Mother’s groups play an important role in nurturing a woman as she adapts to the demands of parenting a newborn, as Marie Burrows tells Alix Johnson

Every Friday morning a group of mothers and their small babies gather in a lavender-painted room above Sydney’s bustling Bondi Junction. They find a brightly coloured cushion on the floor and settle in with their bub to chat, breastfeed, change nappies, and listen to a guest speaker talk on topics as varied as settling techniques to Steiner education. After the guest speaker departs, then the group really begins.

Laughter and tears fill the air as one at a time the women share their week. At the helm of the group is Marie Burrows, 63, a childbirth educator, doula, psychotherapist and mother of two. Marie is the director of Birthing Rites Australia that runs pre- and post-natal education classes, as well as her private counselling practice. For over thirty years Marie, who is as hilarious as she is compassionate and wise, has been a powerful force in changing the face of childbirth in Australia, enabling the experience to become nurturing and empowering for mother and child.

Through her own experience – she has two daughters, Bianca, 30 and Lianda, 23 – and through supporting countless other couples since the 1970s, she knows that giving birth is just the beginning of the journey and that women (and men) need support.

“When the women return to this room with their three-week old babies, I can feel that walk of fire that they have been through,” says Marie, whose new mums continue coming to the centre after the pre-natal classes have stopped. “You see the change in their eyes when they return from that birth. It’s not just physical, the physical is part of it, but their whole concept of life and death and growth is experienced in that walk through the fire.”

To help support the sometimes lonely and turbulent transition into parenthood Marie runs the weekly Friday group, where mostly mothers come to express their feelings in a safe environment, to receive information on parenting, to meet other like-minded mums and hopefully, to have a laugh too.

Every week an expert discusses a different aspect of parenting, it might be attachment parenting, homeopathic immunisation or how childbirth impacts on men. But sometimes there is no topic at all and that is when Marie administers the Truth Serum. “A Truth session is where we start off by saying, “what is really hard for me to say publicly about my life at the moment is,” says Marie whose lovely blue eyes sparkle warmly. The floor is open and safe to express anything at all.

“Occasionally a woman will say, ‘I don’t have anything to say right now’, and some women do have it easier than others, but not many,” says Marie. “It is a natural progression, from a dyad to a triad, where needs can often get opposed. A person has to be really secure, and very stable to not feel the impact of that change.”

The nurturing provided by the group is not just emotional. Crying babies are soothed, tea is made, cake is passed around, and in the centre of the room is a huge lolly jar filled with brightly-coloured sweets.

PNE: post natal expression
Thirty years ago women learnt to grin and bear it, to look immaculate in clean clothes and comment on how perfect baby was. But just as childbirth underwent a revolution, so has mothering.

“I was trying to do the shopping in Coles one day, with Bianca in my arms, and I was feeling tired and exhausted, lonely and isolated,” recalls Marie of when she realised women needed support after the birth too. “This woman who I knew vaguely came up to me and she looked at me and said, “Can I come around and help you?” And I just started to cry in the supermarket. She looked at me and she knew exactly where I was and how I was feeling. That evening she came with fruitcake, took my washing home and she sat with me. And we became very good friends.”

Marie calls it Post-Natal Expression. “When you get fifteen women in a room you will get every extreme feeling: anger, resentment, bitterness, grief about a lost life, envy, rejection, comparing to others, feelings of not being good enough, of being isolated and abandoned, to the other extreme of feeling on top of the world, of joy and excitement. You get all that in a room full of new mothers, and fathers. They are very primary human feelings.”

Mothers have to learn to look after their own needs first, because otherwise we won’t be able to look after our baby’s, believes Marie. A group gives her a forum for expressing the truth of her feelings. “A mother might say, “I am so sick of this baby being on me,” and say it angrily and burst into tears.

“If you have a skilled facilitator then they might say, “It’s important that you have space, is that right? And at the moment you feel, would ‘suffocated’ be the right word? Then how do you feel you could get time out from the baby being on you the whole time? The mother might reply that she needs to hand her baby over to her husband or her mother or her doula, and have time out instead of feeling that she is not a good mother.”

Safe sharing
When a mother is expressing feelings that are difficult to say aloud, she needs to feel compassion or to hear another woman say, “I’ve felt like that!” She doesn’t need to be given a solution, necessarily, and she especially doesn’t want to feel judged, she just needs to be heard. This is where the skill of the facilitator comes in.

“A few weeks ago one of the women said, “I just cannot stand my mother at the moment.” Now that’s a big thing to say,” says Marie. “What happened in this group was another woman tried to problem solve and said, “Why don’t you try being grateful?” Immediately she invalidated her feelings. I put my hand up and said, “Could you just hold that? The woman needed her space to accept what it is about mum that was upsetting her.”

