You’ve just had your first baby. You’ve been at home for a few months with a beautiful bundle of joy, and now you’re thinking of going back to work—but you’re not sure that’s what you want to do. In fact, you still have question marks about a lot of things: sleep, childcare, car seats, breastfeeding, parent roles, and whether you’re generally doing what you should be doing as a new parent. You didn’t think the first year would be easy, but you thought you’d have it more under control by now…and didn’t anticipate that parenthood could feel so lonely.
Now picture this: It’s a balmy summer day on the Upper East Side. You’re sitting in a circle of maybe eight to ten moms, strollers parked behind you and your babies sprawled happily on a blanket-covered mat in front of you. The moms are nice. You vent, you joke, you share the crazy and neurotic things you did the first time you left your baby with a sitter. Eventually, you start feeling a little less batty, or at least like you’re only as batty as your new friends in this very special club.
Welcome to 92Y’s Parenting Center. You just got a taste of its New Parent Get-Together class.
“Having a baby is the single most life-altering time in an adult’s life,” says Sally Tannen, Director of the Parenting Center. “It’s a cosmic shift in terms of your relationship with your partner, your family, your professional identity, your friends, and your finances. It can feel very isolating.” That’s why the Parenting Center’s 50-plus programs—running the gamut from breastfeeding support groups to language development seminars to separation classes—are sensitive to the fact that when adults become new parents, they have just as much growing and learning to do as their babies and toddlers.
While Tannen herself doesn’t lead all the classes—instead overseeing a very experienced and beloved group of teachers—she is the main facilitator of the New Parent Get-Together, the weekly drop-in support group that meets on Wednesday mornings. At $10 per session, the series also happens to be one of the best deals in town for new parents. Each session features a primary theme, plus any present concerns parents might want to discuss.
The issue on the table today is childcare, and Tannen kicks the morning off with gentle but firm suggestion: “Never feel embarrassed by your baby doing what she’s supposed to do.” Almost every mom in the room nods in relief. After all, a new mom is stressed enough already without having to worry about her little one’s coos and cries disturbing the rest of the room—especially when the sounds are perfectly natural in the first months anyway.
With a sensitivity and understanding that only experience can provide, the Parenting Center currently serves over 750 families with babies and young children up to three years. It’s one of the pillars of Wonderplay, the division of 92Y that encompasses its nursery school, afterschool programming, camps, and classes for kids under five in specialty subjects like music, art, and dance. Tannen, a veteran early childhood educator and administrator and a local mother of four grown children, has been at the helm of the Center for a decade.
The Parenting Center itself opened in 1978 and was the first of its kind in the country. As more and more moms embraced the women’s movement and began going back to work, the Parenting Center strived to be a place where all parents would feel welcome (much as it does now). “As tension rose between those going back to the office and those choosing to stay at home, women needed a place to meet and come together without being judged,” explains Tannen.
“The conversation has, to a certain degree, changed and, to a certain degree, remained the same,” she adds, citing sleep, eating, and childcare as some of the age-old concerns that keep new parents eagerly returning to the center’s weekly discussions. At same time, the Parenting Center is always fine-tuning its curriculum to the changing needs and concerns of the parent community, a recent example being its Boot Camp For New Dads.
Perhaps the biggest difference between parenting in 1978 and in 2012, Tannen says, is the barrage of information coming at parents from all angles these days. “It’s one of the most challenging things for most new parents—how to trust your own instincts about your child, how to just focus on your child and look at your child and know the right thing to do.”
Back at the New Parent Get-Together, Tannen’s mantra of the day reflects her desire to assuage anxieties in the midst of all the information overload. Every time one mom shares why she left a particular nursery for another, Tannen reiterates to the group that there isn’t one true approach to doing anything. “It has to resonate with the family; it has to make sense to [you],” she says. “Just because your best friend may like a particular program or person doesn’t mean you have to too.”
It’s easy to see why Tannen, with her calm manner and voice of reason, is such a welcome guide. As her supervisor, Wonderplay Director Fretta Reitzes, says, “[Tannen’s] naturally gentle, friendly demeanor makes parents feel comfortable and welcome, whether they are calling us for the first time about their newborn or coming back to visit with their ten-year-old Parenting Center graduate.”
As Reitzes suggests, the Parenting Center is often the gateway to a long-term relationship with families as their children grow up and enjoy other Wonderplay and 92Y programs. Being one of the premiere social and cultural institutions in the city, 92Y is many things to many people, but one only has to take a quick look around to see how important children of all ages are to its mission. 92Y has myriad offerings for kids, and the sparks of discovery, inspiration, and self-knowledge begin with even the youngest in the Parenting Center. A child who first enters the institution in a stroller can one day study music or be part of the gymnastics team there.
As part of the Center’s focus on parenting and childhood development, classes are filled with engaging age-appropriate forays into music and dance and other arts and activities. Alongside Tannen’s part-time staff of 15 (many who were former parents in the program), “teaching artists” help out with the specialty portions of the Center’s programming. As children move on to take full classes devoted to particular subjects like music or art, the teachers are often the very same “teaching artists” who the kids originally met at the Parenting Center.
“If you stay at [92Y], the teachers are going to know you,” Tannen says. “So if [a child] comes here for tumbling but also for swimming, and [he] takes a kitchen class, we can support that family because we know them in many different ways.”
And local families aren’t the only beneficiaries of 92Y’s experience and expertise. Over the years, the Parenting Center has been a model for other centers around the country—while Wonderplay’s overall programming is so well-regarded among professionals that the 92Y hosts an annual conference on early childhood development for over 900 teachers and administrators.
One of Tannen’s favorite examples of how the principles of childhood development come alive at the Parenting Center is its Twos Together and Threes Together separation series that she helped to develop. Among the program’s many gradual steps to independence is having tots walk their parents and caregivers over to a “meeting bench” outside the classroom right before snack time—so that they know where their adults will be in the short time apart. Since it’s snack time, the temporary absences are much more acceptable.
“Graham crackers and water are the snack of choice at the Parenting Center,” Tannen says, joking that combination may sound like the kiddie equivalent of prison food but always manages to please. Now, if only there were such simple—and preferably non-caloric—solutions to all of childhood’s developmental challenges!
In relating to what every new mom and dad who walks through the Parenting Center is going through, Tannen thinks back to her personal experiences with her own kids. “I used to have a stack of books as a new mom, and as I got more confident, the stack got shorter until it finally became one book, one person whose voice resonated with me,” she says.
In essence, that one invaluable resource is what the Parenting Center aims to be for NYC parents today—who now also have websites and blogs to sift through alongside all those paperbacks—as they take those exciting yet uncertain first steps in the amazing journey that is parenthood.