I had a baby and gained so many great friends
LIKE MANY pregnant women, I attended an antenatal course to prepare me for giving birth. I’m not sure how much it helped when I was in labour but I gained something invaluable — an amazing group of female friends. And we are all Jewish, something that bonds us as we navigate our way through new motherhood.
And that’s not entirely coincidental. We met at a private class that, anecdotally, is very Jewish. Gillian Stellman, who runs the course in Barnet, north London estimates 70-80 per cent of her students are Jewish.
Stellman trained with the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) and has taught more than 5,000 couples. She is still close friends with a woman she met at her own antenatal class and one recent class was full of couples whose parents Stellman had taught ahead of their own births. “It’s staggering and wonderful and I love it,” she says.
“While most people in the classes are Jewish they’re not necessarily part of a shul or have the support of the wider Jewish community.
“It’s so important to make friends at this time; you need the support of people in the same situation for when things are tough — and women need women.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age at which women start a family is now 30-plus for the first time since records began. The average age of the mums in my antenatal group is 33. We’re used to working, and having a support system of colleagues.
Motherhood and maternity-leave catapult you into the land of the unknown and the unpredictable. It can be lonely there, even when things are wonderful.
In the Jewish community, young people have often moved from smaller Jewish communities such as Dublin, Glasgow or Bournemouth to cities like London, Manchester or Leeds for their careers.
They gain a network of kosher butchers and restaurants. But their mothers, aunts and sisters are a train-ride away rather than down the road, and their husbands often work long hours. I asked how many of the group were Jewish
Stellman talks about the BBC television show Call the Midwife: “For all its grimness, the thing that always hits me are the women, standing outside their houses talking to each other. These women are now all at work and aren’t friends with their neighbours.” Having a support system built around other Jewish mums and babies is like a community within a community.
In our group, whether discussing how to lose our baby weight, the best way to get our little ones to nap, or sharing pictures of poocovered onesies over WhatsApp, my group makes it just that little bit easier to get through the long days with a young baby.
And it’s been particularly useful for mums with sons; the early days of our WhatsApp group were filled with recommendations of mohels and aftercare following the brit. “It was nice to be able to ask the other girls ‘is this right?’, ‘are you doing this?’”, Carrie Kaye, a make-up artist from Radlett, and mother to fourmonth-old Reuben, recalls.
“It’s the support of all being in the same place at the same time,” says Carrie.
“We can talk for hours about babies — things that other friends aren’t as interested in for some reason!”
Candy Hayden, 33, from Barnet, mum to Havana, agrees. “We’re like a little sisterhood or a private club and you’re a VIP member,” she says, “there’s a constant support network.”
Parenthood is often a time when we start thinking about the religious life we want for our children: shul, Jewish schools, how to celebrate festivals.
“Since I’ve had Havana, my approach to Judaism has completely changed,” says Candy. She attended Jewish schools and describes herself as, “not practising, but traditional” but says that she ”feels closer to her religion now that I’ve had a baby and I want her to go to a Jewish school. Now I understand why my parents wanted that for me. I feel very strongly that I want her to carry on the traditions that I grew up with; she’s part of the next generation of Jews and that’s important to me.”
Candy sought out Gillian’s class because of its reputation for a being a “Jewish” class. “I wanted to meet a group of Jewish girls,” she admits. Originally from Essex, she moved to Barnet when she met her husband and says that she “wanted to bond with a group of like-minded girls” in her local area.
Sara Hersheson, 39, from Whetstone found adjusting to motherhood was difficult. “I was surprised by just how hard it is. I never really thought about how hard it was going to be until I had Ava [now five months old]. I unfortunately lost my mother so I don’t have that per- son to talk to or ask questions; that’s why having this group of girls is so important.”
There are lots of labour-prep groups out there: NCT-affiliated courses, private classes, sessions offered by your hospital; and JW3 runs a “baby and bump” course.
There are also classes and groups you can join once the baby has arrived.
Debbie Rosenberg, Early Years Programme Co-ordinator at Seed, runs one such group, Babies and Bagels. She describes having a baby as “a shock to your system”.
“Suddenly you have a baby, you’re out of the workplace, sleep deprivation can be torture, but at the same time this little thing is the most important thing in the world.” This is why, she says, it is important for “mums to be around other mums at the same stage, going through the same things.”
Babies and Bagels was born 11 years ago after Rosenberg was approached by a mohel who asked if Seed could offer support to new mums. They came up with what they originally called a “post-natal package.”
This was initially a four-week course, “offering new mums everything we thought they’d need to know.”
It developed into a weekly baby music session followed by bagels for the mums, which Rosenberg says is unique within the community.
“There are lots of baby music groups out there but it’s important that Babies and Bagels is a Jewish group; as Jewish mums, there’s a connection that’s important.”
This is something that Carrie felt when she chose to go to Gillian Spellman’s antenatal class. “I sought her out because I knew she ran the ‘Jewish’ classes. I actually asked how many of the group were Jewish.”
“I want Reuben to go to a Jewish school and I wanted to make new friends as a couple; new friends in the same situation.”
“We’re very lucky because we’re all nice girls,” says Candy, echoing a sentiment felt by Sara, who says she thinks our group “became close because we’re all lovely and our values are similar; we’re all bringing up our babies in the same way.”
”That’s why I think our group works,” says Candy. “I think it’s commendable that we’re still in touch, more than six months since the antenatal classes ended.”
Carrie Kaye(left) with Reuben, Sara Hersheson and Ava (centre), Jessica Weinstein and Emily (right)