Floppy Friends group helps make parenting easier

MIDDLEBURY — It doesn’t get much more intimidating than the thought of bringing another human being into the world that is completely reliant upon you for keeping it alive.
For new parents, this thought — coupled with the enormous emotional and physical turbulence that comes with pregnancy — can be utterly destabilizing.
That’s one reason why parenting classes, books and clubs are so popular.
Megan Osterhout Brakeley first moved to Middlebury with her new husband, Gus Brakeley, in 2013. However, she promptly took off for graduate school out of state, returning to Middlebury infrequently and without the time to really form her own networks of friends and acquaintances. Upon graduation and her return to the community, Osterhout Brakeley was pregnant with their first child.
“I was new to the community and aside from my husband and his family, I didn’t have a lot of friends,” she recalled. In addition, Osterhout Brakeley hadn’t spent a lot of time around infants or new parents observing the routines and hearing about the process.
It became clear to her that facing parenthood would be a lot easier with a network of peers with whom she could ask silly questions, casually observe, and call upon for advice.
Through her parents in-law (Peter and Johana Brakeley), as well as work colleagues and others in her local labor and delivery and breastfeeding classes, Osterhout Brakeley was able to form a group of six or so parents who were due around the same time.
They called the group the Floppy Friends.
The Floppy Friends first gathered the first week of January 2016, less than a month after Osterhout Brakeley’s daughter, Hazel, was born.
“As a new parent just to have people in the same phase and right there in the thick of it with you was critical,” Osterhout Brakeley said.
“In the first few weeks of parenting, I remember Googling things like, ‘What do you do with a baby all day?’ — the kind of thing you wouldn’t necessarily ask your doctor, but if you have a group of other parents asking these same gross and mundane questions, it’s the perfect place to turn.”
Osterhout Brakeley remembers the early gatherings as mostly support sessions for mothers recovering from childbirth and the emotional swings spurring from sleeplessness, hormonal imbalances and breastfeeding woes.
At the beginning, most members of the group were on paternal leaves, so there was a standing weekly gathering at different members’ homes, and members came if they could make it.
   MOTHERS IN THE Floppy Friends group gathered in costume to celebrate the babies’ first Halloween together. The group formed initially from a parenting and childbirth class and expanded to include more than a dozen families all with babies born within a few months of each other. 
The ease of going to someone else’s house for the gatherings was key for Osterhout Brakeley. “Post-partum is uncomfortable and unpredictable,” Osterhout Brakeley said, “but being in homes made that process much easier.
“If I had had to prepare myself to go into public with my infant, it would have been a whole other story,” she said, “But as it was, I was just shifting from my house to someone else’s house. No one cared if you showed up in sweats without your hair brushed and needed to change a diaper as soon as you walked into the door. There was no judgment.”
Like Osterhout Brakeley, Jodi Brown moved to Addison County when she was in her second trimester with her daughter, Liv. Brown works as a women’s health doctor at Porter Women’s Health, but despite her clinical knowledge still wanted to connect with peers as a first-time parent embarking on something new and intimidating.
She was connected to the group through her midwife, whom she asked to pass along her number to any other expecting parents looking for connections.
“Being in a group with other mothers gave us license to be out in the world with our babies with confidence and without reservations,” Brown wrote in a comment about the Floppy Friends group. 
“After we graduated from just hanging out in each other’s living rooms we met out at restaurant and breweries, eating food, sampling beers and breastfeeding in mass in (gasp) public spaces.  We felt free to continue to be women out in the world, living and enjoying life, even though we were now mothers and responsible for keeping another small being alive.”
EJ and Steve Bartlett joined the Floppy Friends group about three months after it first gathered. They had just adopted an infant, Makenna, and brought her home to Cornwall.
“At first I was a little hesitant to join the group,” EJ recalled. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be surrounded by a bunch of women telling their birth stories. But I went, and I am so glad I did.”
   PARENTS IN THE Floppy Friends network frequently call each other to coordinate hikes and other outings. Pictured here from left to right on the top of Snake Mountain are Lisa and Luca Crowley, EJ and Makenna Bartlett, Claire Bove and Mateo Nelson, Jodi Brown and Liv Lunser. Photo by EJ Bartlett
Makenna is among the youngest of the Floppy Friends and for EJ there’s been tremendous value in being able to observe other parenting moves and learn what works and what doesn’t.
“You watch other parents do something you’ve never done with your child and you think to yourself ‘Oh, you can do that?’ and it opens a new door,” she said.
The Floppy Friends mostly communicate through a Facebook group and via email and text.
“If someone wants to go out on a hike or an adventure of some kind with their baby, it’s a great resource to tap,” EJ said. “I might have been hesitant to go out on a hike with just Makenna, but if there’s someone else also along with an infant, it’s much more comfortable.”
Over the last year, the group has ballooned in size and smaller sub-groups have started to form. They gathered in February for a collective “First Birthdays” party and had about 16 families at the get-together.
“It’s so fun to watch as they all form their own personalities and develop new skills,” Osterhout Brakeley says, adding that because they’re all within a span of three to four months apart in age the parents can really help each other predict what’s coming and how to prepare.
And while the babies are still too young to have overly developed language skills, it does seem like they too find value in their Floppy Friendships.
As Osterhout Brakeley, Bartlett and I talked at an outdoor picnic table in downtown Middlebury, Hazel and Makenna exercised their new walking skills and showed off their newly forming teeth as they munched snacks. They stared at each other and followed each other around, each clearly looking to the other for signs and lessons.
At our parting, they even gave each other a hug goodbye. The two could truly be life-long friends. 

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