She went on to vent her feelings, which were that she has always been made to feel she is wrong and now she feels she isn’t doing a good job of mothering either. All the women present heard her, and some of them might have been able to relate. They all discovered through compassionate listening that it is ok to recognise your limit and to put down a boundary and, in a nice way, ask for space.

Give me stimulation!
If new mums and dads need to be supported emotionally in this time of change, then they also need information. “When you have that baby in your arms, every woman wants to be the best mother they can be, and every man the best father they can be. They’ll reflect on how they were parented and they need to have stimulation and discussion.”

Enter the expert on breastfeeding, co-sleeping or post-natal yoga. Marie’s Friday group has become so successful in equipping mothers with skills and information that Birthing Rites regularly receives calls from local community centres and hospitals wanting to emulate the structure.

Pillow talk
If taking care of yourself is a priority, then the other to get neglected is your relationship. “I always say to couples: babies grow up into toddlers, into children, into adults, they need to see that mum and dad have always loved each other and made time for each other and they have witnessed that from when they are born,” says Marie.

“If they don’t, they are seeing mum not love herself and mum not love dad, and seeing dad not loving himself and dad not loving mum and that is a pretty strong model you are setting your children up with.”

“You need to have time where you meet together as a couple, it doesn’t have to be a date, just time when you remind each other that you love the other. If you leave it for three months before you do that you are probably not nurturing the primary relationship.”

“That doesn’t mean that it is lovey-dovey all the time. It means you talk, you stay in communication, you move through challenging times with respect and love, and then that child will have a very strong sense of self and a very strong sense of their place in the world and how to move out in the world. They really don’t need much else.”

Have a laugh
And last but not least, in looking after yourself you need to be able to laugh at life so you don’t drown in it. One quality Marie brings to a group in abundance is humour that can make you laugh about the things you’d otherwise cry about.

“Sometimes we might do a made up story, for lightness, but also to allow whatever is in the subconscious to surface. I will start it off and it might go something like this…

“Mary and Cyrill had their first baby. Mary was absolutely sick to death of breastfeeding. Cyrill was sick to death of being pushed to the side of the bed. ‘These breasts aren’t mine any more!’ says Mary.” And the story is passed along to the next person to continue.

“One day Mary said, ‘you can all get lost, I am getting a baby sitter!’ And she got a male stripper for a babysitter. The male stripper knocked on the door. Mary was about to go out. Mary nearly died when she opened the door. Not only was he a male stripper but he was a father of eight children and his body was still great! Mary ran off and married the stripper. Or, Mary had a realisation that Cyrill was her stripper and she just had to set it up one night for Cyrill to get his gear off!”

A jelly bean a day
Of all the goings on in the room – the nursing babies, the cups of tea, the changing of nappies, the laughter and tears – it is the lolly jar in the centre that reveals the most.

One day, thirty years ago, when Marie was out shopping with her newborn baby, Bianca, an elderly lady who she didn’t know stopped her in the street and gave her advice she has never forgotten. “Ah mothering!” she said. “Do you know what I learnt? Mothers need to give themselves a jelly bean every day.”

Marie explains, “We have to do an act of kindness to ourselves every day, whether it is taking time to walk out and look at the trees and the sunshine, or sit down and read the paper. To give yourself a jelly bean every day means to nourish yourself. Mothers forget to do that.” This is the essence of what a mothers group offers, time for nourishment, to give back to yourself so that you can continue giving to your baby, to your relationship and both in turn will give more to you.

Alix Johnson is a freelance writer and mother of two. She has written a book on yoga, and in journalism specialises in women’s health. She was recently awarded Complementary Health Journalist of the Year. She lives outside of Mullumbimby.

Asking for help
Our partners might pretend not to agree, but how fantastic would it be to live communally with our extended families or friends so that there are more hands on deck to cook, clean, shop and play with our precious babies. “Our society doesn’t live communally any more, we don’t live in the long huts as the Maoris did where they supported the amazing changes in a woman and a man’s life by caring for one another like a communal family. This has made it hard for this society. It isolates new parents. They feel they shouldn’t need to ask for support, that they are not doing it right. It is mad.” If you don’t have family around or a network of compassionate friends, then a doula can help. A doula can help mother the mother by cooking, shopping, cleaning, even collecting kids from school. She has similar skills to a mothercraft nurse, such as breastfeeding and settling, but the difference is she has focussed on developing her emotional and spiritual capacity for understanding what’s happening in a new mother’s life. For doulas, contact Birthing Rites Australia, 02 9387 3615.