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.