When her son Luke was just a few months old, Joan Weinstein of Denville, 33, was looking for a way to meet other Jewish new moms.
After joining First Steps, a new support group run by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, she got much more than that: in addition to forming lasting friendships, she came away with a wealth of ideas for introducing Jewish activities into her family’s life.
And through her participation in the group, she said, she also gained new confidence in her own abilities as a parent. “We learned a lot about ourselves and how to interact with our babies and rely on our own instincts more, and also to be mindful of our own feelings.
“And when Hanukka approached,” she said in a phone interview, “we went over some traditions and what we could do, going forward, to make it engaging for Luke, like with arts and crafts and cookies and tzedaka.”
The group was launched in the fall through a two-year $15,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation Innovation Fund.
First Steps is also funded by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
“Often classes try to teach parents what they should do, and that takes away from parents knowing they have their own instincts,” said Patricia Stern, JFS coordinator of child and adolescent services and the group facilitator. “We are focusing on them feeling they are the expert. With new babies, it’s not about what a book tells you or what the ‘experts’ say.”
The group’s eight sessions cover information about typical development, eating and sleeping patterns, attachment, changing relationships with relatives and friends, and how to bring Jewish traditions into the family. Stern draws from a variety of models, including “child-parent psychotherapy,” which she uses with older children.
“One mom in the last session worried that she was supposed to be blissed out all the time. We talked about how you can love your baby and be happy, but you don’t have to feel blissed out,” said Stern.
A second cohort will begin March 21 and will run on Wednesdays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. JCC MetroWest’s Parent Place has partnered with the JFS to present this second group, which will meet at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
The group avoids fads, including sign language for infants, painting, and music. “We feel the baby in the room sparks a lot of conversations,” said Stern, without such gimmicks.
For Weinstein, the group helped ease her transition back to work as a surgical physician’s assistant. “When I said how upset I was to be returning to work, I realized I could talk it through with Luke, to show my emotions, and try to empathize with the baby and see things from his point of view,” she said.
The tools she gained also proved useful when Luke, now six months old, came down with a mild illness. She said her husband, an asthmatic, “projected his fears onto the baby. He kept saying, ‘Oh, Luke can’t breathe.’ But his color was fine and he was able to laugh and was still playing. So I knew he could breathe. My husband didn’t have that tool,” she said.
Stern, Weinstein said, “was able to bring out our strengths and allowed us to use our own strengths in communicating with our babies.”