Tara attends our workshops in Brighton with her daughter Grace
When Tara's daughter Grace was born, the world was slowly starting to emerge from strict COVID restrictions. While we all struggled to get used to the 'new normal', new parents had a challenging time adjusting to life outside their four walls with a newborn - which can feel unfamiliar at the best of times, let alone after a global pandemic.
The emotional struggles that new mothers faced during the pandemic are well documented, but this was especially the case for parents like Tara who had babies born with health complications. “After a healthy, low-risk pregnancy, Grace was postnatally diagnosed with Down's syndrome, which was a complete shock. She was a month old before she came home, and she needed 24-hour oxygen via a nasal cannula. Initially, I had a lot of support from family, friends and well-wishers who wanted to congratulate me on the arrival of my newborn, but once that had died down, I had to adjust and accept that this was real life, now. I do remember feeling sorry for myself, and while I was never diagnosed with post-natal depression, I certainly had some melancholy. Grace was almost 3 months old, the summer was ending, friends were returning to work, and starting to get ready for the school routines to start again. I had to do something.”
At the time, social distancing regulations were still in place. Typical day-to-day activities that Tara might have previously enjoyed before the pandemic, such as meeting a friend for a coffee was restricted. "My local coffee shop was only serving coffee at the door to customers outside," Tara recalls. "Many businesses were operating with reduced services, and it was difficult to find things to do. Unfortunately, Tara’s antenatal class never bonded, despite her hopeful expectations of making friends with other expectant mothers while pregnant. What should have been a nurturing experience as a pregnant mum-to-be left her feeling isolated, as she searched for parent and baby groups that could accommodate both her and Grace's unique needs. “Pre-birth, I imagined a maternity leave full of swimming lessons, music classes, mummy lunches, and travelling with a baby in a sling.”
I had to adjust and accept that this was real life now. I do remember feeling sorry for myself, and while I was never diagnosed with post-natal depression, I certainly had some melancholy.
With a mini oxygen tank now in tow and more nerves than Tara was used to, she looked for other options. She came across an advert on Facebook, advertising First Workshops at the Old Boat Community Centre in Brighton. "Initially, it was the location that appealed to me because it was somewhere I could walk to. But after further research, I saw that the parent's well-being was also a focus, with fun and creative activities, and I was intrigued."
Tara decided to attend a photography exhibition hosted by Spun Glass Theatre to get a sense of what the workshops were like. "I sat with Grace and her oxygen tank and initially felt very self-conscious, but I was approached by another mother whose baby also had health issues, and she was very welcoming. We sat about, chatted, and looked at the lovely photographs. Being made to feel so welcome gave me a bit more confidence. There were other new people there too, and someone offered to make me a coffee with some cake and biscuits. It all felt very chilled, so I decided to go back again the following week."
After the exhibition, Tara rang an acquaintance (who was also a new mum) to tell her about the workshops. "She had been especially covid-wary during the pandemic and had spent a lot of time shielding at home away from other people, so I thought it would be nice if she came with me," Tara explains. "We went to the next workshop together to see what it was like, and it wasn’t what I was expecting at all from a baby group! We did a candle ceremony, where we had to make meaningful eye contact with others. I took a sideways glance at the other new mum, wondering what I had gotten us into! Then we did a good stretching exercise, and my shoulders remembered how neglected they felt. This was followed by a baby story with feathers, bubbles, singing and silliness before ending the session with a wellness exercise, where you name a thing, you take away from the session, and a thing you leave behind. She burst into tears because she found it so emotional. It meant so much to both of us, to be out of the house connecting with other people."
These first few sessions gave Tara the confidence to try other groups. "I tried some other classes but there were too many expectations and milestones to meet, and I didn't like putting that pressure on Grace. I wanted to go at her pace instead. I also tried a Pilates class where you could bring your baby along, but I couldn’t focus on the exercises at all because Grace was squirming in the pram beside me."
