Welcoming a new Chicago play space (aka “Mom survival essential”): Purple Monkey Playroom

Thank you to Jessica Roubitchek, the owner of Bucktown’s newest indoor play space,  Purple Monkey Playroom, for this great article the importance of finding ways to relieve the isolation of new parenthood. 

I read this article about a week back and I have revisited it in my mind many times since. It resonates on so many levels but the point I keep coming back to is that isolation can be the hardest part about new motherhood. As someone who has always relished time spent alone, I was shocked at how much I craved the company of other people when my daughter was first born, and how difficult it was to find.

Fisher eloquently recalls:

I invented errands and dawdled and took the long way home, but still had hours and hours to fill before I would hear my husband’s key in the door.

It was 22 months ago that I first experienced this, but I too recall it all too vividly. At 32, I was the only one of my close friends with a baby. And certainly the only person I knew who was home between 8 and 6 on a weekday. Drop-In play spaces were in their infancy when my child was in hers. I wasn’t connected enough to the mommy world to even know they existed. I spent hours alone, nursing my daughter in my bedroom chair. I craved companionship like air but had no idea where to find it. I can’t say my maternity leave was a particularly happy time.

One of my hopes, in opening Purple Monkey Playroom, is to help address this void for all parents and caregivers – but particularly new moms – in the greater Bucktown/Wicker Park/Ukranian Village/Humboldt Park and Logan Square areas. We’re reaching out to meet-up groups for new moms and even to pregnant women to try to combat the sense of isolation BEFORE it hits. We are a place where moms can venture out with an unpredictable infant, nurse as needed, and come and go as they please.

If you know a new mom or a mom to be, consider purchasing a Mini-Monkey membership for her shower gift or newborn welcome present. I already have gift cards written out for several of my pregnant friends. If you are a new mom, whether at Purple Monkey or elsewhere, be sure to seek out community while you’re redefining your life and learning the ropes.

Jessica Roubitchek, is the owner of Purple Monkey Playroom, a professional fundraiser, and the mom of an energetic toddler.  After having her daughter in 2010, she found it difficult to find nearby, unstructured activities for her little girl, particularly on rainy days and in winter. The introduction of drop-in play to Chicago fit the bill, yet all of the existing offerings required a trip in the car. She looks forward to welcoming children, parents and caregivers to a safe, relaxing indoor space for imaginative play within strolling distance of her home.  Please visit her website for more information. 

Pumping at work: One mom’s frustrating story

Recently on the mother to mother Breastfeed, Chicago Facebook group, a mom vented a brief story of a negative interaction with a coworker that she had regarding her need to pump at work.  This story sparked a very strong memory for me of a time, now 6 years ago, when I too returned to work and was pumping so that I could continue to breastfeed my baby.  I wanted to share that story with all of you in hopes it might be helpful to others.

Whenever I think about new and veteran moms returning to work and pumping, I am immediately brought back to December 2005.  I was a new mom, returning to work after my 3 month maternity leave.  I was a social worker in an outpatient HIV clinic within a large hospital in New York City.  I was very fortunate in that my daughter was going to the day care that was part of the hospital across the street from my office.  This afforded me the opportunity to go over during my lunch and breastfeed her, thus eliminating one time a day when I had to pump and also one less bottle that someone would be giving her.  Like many new moms who have returned to work, I was no longer the same person I had been when I left to give birth just 3 months before.  I now had a new role in life, new priorities and my job no longer really ranked up there with the things that mattered most to me.  I knew that I was going to be moving in 6 months and had it set in my mind that I could handle pumping at work for that amount of time.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with an end in sight, I thought, “how hard could it really be?”

At the time, I shared an office with two other coworkers, both female social workers.  One was, and continues to be a very close friend.  The other was a friend prior to me having a baby and even came to my home to visit me and my daughter while I was on maternity leave.  My actual cubicle was at the back of our office space, meaning that my coworkers did not have to walk past my office to get to their own.  On my first day back at work, both of my office mates were out.  It was great!  I did my job, saw my patients, put up my little curtain and pumped when I needed to.  In between I washed all my pump parts, and nursed my baby at lunch over at the daycare.  I felt empowered by my ability to work and also provide the most nutritious food for my baby. Sadly, when everyone returned, this all changed.

