Quaker Parent Mutual Support Groups (Year One)

Why 

In the summer of 2020, New York Yearly Meeting had some budgetary support available for projects supporting children, teens, and families, and the organization put out a call for proposals.  

I was aware of the fact that many parents were attempting to remote-school or home-school their children while also working from home, and these parents had already been mostly isolated since March of 2020.  I also knew through the grapevine that, with some exceptions, Quaker meetings were not adequately addressing pastoral care of their families, either because they were not aware of the extraordinary need or because they were simply unable to do so.

We were heading for a pandemic winter (in the northern hemisphere), when it would be more difficult to have outdoor time, including outdoor social interaction, and when there would be many hours of literal darkness.  Parents needed any support we could give them.

I proposed a structure of mutual support groups for parents on Zoom because this seemed like the most feasible and efficient structure of support and connection from afar.  I also suggested we make the groups available to all Quakers everywhere, not just Quakers within New York Yearly Meeting, because there were so many parents in need, and many were not geographically located within yearly meetings that had the resources to support them.

Parenting is a ministry, and it’s a challenging one.  I believe we have an responsibility in Quaker communities to support parents in whatever ways we can.

How

We structured the parent support groups with one central coordinator (me) plus, for each group, two co-facilitators.  The coordinator was responsible for communications, registration, group assignments, and facilitator training, as well as occasional contact with and encouragement of facilitators.  The co-facilitators were responsible for structuring the use of time during their group meetings (all on Zoom), for sending reminder emails to keep the groups on track, and (in some cases) for voluntary communications with group members between meetings.  

Co-facilitators were, in all cases, people not currently raising children under eighteen in their homes.  Most often, they were parents whose children were now grown; in a couple of cases, they were non-parents.  We did this to emphasize the importance of ministering to parents.  The parents themselves were not expected to create this space.  Groups had co-facilitators, rather than single facilitators, to provide automatic back-up as well as complementary gifts.  These partnerships worked well in most cases.

Facilitators were trained to function as supportive presences and listeners and not as advice-givers or experts.  They were instructed never to offer advice unless a parent had specifically asked for it—which parents occasionally did.  Facilitators were also offered some tools for general group dynamics management.  Beyond that, they were encouraged to structure the group time in ways that seemed to work well for the group, whatever that might be, and this varied from queries to worship to open conversation to games.

The parent mutual support groups were open to all Quaker parents, regardless of their Quaker affiliation or their geographic location.  The same was true for facilitators.

Registration for the groups began in September 2020, and the groups launched in November of 2020, meeting every two weeks through April 2021.  One group (composed of late registrants) launched in January 2021.  At least one group has continued meeting monthly after the official end of the program.

The groups were always intended to be temporary, which allowed for easier commitment.  Almost all parents, when surveyed, affirmed that they preferred temporary groups over something ongoing.

How Many

Parents registered: 67

Parents that ultimately participated: ~60

Time zones of registrants: 8

Branches of Quakerism represented: all 4

Facilitators: 15 (7 groups with co-facilitators, 1 on-call back-up facilitator)

What Happened

Results varied widely!  Three groups formed into cohesive communities, with the majority of the parents attending regularly.  Two groups had regular attendance by a very small number of parents.  Two groups functioned more like drop-in opportunities, with one or two parents showing up each week, with no ongoing community materializing.

Many participating parents experienced extraordinarily difficult circumstances during the 2020-2021 winter.  Some chose to share their conditions in deeply personal ways.  One group played games.  Some groups used worship sharing, either with or without queries.  Some groups had open, mostly light conversation.  Most groups explored topics requested by the parents.

Some parents, especially after a few initial meetings, began explicitly asking their facilitators (most of whom are the parents of grown children) for advice or wisdom, which facilitators are encouraged to give only if asked.  Some parents chose to be in email communication with other parents in their groups and exchanged resources and ideas on a variety of topics.  The parents were often very supportive of one another with verbal affirmations and sympathy.

All of the volunteer facilitators were women.  No men volunteered.  I’ve wondered a lot about that since . . . what is it about the ways in which we talk about parenting that caused men not to think of themselves as potential facilitators of these groups?

Reflections from Facilitators and Parents

“It was very valuable to connect with other parents and hear their stories. It was helpful to me to know what others were also experiencing in this difficult time.” – parent

“It was great, meeting other Quaker parents with similar aged kids even though we’re from all over the country and different kinds of Friends. I felt supported and connected in a time in which I’ve been lonely.” – parent

“Every parent in my group is facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  I’m honored to be present to their courage, resilience, and tenderness.” – facilitator

“We are all different, and there is no one-size-fits-all way of Quaker parenting.  This was assuring – instead of feeling like I wasn’t a very good Quaker parent.” – parent

“I think the most important has been having a space that is ‘held’ for us, and this was a space where, regardless of our experience, it was okay to say ‘this is really hard,’ and it didn’t feel like there was judgement attached, or even the need to ‘fix it.’ It’s felt really important to just have a space where we can collectively honor how hard this is for each of us, in individually specific ways.” – parent

“We have felt very unsupported. What little children’s stuff we had [in our local Quaker meeting] shut down [during the pandemic]. What we have tried (special children’s meeting, drop off of supplies and gifts), we’ve organized. People love seeing the kids when they wander through a zoom call, but that’s about it. It’s also given us some space to realize how poorly the meeting was meeting our family’s needs (and kids needs in general) before we shut down. It’s discouraging but hoping that reopening will allow for some new ways of doing things to take hold.” – parent

“I have really appreciated how my local meeting has recognized that parenting during this time is a struggle, through individual contacts I’ve had with members. However, no one has reached out to ask how the Meeting could help–I’ve always felt like I could ask of my own initiative, but I have definitely clocked that no one’s done it proactively.” – parent

“I stopped going. It happens on Zoom only right now. It didn’t feel realistic to me to be able to worship with my baby, and so I would really only go to worship to get the social contact, and Zoom social contact just isn’t good enough when it’s mostly an hour of silence.” – parent

“Parenting in a pandemic is a solo lift in a way it isn’t normally.  The other significant adults in their children’s lives are suddenly missing.  Friends from Quaker meetings could offer to take kids for distanced walks.  They could host a Zoom dance party.  They could write letters.  Some families need money.  Others just need somebody else to make dinner occasionally.” – facilitator

“The efforts at First Day School have been variable, but they’ve learned and improved. They altered the schedule so FDS isn’t during worship, which is really necessary with young kids when everything is online. Periodic emails saying ‘we miss you at worship’ have not been helpful – I would prefer a more personal dialogue about how we’re doing or resources for FDS off line.” – parent

“I have felt very distant from Quaker meeting this year. It is just too hard with two small kids. In normal times, it feels like most of the resources and thinking that the meeting does is about supporting our older members, in this COVID time that has felt even more true. I know that everyone is struggling right now but Quaker Meeting has not been a place where I have turned to for support this year.” – parent

“Thank you. This filled a hole that was hurting, and I am deeply grateful.” – parent

What’s Next

After checking in with some parents to see whether a second round of support groups is needed, we are repeating the Quaker parent mutual support groups in 2021/2022. Registration is closed, but this page will be updated with an additional report sometime around April 2022, when this round of groups has finished.

If you are a Friend (or a member of any other faith tradition) wondering, “Could I start something like this?,” the answer is yes, please take anything from this idea that is helpful to you.  If you’d like more information, such as our facilitator training materials or somewhat-messy collection of resources, feel free to ask me.