This article contains spoilers for “The Letdown.”
In the second episode of “The Letdown,” the Netflix sitcom that bluntly tackles new parenthood, a bedraggled new mother named Audrey sits at a desk poring over parenting books. She is reading up on how to sleep-train her night-owl newborn daughter, confusing her partner, who thought she wasn’t buying into the self-help guides and parenting trends.
“She’s failing mother’s group,” Audrey explains. “She’s the best-looking, but she’s the worst one there.”
New parents will instantly recognize themselves in Audrey’s experience in mom’s group — her initial apprehension, her annoyance at unsolicited advice, her fear that all the other babies are better than hers. Despite a sign at the meeting that reads “no judgments,” Audrey’s breastfeeding technique is criticized and her decision not to pump is met with scorn, so she storms out of the first session.
“Did you make some new friends?” her partner, Jeremy, asks her afterward.
“Friends? Why would I need new friends?” she replies.
Despite Audrey’s rocky start with the other new parents, the show actually evolves into a love letter to mom’s groups — the quickly formed bonds that develop when vulnerable, sleep-deprived, terrified new moms (and occasionally dads) gather with their newborns. Soon, the group members brave a mom-and-baby movie together, babysit for one another, and text parenting advice. In an extreme situation, one mom nurses another’s baby.
For me, joining a mom’s group after my first son’s birth in 2011 was like being thrown a life preserver. I responded to a message on an email discussion group and, several days later, found myself lumbering into a stranger’s home with my 2-week-old son, a giant diaper bag and total fear about meeting new people when I was at my absolute worst.
The hostess and I sat on her sectional clutching our babies, shocked and dead-eyed as we tried to make small talk about our careers and eventually just compared our favorite shows to watch during nursing sessions (hers: “Brothers and Sisters”; mine: “Friends”). One other new mom came by but never even made it into the apartment; she could barely get her stroller up the stairs, and then, once she did, her son was inconsolable.
The next Wednesday, we met at a park and gathered around a table comparing birth stories. My labor was 50 hours, but at least I didn’t shatter my pelvis! The week after that, we visited another mom’s apartment, where I marveled at how her daughter slept the second she went into a baby swing. “I almost feel sorry for her,” her mother said. “She’s just out like a light.”
We met at coffee shops, ice cream parlors and nail salons, and we filled our Facebook group with middle-of-the-night cries for help. We successfully lobbied the local patisserie to install a stroller ramp. We tried to watch “The Help” at a mom-and-baby movie outing, but I’m not sure any of us made it to the infamous pie scene.
As the babies got older, we gave our gatherings themes; we dressed our little ones in the most hideous outfits they received, and we ate food that was forbidden during pregnancy (hello soft cheese and sushi). The Wednesday meetups gave me something to look forward to, gave shape to the foggy, formless days and weeks of maternity leave.
There is an immediate and perhaps artificial closeness that develops in these groups, maybe because many moms are shirtless and breast-feeding, or maybe because they are discussing poop and projectile vomiting and hemorrhoids. Nothing was off the table: vaginal tears, sex after the six-week doctor appointment, even the fleeting feeling that maybe we made a mistake.
Seeing the other moms initially made me feel self-conscious but eventually validated my struggles. My son was extremely colicky, and I was suffering from postpartum anxiety, plus I looked like hell. It was so challenging for me to arrange coffees or visits with old friends and co-workers; I never knew what state my son would be in, and the shock and concern on friends’ faces made me feel such shame, as ridiculous as that seems now.
But my mom’s group never knew me “before.” And from spending time with my son, they seemed more willing to accept that he was a challenging baby. Their little ones cooed and rolled around on fuzzy carpets, while mine screeched if he wasn’t being held. My new friends had their lives together enough to serve us pink lemonade, chocolate-covered pretzels and olives, while I hadn’t been able to turn on my stove yet. But I didn’t feel judged. I felt understood. Through the group, I learned this all wasn’t in my head. My experience was different, I was struggling, and I needed more support.
And eventually that artificial closeness becomes real. The other moms totally got how hard it was for me to show up each week, and they celebrated my small victories. They rejoiced when my son finally let me take him out of the Ergo and put him down on a playmat. They held him for me when we all got facials. They literally cheered when he knocked out a seven-hour block of sleep.
And when my leave ended after six months, meaning I’d miss our Wednesday get-together, they treated me to margaritas.
But for us, that wasn’t the end. We no longer post in our Facebook group in the middle of the night about strange rashes or the Ferber method, but those moms are still a huge part of my life. I text, email or bump into them almost daily. I like their photos on Instagram, marveling at our gigantic almost-7-year-olds. We see one another at the gym or go out for drinks or set up big-kid play dates. Some of our children go to school together.
At the end of the first season of “The Letdown,” it’s a little unclear whether Audrey will keep in touch with her mom’s group friends. While the moms popped champagne at their final formal meetup and spoke of getting together again, a few forces threatened to dissolve the group — a secretive kiss, a possible international move, a failed nurse-in at a cafe.
But maybe for some moms, that closeness during the intense first few months is all they need, then they return to their old relationships and support systems. They aren’t looking for forever friends, just someone going through the same thing who will listen. After their final meeting, Audrey bumps into the group leader and shares her doubts about all she has lost becoming a parent, only to apologize profusely for sounding self-absorbed.
The group leader won’t hear any of it. “This is what mom’s group was for,” she said. “Having a good chat.”
Carrie Melago is a journalist and mother of two boys living in Brooklyn. She’s an editor at the Chalkbeat, the education news network, and has worked at the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @carriemelago.