The coworker who I was very close with thought it was great that I was pumping at work.  She didn’t have children of her own but understood the purpose and the necessity of it.  The other one, we’ll call her Veronica (her name has been changed to protect the not so innocent), was another story entirely.  I told her that I would be pumping a couple of times a day in my office and that I would try to do it at a time that she wasn’t going to be seeing patients.  I asked that, if the actual door at the entrance to the office was closed, could she please knock before coming in?  She didn’t take this well at all.  She accused me of trying to control her and thus preventing her from doing her job.  She also told me she was not comfortable with hearing the pump from the other side of the cubicle wall.  I’m embarrassed to say that several screaming arguments took place between us which usually led to one of us storming off.  Suffice it to say, this did not make for a very relaxing environment to pump in.  In retrospect, I realize now that I was very hormonal, exhausted from being up at night with my newborn for the last three months, and in the midst of a major life change between having just become a mother and now transitioning into my role as a working mom.  I also naively assumed that all would be supportive of my choice to breastfeed.  Now when I think back on it, I realize that I did not have any other friends with babies, and I didn’t know anyone who had returned to work while pumping.  As time went on, I began to think about some of the things that had happened to Veronica that may have made her react how she did.  She was single and her slightly older sister had just had a baby a few months before I had.  Her sister had chosen not to breastfeed so the actual process of continuing a breastfeeding relationship while working was foreign to her.  That being said, she made no attempt to understand what it entailed or what I was going through.

The hostile climate in the office worsened, when a week or so after I returned to work, the New York City Transit Authority went on strike for 4 days, discontinuing bus and train service in all 5 boroughs.  Since I no longer had any sick time left (it was all used up during my maternity leave), I had no choice but to go to work, but that also meant figuring how how to get my infant daughter there as well.  Since many of the day care workers lived in the outer boroughs and it was taking them 2-3 hours to get home each night, one day they had to close the day care early.  Nothing was going on in our office (our patients couldn’t get to their appointments either) so I picked up my daughter early that day and brought her back to my office while I finished up for the day.  She quietly hung out in her car seat while I typed up some last few notes.  Next thing I knew, Veronica stormed into my cubicle screaming at me for once again assuming that the way I was choosing to use our shared space was okay with everyone else.  Suffice it to say, when I finally made it home that night, I cried for quite some time from all the stress this was causing.  I was totally baffled by her strong negative reaction to me and my baby.

My supervisor at the time tried to be as supportive as he could.  He was in a tough place because he was both mine and Veronica’s supervisor and although he knew that she was being unreasonable, he didn’t really know how to handle the situation.  As far as Veronica was concerned, I could use one of the exam rooms that were constantly in use for patient care and would never have provided any privacy.  The hospital knew that they were required to provide me a non bathroom space to pump in (although I did end up pumping in the bathroom at least once), but their solution was for me to make a 20 minute trek over to the NICU pumping room each time I needed to pump.  This would not have allowed me to do my job.  In the end, I was lucky enough to be able to move into a former supervisor’s private office where I could both work and pump for the remainder of my time at work.  Veronica and I never spoke again and the entire practice was divided among whose “side” they were on as a result of the entire situation.

In retrospect, I probably should have approached the situation differently.  Maybe I didn’t take into account how she would feel about it.  Honestly, at the time, I wasn’t really concerned with anyone else other than my baby and how I was going to provide food for her while being away from her for most of the day.  I certainly let my emotions get the best of me and probably seemed like this crazy breastfeeding woman to her, but I didn’t care.  I guess I still don’t.  I know that everyone has their own issues and some people, for whatever reason, are not entirely comfortable with breastfeeding.  As a nursing mom, pumping in order to feed my baby was a logical and natural choice for me.  However, for someone who had had very little exposure to breastfeeding, my decision must have made her feel awkward, uncomfortable, and imposed upon.

