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The Mommy Club

Where do urban moms turn to divulge their deepest fears and greatest challenges? One group of Denver women is turning to each other—and in the process redefining what it means to be a mother.

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Jennifer Wolf is sitting in the living room of her sunny northwest Denver home and trying to ignore her 10-month-old son, Axel, who is crying in his nursery down the hall. Actually, crying is putting it mildly. Screaming is more like it. Wailing is even better. Wolf is trying to “Ferberize” her son, a process in which parents try to teach babies to soothe themselves to sleep. It’s not easy. It means letting him cry. For five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. Axel has been at it for about an hour now, and Wolf—normally a warm, cheerful woman—is plainly distraught.

“I’m sorry,” she says, as the pitch of Axel’s scream races up the walls. “This is really gut-wrenching.” She leaves to check on him.

When Wolf returns, she flops into the overstuffed easy chair and confesses that Ferberizing is just one more challenge in a relentless line of challenges related to mothering. A biologist by training, a chemist by profession, just five years ago Wolf was an ambitious senior sales representative at Merck Pharmaceuticals. Then, at age 32, she had her first child, Shane. Within a matter of weeks, Wolf went from calling on physicians while wearing size 6 Ann Taylor suits and $200 Fluevog shoes to staying home alone all day. She’d gained weight. She became desperately lonely. And her relationship with her husband started to suffer, in part because she was now financially dependent on him. “I wasn’t used to being questioned on my spending,” she says, “and that caused friction.” Wolf struggled to find the day-to-day payback in caring for an infant. She loved watching Shane grow and change, but it wasn’t the same as the regular recognition she received at work.

Then the fear began. She grew fearful of scorching her son’s feet on candles, fearful of crashing her son’s head into the door jamb. These vivid visions of doom finally overwhelmed her, and Wolf started to reach out to other young mothers in her neighborhood.

“I took a walk with this one mom and she described having the exact same fears,” Wolf explains. “I thought, ‘thank goodness, it’s not just me.'” Soon, the two were talking about all they’d lost—their jobs, their figures, their identities—and sharing all they’d gained, including the tremendous, overwhelming feelings of love they had for their children. The instant camaraderie caused Wolf to search out other young mothers. She started an online group called Denver Baby Walk in an attempt to meet metro-area moms who wanted to get out of the house once in a while. She scanned the Web for information about parenting. And then, one day she stumbled across a group of women, all new moms, all in her neighborhood, all trying to figure out their new lives as parents. The group was called the Highlands Mommies, and Wolf decided to sign up.

When Wolf joined Highlands Mommies in 2003, there were just 30 to 40 young mothers in the group. Today, the group’s membership has topped 950 women, with the number climbing an average of 30 new members a month. Predominantly new moms—the majority of women in Highlands Mommies have children well under five years old—the women come together, at least initially, out of the need to make sense of their new breast-feeding, diaper-changing, stroller-pushing roles. But in the process of finding each other and settling into motherhood, the Highlands Mommies are reinventing themselves, redefining what it means to be a mom, and gaining the potential to have enormous influence on politics, education, commerce, and charity work.

Over the past couple of years, the group has grown so large that members have divided into smaller subgroups, most of which are organized by their child’s birth date to allow the moms to get together with others who have kids the same age. There are also subgroups organized around specific interests, including the Crafty Moms, Outdoorsy Moms, Organic Cooking Moms, Moms of Multiples, Moms and Dads Raising their Kids Bilingually with German, Two-Mom or Two-Dad Families, and the Empresarias, a subgroup comprised of moms who have their own businesses, including photography, web design, and event planning. Not surprisingly, many of the Empresarias’ businesses have benefited from the built-in client base the Highlands Mommies provides.

Why is there such a large number of new moms in Highland, the northwest Denver hodge-podge of Victorians, bungalows, midcentury ranch homes, and scrapes? In recent years, young, mostly white professionals have been streaming into Highland, West Highland, and the surrounding neighborhoods of Berkeley, Sunnyside, and Sloan Lake in record numbers, drawn by relatively affordable housing, the proximity to downtown, and the diversity of the urban neighborhood, which has historically been home to Italian-Americans and, more recently, Latino families. Instead of fleeing to the suburbs, these well-educated, middle-class, predominantly liberal couples want to raise their kids in a hip urban environment, and Highland—until recently—has been one of the most affordable places to do so.

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But the mommy group phenomenon is not limited to Highland. Online mom groups, which often morph into off-line communities, can be found all over the metro area: Stapleton Moms, Boulder Rockn Moms, and Mile High Mamas are just a few of the dozens of local groups. Name a city across the United States—Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis—and you’ll find one, if not several, online mom communities. Some are geared toward new moms, and the discussions inevitably focus on issues like vaccinations, sleep, and thumb sucking. Others take a more targeted approach, such as Kimchi Mamas, for Korean immigrant moms, and Mothers Movement Online, for women concerned about social change.