At First Workshops, Tara felt she had found the perfect group for her and her baby. She often refers to the workshops as her 'hippy group'; and will always recommend Spun Glass Theatre to other new parents. More than anything, she appreciates the balance of mother and baby, and the opportunity to listen as well as be heard. "Everyone gets a fair turn. Whether it's the babies taking turns to stroke the 'story lion' or the adults talking about how their week has been – and as a parent of a child with health issues, it's nice to hear other mums talking about their feelings and struggles," she remarks. "You realise that other parents feel the same as you, and you take comfort in knowing that no one finds parenthood easy!" In a bid to put her self-care and well-being first, Tara later tried Mummyshock! which offers therapy sessions for new mothers. "I thought they were great," she explains, "but I almost felt selfish going to those sessions because it was so focused on me and my wellbeing, rather than my baby."
As a parent of a child with health issues, it's nice to hear other mums talking about their feelings and struggles. You realise other parents feel the same as you.
Spun Glass workshops fulfilled Tara's need for a group where she and her baby could both be supported. "I continue being mindful after I've gone home, so I know the workshop activities continue to have a positive impact on my well-being. I'm aware that there's a focus on mental health, but we don't always draw attention to that - the sessions are relaxed and fun, with lots of shared laughter."
First and Second Workshops allow parents to take a break from the stresses of everyday life in a secure, welcoming space. However, being completely reliant on funding meant there have been times when we've struggled to obtain the money needed to run a term of workshops, and on one occasion we had no choice but to press the pause button while we applied for additional support.
As Tara explains, it's clear to see the effect this break had on the parents who have come to rely so heavily on the workshops. "I remember when Spun Glass Theatre didn’t get the funding, they needed to run a term. Alex and Harry gave us all a candle so we could do the activity at home, and we all started crying! We were all so worried about how we were going to cope without the classes! We wondered if we would have to find another group somewhere else, which we didn't want to do. I tried a well-known baby class with a national brand, but the atmosphere was very cold.”
“I felt really upset and missed the connection with the other parents. We tried to organise a get-together ourselves, but we didn’t manage to make it happen. In the end, we set up a WhatsApp group to help stay in touch and there were so many positive reactions from everyone, it was so lovely to reconnect with everyone and have a space where we could still support each other in some way". Luckily, we were successful at applying for funding and sessions resumed the following term!
First and Second Workshops are a time for babies and toddlers to come together and enjoy different experiences while still following a familiar routine. Tara can see the progress Grace has made over the last year. "She's slower to develop than other children, but because it's now part of our routine, she knows what’s coming each week, so I consider the workshops as an important part of Grace's developmental experiences. For example, we always sing the ‘Hello Song’ at the beginning of the workshop and originally, she would sleep through the song, or simply feed or stare at everyone. But now, she stands up, gets excited and waves - especially when everyone says her name! Seeing her get involved and grow in confidence is the best thing! She especially loves the stories, blowing bubbles and crinkling paper."
"When Grace started nursery, she was quite upset for a while and struggled with attachment issues. But at the workshops, I know I can leave her for a couple of moments to go to the loo or chat with a parent and she’ll feel happy and familiar surrounded by people in a space she knows."
Tara explains that sometimes it can 'sting' when meeting other parents and their babies. “When I meet someone new with a child of a similar age to Grace, who is running around and chatting, I’ll feel awkward. But at Second Workshops, I’m delighted to see how the other babies have grown up and developed. I don't feel awkward because I know everyone, and I’m excited to see the other little ones grow up. It helps me to compare Grace's progress with others in a similar age group because I know that we’ll eventually get to that stage with Grace, too. It feels positive for me, but it also keeps me aware of the reality of Grace's differences and keeps me focused on her development."
"Now, Spun Glass Theatre's workshops are my benchmark for other baby classes I try. I've been to other groups where you never even learn the names of the other mums, and the sessions are only 45 mins so there's not enough time to get a coffee. I've not been able to find the same warmth or equal focus on both parent and baby in other groups. The ‘new mum’ I brought to that first workshop is now a close friend. I honestly believe that if First Workshops hadn’t been our very first baby group experience, I would never have been brave enough to try out other groups with Grace."