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TODAY

Tuesday, February 19

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There are two distinct sections of my life, which, of course, can be endlessly subdivided, but mainly it's 1. Before Kids and 2. After Kids. You can try to describe what it's like to have a kid to someone who does not, but it never comes through. I'm not talking about what it feels like to have a baby (though that's something else you can't quite explain to the uninitiated); I'm talking about what's it's like to be living with a baby all of a sudden. It's like walking through a wall. You find yourself in the next room, and when you turn around, there is no doorway. Here you are, in the room, with a baby, one that you are very, very glad to be with, and the fact that there isn't a door is not really an issue, because you can't quite remember that old room anyway, because now you are in this room, with this baby.

Luckily, if you have the time to look around, there are other people in the same room as you. Most likely they look as shell-shocked and sleepy as you do, and perhaps they haven't brushed their hair lately, or bothered to change out of their pajamas, but there they are, holding their new babies. These are the people that you are going to need to meet. Your old friends will still be around, of course, when they aren't busy going out. They will continue to go to movies, eat at delicious restaurants, explore the city, see bands, bathe — all of the things you did until everything changed. They will love your baby but definitely will start to glaze over when talk turns, as it inevitably will, to diapering, sleeping and breastfeeding. You will need some friends who are on the same team as you, who can talk endlessly about all things baby and beyond.

Someone recently asked me where an indie/punk/musician stay-at-home dad might meet other like-minded folks. Not having met the man, but definitely recognizing the description, I would prefer to put this in terms of parenting style, and less in terms of what easily could be perceived as a fashion statement. Let's dispense with the notion that an indie/punk parent sports facial tattoos, wears a kilt and carries a battered amplifier with him wherever he goes. If I were to define the term, I suppose an indie/punk parent is probably someone who is taking that DIY spirit that's gotten him or her to where he or she is in life, and is putting that energy into raising a kick ass kid.

An indie/punk parent is probably into respecting his or her kid, peaceful problem solving, strong attachment, lives a fairly healthy lifestyle and probably bases a lot of his or her parenting decisions on instinct, on what feels right for their family, and not on what is expected by societal norms. Think attachment parenting sans rules, with a strong commitment to pursuing personal creative, intellectual and political projects. While holding a baby. That won't take a nap.

So, how do you make new friends when you find yourself in the full-time family way? Where do you meet other groovy parents to hang out with, and babies for your child to befriend as he or she grows? You can't spit without hitting either a pregnant person or someone with a baby, so it can't be all that hard. The problem is that they might not be the kind of people you are used to hanging out with. In fact, they might be total strangers who dress oddly and listen to unfamiliar music. It doesn't really matter. What matters is finding friends who are going to make you laugh, be good to talk to, and who approach parenthood in a similar way. It also helps if they are good at baking. Think of it as dating without the painful awkwardness.

Many people take childbirth classes in preparation for their blessed event. Right there you've got a roomful of people who will all be doing the same thing as you, give or take a few months. Arrange a baby reunion six months after your class ends, and maybe that other couple who cracked you up during class will turn out to be available for some daytime play time. Taking a parent/child yoga or exercise class would also put you in the same room as some potentially like-minded folks.

If it's difficult for you to strike up a casual conversation with the interesting looking mom at the Jewel, a support group might be just the thing to help you break into it gently. The ultimate support group, and one of the hot spots for new parent dating, is at a La Leche League meeting. It's extremely reassuring to go and sit in a circle of shell-shocked new mothers with a few not necessarily older, but definitely wiser women volunteering to lead the discussion and answer questions either in person or on the phone about the complexities of breastfeeding. Going to La Leche League made me feel that I wasn't going it alone, and that I was definitely not a giant wierdo because I was breastfeeding a baby. It's a great resource for anyone who is pregnant, or has a newborn, infant or toddler.

Back in the day, I went regularly to the La Leche meetings in Lincoln Park, and I connected with some women there who were already organized into a playgroup. This playgroup ended up being an integral part of my life, and continues to be to this day. When the kids were babies our playgroup met weekly in each other's houses. As the kids grew, so did our friendship. The original group members have gone their separate ways to some extent — one to Oregon, one to exotic Beverly — but we still stay in touch, and I continue to spend lots of time with one of the women. We talk or see each other just about every day, and our daughters are very close, having virtually grown up together.

