You can love that new baby more than anything and be absolutely enthralled by their new life joining yours. But the postpartum months are still hard. They can also be isolating, overwhelming, and be some of the most challenging days of your entire life.
Enter Mama Bears. Founded by Melissa Engle, Mama Bears mission is to support mom with zero judgement.
I first met Melissa in a birthing class at Family Picnic in February 2015. After our babies were born, only a few months postpartum, we began meeting up every 4-6 weeks with a few other new moms. All our children were all just weeks apart in age and it gave us all a minute to connect outside the house, while we figured out what it meant to have a kid.
I don’t think any of us mentioned it until years later, but we were all silently struggling in one way or another in those days. This may have been the glue that kept us together, it certainly bonded us in unexpected ways. We learned that while each of us approached life differently, we respected one another and enjoyed the growing friendship. Years later, I’m really honored to call Melissa one of my most favorite mom buddies.
These days Melissa continues to inspire me as the creator of Mama Bears. She brings together community, creates a supportive environment, while caring for others. No simple feat, but one you could either seek out for yourself or bring to your very own neighborhood.
Introducing Melissa Engle, Head Mama Bear.
Julia: What is Mama Bears Chicago?
Melissa: We are a neighborhood specific group. Once a month I open my home to our neighborhood group of mamas and there is no pressure to do/talk about anything. Moms can bring their baby if they need/want, or leave baby at home if they need a break. There is no agenda. We just hang out and talk about anything that we need to vent, share, ask for, get advice on or complain about. It’s a 100% judgement free zone. Being a new mom is a very isolating, lonely and difficult time. Having a couple other moms, in your neighborhood, whom you can connect with in person, even once a month, is a wonderful way to be reminded that we are not alone and there is support right in your neighborhood if and when you need it.
Julia: What motivated you to create Mama Bears?
Melissa: After my daughter was born I struggled with PPD/PPA for 18 months. My husband and I don’t have any family in the Midwest so I didn’t have a lot of built in support. And it’s incredibly hard to ask for help as a new mom. You need help with basically everything and the question “what can I do to help” is overwhelming so I just kept feeling like I had to figure it out as I went and make it work. I don’t want any other moms to go through that. It’s hard asking for help as a new mom, you feel like you should have it figured out, or everyone else has enough going on in their own lives and would be burdened if you ask, so many new moms won’t ask for help. With Mama Bears, the help is offered. You don’t have to ask.
Julia: Tell us more about the Mama Bears Meal Train.
Melissa: One of the hardest things to do when you have a new baby is feed yourself. When I was a brand new mom I remember being overwhelmed and stressed every day around 4:30/5pm thinking about what to do for dinner. Plus, it’s time consuming and I was exhausted by that time of the day. With the Mama Bears meal train, I reach out and find the new moms in our neighborhood and invite them to join at the beginning of the month. I send them a short questionnaire about food preferences, days/time that work best and a few other things to get to know mom & family. Then I share the document with our “Mama Bear helpers” – the moms in our neighborhood who are graciously volunteering to sign up and bring a new mom a meal. When you sign up, you’re bringing one meal in one week of the month. That’s it! One meal a month. It’s a very minimal time commitment but it makes a huge impact on the new mom & family. I encourage the helper mom to make enough for at least one round of leftovers. Also, it does not have to be a home cooked meal. This isn’t about us showing off our cooking skills, or creating pressure for the helper moms. It’s about taking the pressure off new mom once a week. And by keeping the groups neighborhood specific we are helping new mom meet other moms close by, and making it easy for the helper moms so they don’t have too far to travel when they help out. Right now both our groups are running meal trains when there are moms to serve.
Julia: Which Chicago neighborhoods host these gatherings?
Melissa: I run the Lincoln Square group and earlier this year helped a mama in Logan Square start a group. I am working with a South Loop mama who wants to start her own group, and if any one else wants to, I am happy to help start groups in other neighborhoods/cities. I envision a day when every neighborhood in Chicago has their own Mama Bears group.
Julia: Do the mama helpers do more than bring a meal?
