For many couples today, having a baby can be a lonely experience. The trend towards smaller families and the isolation stemming from the lack of the extended family (or even a relative that lives nearby) means that many women and their partners find they know few people who are going through the same tumultuous period in their lives, otherwise known as pregnancy.
As soon as a pregnancy is achieved, the whole focus of one’s life changes. Suddenly the emphasis is on families, babies and children, rather than late night parties, weekend sporting events and drinks in the pub after work. Coming to grips with the sudden changes in lifestyle and interests can be a shock, and even though it may fulfil longed-for dreams there is often concern about “how will we cope?” and “what is normal?” that can undermine the pleasures to be gained from the new experiences.
Joining a prenatal group of some kind – an exercise class, aquarobics, or an antenatal education program, can be a big help in the adjustment process. The primary benefit comes from becoming part of a human group with a common goal: that of having a baby and becoming a family. There is also the chance to meet other couples and make new friends, especially helpful if one’s single and childless friends are no longer on your wavelength!
The powerful nature of the social benefits of the prenatal group needs to be recognised by the facilitator. If participants gained nothing more from attending a series of prenatal classes than making a close friend and ally then it would be worthwhile. While this may not happen for everyone, the leader has a responsibility to foster the development of social networks. You may not be able to force people to bond with each other, but you must at least give them the chance to try!
If one of your overall aims for the group is the opportunity for social networking, then some specific objectives and teaching strategies will be needed to enable it to happen. You could try:
- Paying particular attention to the format and activities in the first session. People form an impression/opinion of others within 7 seconds of meeting them, so this first introduction to the group (and to you) will be crucial. The way you establish the ground rules and set the social agenda will create a blueprint for further interaction within the group. The environment is important.
- Setting the room up in a welcoming way: chairs in a circle, good light, warmth and as informal an atmosphere as you can create.
- Have your chair part of the circle – not “out in front”.
- Be early and have everything ready so you can concentrate on welcoming everyone. A warm greeting, cheerful smile and relaxed manner does much to put people at ease. Imagine you are welcoming them to your house for dinner instead of a class. How would you help them relax?
- Think about what you are wearing and how you relate to each individual. This is not the time for uniforms or your best “I am the teacher/expert” expression!
- Plan an introduction activity where everyone can contribute. There are many ways this can be done, and the book “Icebreakers and Warmups” by Heather Small (available though ACE Graphics) offers a wonderful collection of ideas. It takes most people some time to learn names, so set aside time at the start of each session for a different icebreaker game until you can be sure that everyone knows the other’s names. Name tags also help, especially in the early sessions.
- Incorporate at least one small group activity into each session with some of these groups being mixed and some single sex. Dividing up the women and men into separate groups for an activity in the first session sends a message that you understand that the men in the group have a different perspective which needs to be recognised and respected. This will also help the men to talk about a topic of mutual interest (that is not football!) and enable them to begin bonding as fathers.
- Chairs in a circle is the accepted way of signalling that group members are encouraged to interact. You’ll notice, however, that people always tend to sit in the same seats within the circle and that this can restrict their interactions with the others. Try mixing them up by sitting in a different seat yourself – this will force a rearrangement and shake up the group dynamics.
- Make sure there is a refreshment break in the middle of each session to enable casual conversations. People generally feel much more relaxed if they are eating and drinking. In the first session, bringing this break forward in the program, or even starting with a refreshment can break the ice effectively and encourage general conversation.
- With the group’s permission, compile a list of the names, address and phone numbers of the members for distribution to everyone. This will facilitate contact outside the group and tells people that you are hoping they will stay in contact. Alternatively, the participants may like to compile their own list, but there is a risk that the shy ones may be left out, so taking on this role yourself has its advantages.
- Plan a reunion for the group and let everyone know that this is part of the program. Getting together after the big event is an important part of closure for the group and also provides an opportunity for planning on-going social contacts (some groups just can’t bear to stop seeing each other). This reunion can be planned in advance for a particular date or you could offer to set a date yourself and notify everyone once you know all the babies have been born. This means that each couple will have to phone you with their news and offers the added benefit of enabling you to find out some details of the birth in private and debriefing as necessary before the group comes together again.
Not every prenatal group will forge strong bonds for the rest of their lives. The main thing is to make sure that you have offered every opportunity for this to happen by facilitating appropriate activities and making social interactions an important part of your teaching plan. Put yourself in their shoes and evaluate the group through their eyes – how comfortable are they, is there anything you could do to increase their participation and enable them to make a friend or two within the group? It is not unlike the role you would adopt in any other social setting (for example a big party) where you want people to mix and enjoy themselves. What they get up to after that is their business!
Published in The Practising Midwife Vol 2 No 4, April 1999