Would we have picked each other as friends had we not had children? Signs point to no. I doubt we ever would have met. We might have passed on the streets of Bucktown, where we both lived at the time, but that would have been it. She was career-focused and doing brilliant things. I was busy woking a string of jobs to cover my rent and staying out too late. It was new motherhood that brought us together, but it's definitely a solid friendship ten years later. Our two kids have turned into six, so parenting and children are still hot topics, but we've got plenty of material to work with that has nothing to do with kids, birth or breastfeeding.

It doesn't always go smoothly. There can be a lot of friction in the parenting world. The key issues that drive a wedge between well-meaning potential friends are food, sleep and discipline. Everyone and their mother has an opinion about all of those things, including those who don't have children (perhaps especially those without children), and should your method or your confidence ever appear shaky, rest assured, you'll hear all about it. It's not impossible to be friends with people who make different parenting choices than you, but it can be tough. If you are the type of person who hands out snacks when a kid seems hungry, it's going to be problematic if you are hanging around with someone who only feeds on a schedule and doesn't allow sweets. What if your response to a cranky child is cuddling, and hers is time-out? All of these things can be worked out, but it might be a strain on a blooming friendship.

It's winter now, and difficult to meet other parents in the most natural of habitats, the neighborhood playground. Even the shyest full-time parent can interact with other parents while their children play together on the climbing gym. As a somewhat introverted person myself, I know that it can be difficult to strike up a conversation, but it gets easier, especially with the built-in ice breaker that follows you around where ever you go. If you go regularly to the same park, you might find that a natural playgroup forms. Also, don't be afraid to make the first move. It's hard to do, but taking the casual park acquaintance one step further and inviting your fledgling playmates over for a grilled cheese sandwich could be the first official get-together of what may be a long lasting friendship.

Another good spot for casual chatting to occur is at your local swimming pool during family swim. Speaking from experience, we go at the same time each week, and see a whole bunch of the same people almost every time. Kids mostly spend the time flailing about, shrieking with joy and splashing everyone in sight. An "oh sorry, did she splash you?" directed at the parent next to you in the pool could lead to a smile of recognition the next time you go to the pool, and that could take things right on over to the local coffee shop. Who knows?

If you are interested in prepping your juniors for their futures as television personalities, get on over to a Chic-a-go-go taping. Chic-a-go-go, "Chicago's Dance Show for Kids of All Ages," is where "people of all ages, colors, and backgrounds, linked by their love of music, dance together in harmony on the Chic-a-go-go set. The dancers, who range in age from toddlers to grandparents, move to the latest hip-hop music, as well as classic R&B, rock & roll, punk, funk and all points in between." If you really miss all the great bands you used to see in the land before kids, Chic-a-go-go is a great opportunity to see some good live music, and the place is usually crawling with alterna-parents and kids. This craziness has been going on for 10 years! Put on your wacky pants and go shake a leg with Miss Mia and Ratso. Maybe your new friends are waiting for you there in their fake mutton chops and leisure suits.

Will all of these potential friends have exactly the same history, interests, parenting style, taste and political views as you? Doubtful. But you might find a lot of things you do have in common, such as a shared interest in caffeine, or bike riding or sarcastic comment-making. Maybe you'll learn some new skills, like decoupage or first aid. Or maybe you'll just decide you aren't each other's cup of tea and move on. There's no telling until you try.

I met a lovely family at the Garfield Park Conservatory a few weeks ago. The middle of most weekdays is a great time to meet other parents who stay home with their kids, and we invariably meet cool and friendly people there. My kids were, surprise, going up the slide. Hers were coming down, and they met in the middle and immediately joined forces. We got acquainted by default when all the kids got hungry and we both pulled out our coolers and had a picnic on the floor. We didn't exchange names and phone numbers, but Chicago is a small town; I figure we're bound to run into each other somewhere.

~*~

If you are interested in reading more about breastfeeding and La Leche League from the Gapers Block point of view, Alejandra Vallera wrote a terrific article about it in 2005. The information about La Leche League meetings has changed since then, but you can find updated meeting information at the group's website.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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