The playground hell of toxic mothers’ groups

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 15 Februari 2015 | 23.08

Mothers' groups should make new parents feel good. Source: Supplied

IT'S a world where vulnerable newcomers can face bullying, bitching and judgement.

No, it's not the playground — it's the mothers' groups.

Designed to offer support to exhausted, bewildered and vulnerable new mums, all too often they can become vipers' nests where parents are criticised and shamed for not fitting in.

Debbie Rossi — pictured with her children (clockwise from front) Carina, seven, Alivia, 13, Sofia, 11 and Emidio, nine — left her mothers' group in weeks. Picture: Janine Eastgate Source: HeraldSun

Esther Ranum, from Sydney's Eastgardens, says she was "really disappointed" in the group she joined through the hospital where she gave birth.

"From the start, it was always really cliquey," she told "One group would put their picnic blankets a few metres away from everyone else. If it was raining and one of us offered our house, this group would say they couldn't make it and go off and do their own thing.

"One of the other mums said to me, 'I feel like I'm back in high school and I'm not cool enough.' In the first weeks of motherhood, you're so sensitive to these things."

Advice from other mothers can be enormously valuable in the early months, but it can turn into stressful comparisons of how your offspring are developing. "It's silly things, like someone's bub's crawled first," said Ms Ranum. "You can just see some mums' expressions.

"You look around as these mums wearing slings or bottle-feeding start talking, and you wonder if they're judging you on first impressions. Everyone's looking a bit dishevelled after just having a baby."

Debbie runs a program to help mums deal with the early years. Source: HeraldSun

Trudie Enks says mothers in her group in Northern Illawarra were openly snobbish.

"At a group get-together, one of the mums actually spat her food into a napkin and threw it in the bin when she found out who had made that particular dish. She was one of those organic, homemade, no sugar, no fat, no anything bakers, and judged everyone else on what they fed their children.

"It was quite confronting. It was a difficult time. You start thinking, maybe I shouldn't feed my children commercial branded food, maybe I should cook more."

Trudie says many of mums started feeling guilty because of other mothers' "stern opinions on how children should be raised." The 37-year-old, now on her second child, says she's now far more relaxed, but believes there needs to be more information upfront about different styles of parenting.

Some mothers say their groups were painfully competitive. Source: Supplied

Ashleigh Morffew, a 23-year-old from Mildura, said she was ostracised after the older mothers in her group found out she was single. "No one spoke to me for the rest of the session. I tried speaking to a few ladies but they just politely smiled and said nothing.

"They sat there talking loudly about how great their husbands are and how the importance of being married before starting a family. I got up, said they were a bunch of judgemental cows, that being married had nothing to do with being a good mother ... And I walked out."

Judith Boyland, from Canberra, had a caesarean birth for her premature baby and was unable to breastfeed. "Because my baby was in hospital for the first eights weeks, he never slept for more than 45 minutes, day or night," she says. "Mums' group provided some sanity to my days but conversations were extremely competitive, particularly regarding milestones, which of course my first baby never met on time.

"I recall also had a lot of stereotypical views about what babies should look like, how they should be dressed, and the whole terries (terry-towelling nappies) versus disposables debate.

"I think living in Canberra a lot of these things are amplified. There were always so many middle class mums, from perfect families. I, in contrast, had no family in Australia and virtually no support network."

But Jenny McAdam (pictured with her son Henry) found her group was a lifeline. Source: Supplied


The best mother's groups are open and supportive, no matter how you choose to raise your child.

Jenny McAdam says. Even though her group is diverse, they're encouraging of each other.

"I had a really traumatic time when Henry was born, I had life-threatening complications. When I first joined the group I was very confronted that one mother had chosen a home birth. Due to the health risks it's not something I would consider. But with time she explained her decision, and it was clear she had chosen that after much thought."

She said that accepting environment was established by her maternal health nurse, who ran the first few sessions of the group near her home in the Dandenong Ranges, on the outskirts of Melbourne.

"We had six weeks with Anne who taught us basic skills, but really, she taught us much more than that. When we were lost and confused she made us feel safe and secure. She never said anyone was making the wrong choice, just guided us in how we could parent in a way that made us feel comfortable."

Becoming a new mum can be an isolating time. Source: ThinkStock

Those initial meetings really established the friendship group. "We were supposed to meet for two hours, but it always stretched out because we couldn't stop talking. There was always so many tears, and so much laughter.

"The honesty is so refreshing. One girl admits she had a s**t week — and then we all open

up ... it helps you realise that you can stuff up and that's normal.

She believes the key to all mother's groups is to accept that people will make different choices to you.

"One of the mums co-slept with her newborn, which is something I wouldn't do. But we all understand that style of parenting suits her, and we support her".

Kristine Evans, 35, didn't think she needed to bother joining a group because she had plenty of friends already, but says "it was the best thing I've ever done".

Some mums report feeling judged on their parenting style. Source: Supplied

"My other friends weren't going through the same things, the sleep deprivation and so on," she says. "You need that support, you need people to listen and understand. It's practical and emotional — you might just need to have a cry.

Ms Evans, who runs the blog and has recently had her second child, has been with her Canberra group for three years.

"Nobody's criticised," she adds. "Everyone is really respectful of different parenting types."

If you're not happy, she advises, "find a group that works for you".

Debbie Rossi, a mother of four, and founder of parenting site Bringing Happy Back, says it's important to realise just how alone new mothers can feel.

"I hadn't dealt with bullying from high school and I still felt insecure and not worthy of having friends," the 40-year-old told "I left my mothers' group after three weeks because I wasn't ready for it. I felt very excluded. I never had anyone say anything, but I felt it inside.

"It's a reflection of feeling low in ourselves. I've done a lot of work on myself through counselling and I now do that for other mums."

Accepting new friends can ease the strain of early motherhood. Source: ThinkStock

New mothers are coping with hormones, a lack of sleep and fraught emotions, Ms Rossi says. Then they have to deal with the stigma of breast or bottle, natural birth or caesarean, where they live and whether they have the right car or home. "As human beings, we are competitive and we want our kids to succeed and be the best they can be," she added.

The key, Ms Rossi says, is "being kind and compassionate to ourselves and focusing on the good stuff, like our happy, healthy children."

She said parents need to accept it's OK if their babies aren't sleeping through the night, and to focus on their own personal development. If families are happy, their children will be, she says.

"There's no such thing as the perfect mother."

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