The Internet, of course, makes these virtual communities possible. But the Internet is merely responding to a need that seems especially acute among college-educated, career-minded young women who, once they have children, suddenly find themselves at sea. Forget about the Mommy Wars—that alleged battle being fought between stay-at-home moms and working mothers, both of whom think they are doing the best thing for their children. The real conflict today seems to be taking place within individual moms. After having had a successful career, complete with reviews and raises and stimulating mental challenges, caring about things like baby sign language and which kind of plastic bottle to give your child can be more than a little difficult. Even if she had anticipated these changes, even if she had read books and talked to family and friends about how dramatically her life would be altered by the addition of a child, she’s still forced to contend with those long, lonely days without adult contact when, more than she’d like to admit, she questions whether she’s done the right thing.

No matter what route you take as a new mother, it seems there are consequences. Maybe you chuck the job, stay home with your child, and give up many of the things that had previously given you validation in life. Or maybe you keep the career and suffer the guilt and all-consuming worry that goes with outsourcing your child’s care to someone else. Or maybe you straddle those two worlds and find yourself navigating the bewildering maze of flex-time versus part-time versus telecommuting versus self-employment. As Lynne Fetterman, moderator of Boulder Rockn Moms, explains, “Our generation was told we could have it all. What they didn’t tell us was that we couldn’t have it all at the same time.”

It’s a bitterly cold morning in early January, and Tricia Vath is sitting in the small, warm kitchen of her white Victorian Highland home feeding her towheaded 10-month-old daughter, Adelaide, who’s happily propped in a high chair nearby. A smart, articulate 34-year-old with an easy laugh, Vath left nursing a year ago when Adelaide, her first child, was born. Because her husband is a plastic surgeon, she had the financial means to stop working and care for her daughter full-time during the day, while attending nursing graduate school at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at Fitzsimons part-time. But like Jennifer Wolf, Vath soon found herself reeling from the lack of stimulation, the endless lonely daytime hours, and the never-ending second-guessing that comes with being a new parent. Am I doing this right? When should I stop breast-feeding? Is there lead in these toys? The questions never seemed to end.

“It was a huge adjustment,” Vath admits. “I was lonely, hormonal, sleep-deprived. Plus, I felt guilty. A lot of women gauge their success or at least plan their lives around getting married and having kids. When you find that it’s not all perfect and wonderful, you feel bad about it.”

Vath had heard about the Highlands Mommies when she was pregnant, but she didn’t immediately reach out to them. She just didn’t see herself as the kind of woman to hang out with other mommies. Besides, when Adelaide was first born, there were plenty of friends and family around to help.

When the parade of attention ended, as it inevitably would, Vath’s sense of isolation grew. That’s when she finally introduced herself on the Highlands Mommies forum and began going on walks with other mothers. She was surprised immediately at how much she had in common with them. “It was kinda weird to be instant friends with these people you’ve never seen before,” she explains. In one way or another they were so much like her—smart and motivated, lonely and uncertain—that it was easy to find things to talk about. Vath’s husband, Steve, recognized the value of the Mommies shortly after Tricia joined. “This group is so helpful, particularly for first-time moms,” he says. “When issues come up, you can run them by the other moms. There’s a shared sense of what they’re going through—you don’t feel alone.”

Vath finishes feeding Adelaide just as the doorbell rings. This morning, she is hosting a Highlands Mommies playgroup consisting of women whose children, like her daughter, were born between January and June 2007. It’s ostensibly a group for the kids, but as Vath opens the door to admit the first mommy it becomes clear that the mothers benefit most from the time together.

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For the next hour, women arrive with babies in tow. None of the infants is walking yet, so soon the floor of Vath’s small living room is crowded with babies. Babies lying on their backs. Babies scooching on their stomachs. Babies grabbing each other’s hair. The mothers, who sit cross-legged around the perimeter, include women with experience as a high-tech sales representative, a museum educator, a corporate projects manager, and a special-education teacher—labels that, for the most part, have now been replaced with the word “Mom.” One of the moms looks around at the babies and blankets and bottles scattered about the room. “This is my life now,” she says. “Kinda weird, isn’t it?”

For the most part, any discomfort the women may have about being young mothers is not on display here. To a casual observer, it would appear to be a group of women happily sharing girl talk. They talk about their houses, about preschools, about their husbands’ insufferable need for large-screen televisions. And when one woman expresses a yearning for high-waisted pants to come back into style—”to hide this stupid muffin top”—the others nod in agreement.