If you are returning to work and will be continuing to pump, my advice to you would be to seriously think about the environment you will be returning to and how you can make your very difficult job of pumping at work as easy as possible. In Illinois, your employer is required by law to provide you with a “non bathroom” space in which to pump.  Currently, 24 states have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace.  Talk to your coworkers.  If they are a group of single 20 and 30 year olds who have not had any experience with breastfeeding moms, be prepared to educate them on all the hard work that moms do to provide the best food for their babies and share some of all the excellent benefits of breastfeeding (like how your baby will be healthier, resulting in you not taking days off to care for a sick child).  You may even make a difference in their decision to someday choose to breastfeed their own baby.

For a long time after this experience, I had this fantasy of sending Veronica a letter detailing to her how she had made my life a living hell for that six months.  I would have told her that I hoped that someday she would be lucky enough to find someone that would make her happy and they would be lucky enough to have a baby together.  I hoped that when she became a mother and experienced it as the total life change that it is, that she finally would understand why the way she treated me was so wrong, so hurtful, and so traumatizing.  I guess this blog post is that letter.

The transition to motherhood

They say that change is inevitable.  But let’s face it, change is hard. Change is uncomfortable because it often leaves us in unfamiliar territory and with a feeling of not knowing what we are doing.  This is an understatement when it comes to having your first baby.  The transition to motherhood, and I’ll argue fatherhood too,  is something that (and I think most would agree) you can’t really understand until you have experienced it for yourself.  Sure you can go to childbirth classes, you can take a class on newborn care and even one on breastfeeding.  All of these things you think will prepare you for the task of becoming a parent but in reality, its mostly just trial and error or really trial by fire.  You go from one minute being this glowing pregnant woman whom people shower attention over, to a mother who is often overlooked in favor of her small child. It’s a sharp contrast.  Many women with whom I have spoken, myself included, say that even minutes after giving birth, you can no longer remember the feeling of having that small life inside of you.  Aside from having an extra 30 or so pounds to lose, it’s as though it never happened. Except for the fact that you are now responsible for taking care of this new life.

This is great, right?  This is what you wanted (assuming you became pregnant through planning and choice).  Immediately following the birth of your baby, there is an unbelievable sense of euphoria.  It’s all you can do to keep from staring at this person you have waited so long to meet.  Even though you really should take this time when you are in the hospital with a fully staffed nursery to get some sleep, closing your eyes and shutting down your brain is nearly impossible. It really is hard to conceptualize that one minute this small person was inside you and now he or she is out and here to stay.  I think this sense of disbelief continued for several months after the birth of my first child.  My husband and I would look at her and then at each other and ask, “where did she come from?” Because even though you have been planning this for the last 9 months (or maybe longer if you have been dreaming of having a baby for quite some time), when it actually happens, its kind of hard to wrap your brain around.

It’s a HUGE adjustment.  Every day things that we once took for granted such as sleeping, showering, going to the bathroom, making a meal, grocery shopping, the list goes on…now have to be prioritized. Let’s see..I have a couple of minutes until he wakes up and I will be spending the next hour or more feeding, changing, and soothing him. I now need to choose from one of those activities of daily living that I want to try to accomplish.  Good luck.  The simple task of leaving the house can seem overwhelming and sometimes impossible.

Some of the highly productive and professional moms who participated in one of my new moms groups said that they had all sorts of lists of things they figured they would be able to accomplish while on maternity leave.  They all thought, “with three months off of work and only one small baby to take care of, think of how much I can get done.” Needless to say, they were all amazed at how little of that list was crossed off at the end of three months.

All of this is to say while the actual act of becoming a mother happens the minute you give birth, the process of becoming a mom, learning all there is to know about your baby, figuring out what kind of parent you want to be and how to achieve a balance between your role as a mother and your own identity, takes time.  It also takes help.  You do not have to navigate this transition alone.  All too often, I find that new moms go “radio-silent” following the birth of a baby.  Please ask for help.  Whether it is from your own mother, a sister, a hired babysitter, a postpartum doula (which is an excellent support but that is a conversation for another time), or a friend. And once you have mastered the task of leaving the house with your newborn, finding other new moms who share your experience can ease this transition tremendously.  These may be women you meet at the park, at a mom and baby fitness class, at an organized new moms group or even just moms you start chatting with walking down the street with their strollers. You’ll find these women will be one of the most valuable resources you posses as a mother.