Melissa: It’s really up to the helper and the new moms…but yes! Even more helpful than a meal, I encourage our helper moms to plan on visiting with the new mom for at least 20 minutes. I want this to be more than a meal delivery service. We are trying to foster a sense of community and connection. Food is a great start, and I encourage helper moms to be open and see if there’s anything they can do while they are visiting, like hold the baby, tidy up a little, fold laundry, ask mom if she wants to take a shower or a walk. We are there to check on & support Mom first and foremost. Most people, when visiting a new mom/baby, are focused on the baby. I get it – babies are really cute! But mom needs some love and attention and check ins too. And I feel like other moms are the best at that…especially moms in your neighborhood whom you don’t have any other relationship or responsibility to. There’s no familial pressure, it’s just one neighborhood mom checking on another.
Julia: What’s your mission and vision for Mama Bears Chicago?
Melissa: I’m most proud that a good number of our new moms who signed up to receive meals in the beginning, are now turning around and becoming helper moms. It’s creating a truly beautiful community of support. Our mission is to support mom. When you’re pregnant, it’s all about you. When the baby comes, it’s all about the baby and mom kind of gets forgotten, but mom has just been through the most excruciating mental, emotional and physical trauma. She needs support. Our mission is to take care of mom so she can take care of her baby. Everyone wants to hold the new baby, someone needs to hold the new mom. That’s Mama Bears. I would love to have a Mama Bears group in every neighborhood in Chicago. My dream is to someday have a beautiful website with free neighborhood specific resources in a centralized place so mom can spend less time googling things and more time taking care of herself without having to travel very far.
Julia: If one was inspired to create a Mama Bears group how would they go about doing so?
Melissa: I’d love to help! Email me and let’s find a time to chat.
Julia: How do you recharge after a hard day of parenting?
Melissa: Wine and Netflix. Or tea and Netflix. but usually Netflix. Sometimes I take a bath, sometimes I see friends, mostly though, I like to be in my pajamas by 8pm.
Julia: What’s the most challenging thing about balancing parenthood with everything else?
Melissa: Being fully present in one thing at a time. I used to think I could send a few quick work emails or return a phone call while I was home with Josie fulltime, and I very quickly learned that I when I try to multitask work and parenting, I do everything poorly. So I started shutting off work when she’s home with me. And I work more fully when she’s at school. It’s made me get better at scheduling and respecting my time when I’m in mom mode vs work mode. I even schedule time to work on Mama Bears stuff in my calendar. My husband and I have a family meeting on Monday nights after Josie goes to bed so we can connect, look at our schedules for the week, plan dinners for the week and hopefully find at least one date night a month. It doesn’t work 100% of the time – nothing does when you’re a mom – but it helps. There are always things that throw off the balance. It’s more like just trying to stay on the tightrope. Sometimes I lean a little more to one side, sometimes I fall off. And then maybe it’s time for a glass of wine and some Netflix.
Julia: How do you show yourself self-care?
Melissa: I never really had a good self-care practice until after I came out of the PP fog. Now it’s one of my favorite things to share & speak about. My favorite self-care practice is waking up 30 mins before my daughter. I learned pretty quickly that I needed to start my day on my time and my terms or I would be grumpy right from the start. I need a little time in the morning to do whatever I want – read, scroll through Instagram, drink coffee…before she wakes up. If I can start the day on my terms, I’ll be in a much better place when she wakes up to be there for her and her needs. I also became a bath person not too long ago. Those are pretty great.
Mama Bears Chicago can be found and reached on Facebook and Instagram.
Whatever stage you’re in: carrying that baby, waiting for baby to get here, holding a newborn, or juggling an almost toddler with everything else life throws your way, there’s someone out there to be a resource. Never forget, you are strong and capable and worthy of what’s in your heart. No matter what you’re facing, you have what it takes to get through this time but groups like Mama Bears can help make it easier.
Thanks, Julia is also happy to assist. Offload all the stuff so you can make the time to get out to a Mama Bears gathering. Or use us to find additional resources to put you first so you have the emotional, mental, and physical energy to be the mama you want to be.
To learn more, contact me.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
- What resources did you find to help yourself through your postpartum?
- What’s one insight you learned from Melissa’s Q&A with Thanks, Julia?
Leave a comment below and let us know. Share as much detail as you can. Your story may be just what someone needs to gain a little more hope.