As morning becomes afternoon, as the 12 women settle into the chaos of a house filled with 12 infants, their discussions grow more and more comfortable until finally, perhaps inevitably, they zero in on the subject of…poop. Yellow poop. Runny poop. No poop. And the scary red poop that results when your daughter eats the colored tissue paper included in the Christmas packages. “I thought she was hemorrhaging,” one mom explains. “Then I saw the word ‘Merry’ in her diaper and realized what had happened.”

Gradually, the room begins to smell like a pleasing combination of baby oil and fabric softener and some hard-to-define sweetness. The women’s voices rise when talking to the children—”Wow! You’ve gotten soooooo biiiig!”—then drop again when talking to each other. “I miss going to the movies,” one mom quietly confides to another.

After two hours, the playgroup begins to disband, and Stephanie Sexton, a 34-year-old new mom and part-time teacher, gathers her things to go. While putting on her coat, she looks around the room and shakes her head. “No doubt about it,” she says. “This group has saved many women from lunacy.”

Mothering today is not any more difficult than it has ever been. In fact, one could argue that there have been times in which mothering has been tougher than it is now: Think preindustrial immigrants or moms of rural farm families. But this new generation of educated and accomplished mothers does contend with challenges their own mothers and grandmothers didn’t, not the least of which are their own elevated expectations.

As previously working women, many of today’s new moms are driven to bring the same strategic focus to mothering they brought to their careers. They want to set goals, check off achievements, experience satisfying growth spurts, and garner rewards for their efforts. Jennifer Wolf even has a family “mission statement”—which lays out the family’s values and goals—posted in her kitchen.

But parenting doesn’t work like a corporate job with quarterly targets and weekly progress reports. Routine reinforcement can be hard to come by, and the search for it can test even the most unflappable moms. In the book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, author and New York Times columnist Judith Warner argues that college-educated, upper-middle-class women are especially prone to this kind of parental perfectionism. Amber Johnson, editor of the Mile High Mamas website—an online resource for Denver-area moms—was one of these overachieving women. “I used to be a perfectionist and totally type-A clean freak,” she says. But with one- and three-year-old kids, that’s all changed. “In order to stay sane, I had to give all that up.”

Today’s mom is also forced to contend with an overwhelming amount of often-competing information. Drowning in books and blogs and magazines and media reports, she’s not certain: Should she vaccinate…or not? Let her son cry through the night…or not? Breast-feed exclusively…or supplement with formula? Sifting through all the information and misinformation can be a full-time job in and of itself, especially since this generation of mothers doesn’t trust authority. There’s no Dr. Spock telling today’s moms what to do. Even if there were, he’d be ignored. Instead, these women hop online, do the research for themselves, compare notes with each other, and then ultimately rely on their own best judgment. As one of the Highlands moms put it, “These are women whose brains are trained to problem-solve.”

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New moms in the new millennium are also part of the therapy generation, the Gen Xers who’ve grown up with a deep understanding, whether they’ve been in psychotherapy or not, that a parent’s actions have consequences. In the less-complicated past, mothers may have relied more on intuition. Today, mothers think and rethink decisions—and then analyze and second-guess whether those decisions were right. “Women worry a lot about messing up their kids, about their kids having to spend 20 years in therapy because they didn’t play with them enough,” says Lynne Fetterman of Boulder Rockn Moms. “It didn’t cross my grandmother’s mind whether she was being a good parent. If the kids were still standing and breathing, well, that was good enough.”

Blend all this together, combine it with a society that still tends to marginalize women—especially those found behind strollers—and you begin to understand why the Highlands Mommies and groups like it have become not just popular but even necessary. And with so many women joining forces in these communities, that necessity is turning once-independent individuals into a unified collective that’s not afraid to exert its influence.

To date, that influence is most readily seen in the consumer marketplace, where young moms are demanding a stronger, hipper aesthetic—like indie-cool diaper bags by Kate Spade for themselves and super-modern (and super-expensive) Bugaboo strollers for their kids. “These women were fully functioning adults before they became parents, so they see no reason to flush those identities down the toilet,” says Kate Muhl of Iconoculture, a Minneapolis-based consumer marketing firm with clients such as Hasbro and General Mills. Thanks to the viral nature of online communication, new moms are telling each other about these products and more, and are consequently having a profound effect on the companies that get their business.

This is certainly true for the Highlands Mommies, which maintains a database of businesses and services for babysitting, house painting, carpentry, and just about everything in between. If a contractor does a poor job on one of the mommy’s houses, you can bet he won’t be working in the Highland neighborhood much longer.

The online mommy collective also appears to be responding to very real needs in their communities. After seeing a number of posts asking for donations for individual families in need, several of the Highlands Mommies got together and formed a charity subgroup. In its first three months, the group conducted a Thanksgiving food drive for a local food bank, gathered and stuffed stockings for three children’s homes, and brought 20 families together for caroling at Little Sisters of the Poor, a home in north Denver for the elderly.

