Laughter hung in the air over Sunday lunch at Debbie Lesser’s Chilmark home as a group of women traded stories about their children. It had been more than 30 years since the group had met weekly as young mothers.
With colic, breastfeeding and all the other things associated with new motherhood well in their past (though some are now experiencing these things as grandmothers), the women came together 33 years after their first meeting on the Island. They all had their children in 1980, and met weekly to vent, cry, share stories and support each other.
“I knew nothing,” recalled Elise Elliston, “other than I can’t go through this by myself.”
In 1979, Rochelle Mayer, an early childhood development and education expert who now leads the National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health, was looking for subjects for a project on babies’ first year. With the blessing of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, she placed an advertisement in the Gazette looking for new mothers.
Debra Koines saw the ad and replied. “I remember not knowing anybody — none of my friends were married or had children or anything — and I thought, who am I going to talk to? My family didn’t live here and I knew nothing,” she said. “I called up [Mrs. Mayer] and said, thank God!”
The group met every week at each other’s houses. They contributed to Mrs. Mayer’s book Beginning Together: A Diary of Discovery for You and Your Baby. The book captured interviews from the mother’s group and their experiences of their baby’s first year, and provides space for the reader’s own documentation.
The book, now out of print, is being turned into a mobile application.
“We never missed a meeting,” Mrs. Mayer said at the Sunday lunch.
“It was the only place I knew I would be accepted with a screaming baby,” said Marion Hammond.
Mrs. Hammond’s son Jared today works at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard. Mrs. Elliston’s daughter Heather was born with Down syndrome and now lives off-Island, working for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“I always thought God must have known who to give that child to,” Mrs. Koines told Mrs. Elliston. “You were so strong.”
Mrs. Koines’s daughter Erica lives in Brooklyn and works for a high-end fashion designer. She had a baby over the winter.
“Her experience was nothing like ours,” she said. “It was so different back then — our houses were unfinished, we borrowed stuff, gave each other things, handed down high chairs, and we were fine,” she added.
“We had each other and we talked to each other,” said Susan Shea, another mother in the group. Mrs. Shea is now learning how to be a grandmother.
“I follow her lead,” she said, of her daughter.