitter, housekeeper, etc.

8. How to involve your mate with the baby

9. How to handle a crying baby

10. Can you spoil a baby?

11. Jealousy of your mate's lifestyle

12. Sex

13. Traveling with an infant - where to go and what to bring along

14. To childproof the house or to teach the child not to touch?

15. Values we want our children to have and how to instill them

16. Fears - about the baby dying, that you can't cope, etc.

17. Finances - inexpensive recipes, money-saving ideas, budgeting, recreation on a budget, insurance, wills

18. Time management - time savers how to organize the day

19. What to do on a rainy day

20. Changes in social relationships

Other Projects The Group Can Consider

One of the beautiful things about a rap group is that members can do things in addition to meeting for the basic rap sessions. This list is by no means all-inclusive.

1. Reciprocal Babysitting Members can sit for each other informally, or set up a formal reciprocal babysitting service.

2. Telephone Round Robin A member spotting a much-used item (diapers) on sale or desiring to get information to the whole group can do so by calling the member whose name follows hers on the membership list. That member in turn will call the next on the list and so on until all have been reached. The last name on the list calls the first.

3. Socializing with Members Five mothers babysit in. one location for all ten children while the other five mothers go to the theater, out to lunch, to a museum, etc. The next week the mothers switch roles; those who went out, babysit; those who babysat, go out.

4. Cooperative Buying of Baby Items Does everyone need a highchair? A car seat? What about approaching a local merchant and asking for a discount if you all buy from him?

5. Parties with Your Mates It's nice to get your mates involved too. Agree on a place to meet, split the cost of paper goods, and have a party one evening. Each member prepares a dish (menu to be coordinated by the member hosting the party). Beverage and/or liquor costs are also shared. Babies can be included or each member can find a sitter for the evening, as the group prefers.

6. Book Discussions Agree on a book to be read by a certain date. In addition to (or instead of) discussing a “topic,” share your reactions to the book.

7. Toy/Clothing/Coupon Exchange Got a gift that you absolutely hate but can't exchange? Baby tired of one particular toy? Find a coupon you can't use but think someone else can? Why not swap with another group member? Toy swaps can be for a limited period of time - say two weeks, after which the baby might think it's brand new and enjoy it again.

8. Demonstrating Crafts Does anyone in the group have a specialty that can be demonstrated to the whole group: knitting, crocheting, cake decorating, etc.? Sharing the skill expands everyone's abilities.

9. Meeting with Your Mates Why not get babysitters one evening and have a rap session with your mates? Agree on a topic in advance, make sure everyone understands the ground rules, and try it.

10. Rap Groups for Men Only The men might be interested in forming their own rap group!

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