Visiting Moms

People don’t think of childbirth as a crisis, but for more people I than not, it is. There are wonderful moments of joy, but it’s such an extreme change — which is what a crisis is. Everything is thrown off. Often, there’s nobody around to normalize that for the parents, and I think that’s a large part of our work,” says Peggy Kaufman, the creator of Boston’s innovative Visiting Moms volunteer program.

Convinced that the Jewish community could have a role in preventing crises that lead to family turmoil and destruction, the Kargman Family Foundation made a pilot grant to the JFCS, and Visiting Moms was born.

In building the non-.sectarian outreach program, Kaufman followed the model of the National Parent Aide Network, a crisis intervention organization, but emphasizes, “We wanted a program without a crisis stigma. Visiting Moms trains an experienced mother to reach out her heart and hand to another mother” in a relaxed and sociable way, providing supportive conversation, the benefit of experience, and information about specific services the community offers. The program addresses the needs of mothers whose role-strain may be exacerbated by isolation from an extended family, limited financial resources, restricted parental leave and career pressures, delayed childbearing and single motherhood.

Kaufman estimates that 85 percent of the volunteers are Jewish, 60 percent of the families served are Jewish, and 70 percent of those visited are first-time mothers. The program serves two functions at the same time: it is a vehicle for Jewish women to reach out to women of other religious and ethnic backgrounds, and it recognizes that Jewish women themselves are not only service providers but are also clients of this innovative service. Women in highly mobile professional families may find themselves having their first child in a city far removed from where their own parents or siblings live. And because Jewish women tend to start having children later in life than the majority of American women (correlated with the high number of years they spend in college and graduate school), new parents may find that their own parents are too old to play active roles as advisers, sitters, or referral systems.

The free program currently involves 24 volunteers, aged 28 to 70, who engage in bi-weekly, one-on-one visitations with 24 families. Volunteers include women with young children, part-time career women with teenage children, empty nesters, and grandparents whose own adult children live far away from Boston. It is their role, according to the official Visiting Mom job description, to “establish a nurturing and supportive relationship with the new mother, to act as a positive role model for appropriate parenting, to recognize and reinforce the mother’s own strengths . . . [and] to help build self-esteem and competence in the mother so she can develop an ongoing healthy relationship with her baby.” In addition, the volunteer visitors give information about community services such as health care facilities and babysitters.

The visiting mom learns about “the cultural expectations of parenting and how far the popular images are from the realities, and how this often leaves parents feeling even more isolated,” says Kaufman. The volunteer also learns about the causes and correlates of child abuse and neglect as well as how to use the community’s resources. Volunteers receive ongoing biweekly training throughout their visiting year.

Isabel Sodickson, a clinical social worker and Visiting Moms volunteer, recently began visiting her third family. As a social worker and mother of now grown children, Sodickson was “especially attracted to the program because I see it as an exciting way to contribute to the prevention of family problems as well as to foster good family relationships.” Sodickson found her second experience “especially rewarding.” She explains, “This was a woman who was quite isolated from her own family— newly married, in a new home in a new community, where she knew nobody. She faced a number of significant difficulties during her first year that really could have compromised her ability to respond to her baby’s needs. During my final visit, she acknowledged to me her great relief and pleasure at her awareness that she’s now feeling genuinely comfortable and competent as a mother. I was delighted to see her new optimism toward her future.”

According to Sodickson, fathers are generally supportive and see the program as a valuable family resource. If the father is home during the visit, or if he is the primary home caretaker, he is involved in the program. Visiting Moms is currently planning separate group programs just for fathers. Additionally, the program provides a weekly support group for the new mothers, where they can share their feelings and concerns, problems and solutions.

There is a one-year visitation limit , due, in part, to overwhelming demand. “We restrict visitation to one year because the program is targeted to early post-partum motherhood.” With a grant from the Sherman Family Foundation, Kaufman plans to expand Visiting Moms from its original six towns to eight additional towns south of Boston.

“I would love to see something like this in every community,” concluded Sodickson. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing a reduction in resources from people’s own extended families, and there’s a strong need for communities to offer these kinds of support services.”