All of which is admirable, but these efforts still tend to be on the smaller scale. The potential remains for the mommies to have even more influence on their community—which is exactly what Jennifer Draper Carson is hoping for.

Carson arrived in Denver three years ago, after living in Texas and Los Angeles, with her husband and their six-month-old son, Henry. New to Denver, new to motherhood—she’d previously worked as a high-tech sales representative—Carson immediately joined the Highlands Mommies, and today some of her closest friends are women she met in the group. In other words, she’s thankful for the mommies. And yet, she also thinks they could be doing a lot more.

Sitting in a noisy Starbucks just off of I-25, Carson, armed with a notepad and laptop, shares her overtly political vision for the group. “This is a captive audience of more than 950 moms,” she says. “If even only 100 of them were anti-war, education reformists—and I guarantee there are 100 of them out there—well, that’s a big bloc.” Challenging the mommies to exert their influence is something Carson does easily, which makes her an anomaly in the group, whose forum actively discourages political discussion in order to be all-inclusive and accepting. But Carson, 39, feels these women, whose kids are our future, should be getting involved in hot-button community issues.

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In particular, Carson is uncomfortable with the fact that about half of the women in north Denver are Latina, but they are underrepresented among the Highlands Mommies. “I don’t see the Highlands Mommies as a melting pot,” she says. “I think it’s more a representation of gentrification in northwest Denver.” To preserve the diversity of the neighborhood—the same diversity that attracted her and many other families to Highland—Carson believes the groups need to work together on issues they share, especially education. The public schools in and around Highland have struggled for years, with their overall academic performance consistently ranked “average,” and sometimes “low,” by Colorado school accountability reports. At Centennial K-8 in the Berkeley neighborhood of north Denver, for example, only 48 percent of students received “proficient and advanced” scores in reading, and 42 percent received proficient and advanced scores in math, according to the 2007 Colorado Student Assessment Program. By comparison, at Southmoor Elementary School in the southeastern corner of Denver, the proficient and advanced scores for reading and math last year were 88 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

Carson, though, has reason to be optimistic. “We’re in a good political place,” she says. “The families who belong to Highlands Mommies have kids ages zero to five. If you get those students to reengage in the public school system, the thought is that the caliber of the school system will begin to rise, because it will be buoyed by all these highly affluent, highly educated parents. And that’s a true prophecy. It’s already happening.”

At Brown Elementary, in north Denver, principal Suzanne Loughran says there has been a significant increase in test scores, especially in reading, over the past two and a half years. While much of this is because of the fact that Loughran replaced virtually the entire teaching staff two and a half years ago, she says she doesn’t think the improvements would have been possible without parental involvement.

The potential impact of the Mommies is so great that representatives from Denver Public Schools have been reaching out and trying to engage them in discussions about how to improve the school system. In the fall of 2006, Superintendent Michael Bennet met with a standing-room-only group of Highlands Mommies to learn what it would take for them to commit to sending their kids to Denver public schools. Since members of the educational community are already aware of the Mommies, Carson believes that more and more resources will be allocated to local schools if more of the moms start to participate in educational activities. “The mid-to-upper middle-class white parents are the exact group of people DPS is trying to get back into the school system,” she explains, “especially in northwest Denver.”

Although it’s too early to tell if Carson’s big-picture vision will become reality, it is clear that positive change is already happening on a mom-by-mom basis—and Jennifer Wolf provides the perfect example. Wolf may have struggled for two-plus years to adapt to her new role as mother, but adapt she has.

You might even say Wolf is thriving. Weekends are planned around family activities, she has returned to school at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to pursue a master’s in public health, and she and her husband, Jason, figured out their own method for getting Axel to sleep through the night, which involved setting strict sleeping routines, all of which were managed by Jason. “Axel finally resigned himself to the fact that his crying produced nobody with breasts, and he gave up,” Wolf says.

This past December she and her two sisters launched a company called Native Wisdom that produces and sells skin-care products using natural ingredients. Wolf, a Native American from the Ojibwe, Santee Sioux, and Ponca tribes, uses herbology passed down from tribal elders to formulate lotions and body washes that are safe for both adults and babies, and she’s donating a portion of proceeds to the American Indian College Fund.

In between all this, she’s been actively encouraging the Highlands Mommies to get involved in improving the nutritional make-up of food served at the nearby elementary school. Sure, the Fluevog shoes and Ann Taylor suits may be gone, all donated to programs that help battered women. But in their place stands a confident, newly reinvented woman with ever-expanding horizons.

Shari Caudron is a Denver-based writer and author of Who Are You People?, which won a 2007 Colorado Book Award. This is her first piece for 5280. E-mail her at [email protected]

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