Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Y Community? -- By Laura Houston

When I moved to New York City from a small farm in Oregon, I naturally felt out of place. It was a tough adjustment being a new mom in a strange, crowded, loud city without my network of friends around me – friends who would come over in an instant if I needed help or a break. As I elbowed my way into a new social network in Manhattan, many neighbors, mothers, and friends suggested joining a family gym. But as a rule, I hate gyms. My workouts in the Northwest centered on gardening, hiking, kayaking, and running. I like the outdoors. I like all kinds of weather. I like hard work. In Oregon, I easily found communities of people who felt the same way and enjoyed the same things, and I bonded with people naturally out of mutual interest.

I am the sort of person who makes friends easily under most circumstances, and thanks to groups like Motherhood Later Than Sooner and Upper West Side Moms, I’ve met some great women. We gather on playgrounds. We have coffee after playschool. We share sitters, housekeepers, doctors, and lawyers. But regardless of our network of resources and information, a group of mothers is not always enough to call a community. After all, as mothers of young children we are pretty frazzled. We can’t often reach out and offer support to one another because we are barely making it ourselves. It’s hard to create a kinship of reliable support just due to the logistics of the city alone.

So how does one go about creating a community for the family? Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are a good start, but if you don’t practice those religions, you’re out of luck. Plus, I want a more diverse community. I like to meet and get to know all kinds of people going through all kinds of situations. But they have to have some things in common: they want to be healthy, they have interests, and they want to form relationships with other people.

That’s difficult to do on a small island where there are more than 71,000 people per square mile. It’s ironic with all these people crowded together that so many mothers admit to feeling lonely and isolated. And mothers have a particularly hard time in New York – especially if they are stay-at-home moms who are raising the kids themselves – sans full-time nannies.

Last week I met a woman named La-Vena Francis. She was a single, teen-age mother living in Brooklyn, and she was determined to do the right thing for her child while trying to find community for herself. When her son was six-years old, he began showing signs of childhood obesity, and she could not to let that happen. She knew her son loved the water, and she knew she wanted him to be safe, so she joined the YMCA and signed him up for swim lessons.

“That’s how I became connected,” La-Vena told me, “I became connected with the community the Y had to offer, with my son, and with myself because I started taking classes, too.”

Two birds. One stone.

When La-Vena first moved to this country as a little girl, she did not live in a safe neighborhood. There weren’t many places she could play without fear. She said the Flatbush YMCA was a refuge, so that’s where she went after school to take gymnastics. Then, as a teenage mom, she returned with her son, introducing him to health and wellness, to male mentors, and to a community that would help her help him.

Twelve years later La-Vena’s son is 18-years old, attends college, and teaches swimming lessons at a YMCA. And La-Vena now works at the North Brooklyn YMCA as a director. She also met her husband there, and now her two youngest kids attend for daycare, classes, and fun.

There are many stories I’ve heard from mothers, especially single mothers, about the kinship, the solace, and the support they discovered at their local gym. The YMCA organization itself is an anthology of hope, help and health from members of its community. It offers more than just fitness classes, and it has free babysitting in their child watch program, so mothers can workout, get a break from the kids, and perhaps have a conversation with an adult that lasts more than four sentences.

As hard as I have tried in New York to create my own community, I might have to borrow someone’s for a while and see if I can fit in. I believe I need to take some pottery classes, some yoga classes, and maybe get over my distaste for public swimming pools, and gym locker rooms while I’m at it. My life has changed not only as a mother who is living in a new city, but now I find I am becoming a different kind of person who has to find new interests in a city where I can’t plant a garden, and in a life where there is little time for solace. I’m also no longer as fit as I used to be. There are times when I can’t seem to keep up. So it’s time to buck up and join up. And see where this inspired community leads me.

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