When Jenelle was seven months pregnant with her first child, her husband, Dave, went on medical leave due to post-traumatic stress disorder. He withdrew as he worked through the trauma he had experienced working as a 911 dispatcher.
“It was really, really hard on our family,” shared Jenelle. “It left me to carry a lot as he had checked out and wasn’t really present as I was about to have our first baby.”
During the final months of her pregnancy and newborn days, Jenelle relied on her village for support which included other moms she had met at the Archway Best for Babies group and staff like Liz, the group coordinator.
“I’ll never forget the first time I met Liz,” shared Jenelle. “She literally gave the shoes off her feet to another pregnant mom who had showed up to the group barefoot because her feet were so swollen, she couldn’t fit any of her shoes.”
“It was such a testament to the kind of people the Best for Babies staff are. It showed their kindness and how caring and compassionate you can be for other people.”
Dave was able to get treatment and in time was able to be fully present for Jenelle and their son. He started attending the group weekly and when it was time to graduate, he joined on as a volunteer, snuggling babies for therapy and a positive role model of a healthy father. Together, Dave and Jenelle used their experiences to mentor other parents going through the journey of pregnancy and parenthood.
“We’re pretty open and honest and want to help others,” shared Jenelle. “We can encourage them that sometimes life is really tough, but you will move on.”
Best for Babies
Best for Babies is a pregnancy outreach program that offers support during pregnancy and six months post-partum. Parents learn about prenatal and infant nutrition and have conversations on shared experiences and struggles.
“Pregnancy and parenting are so romanticized. I wish that all of us as new parents understood how hard it can be,” shared Tania, the supervisor of Best for Babies and the Family Centre. “It doesn’t all come naturally and there’s so much we don’t know.”
“Having a group of parents at similar stages allows parents to learn what’s normal, offer potential solutions to common issues and just provide the sense that they are not alone.”
Jenelle added, “When you have kids the same ages, there’s more to talk about and you bond more. I never felt like there were any expectations in the group. Just show up, be yourself, and you will get something out of it.”
Parents are provided prenatal vitamins, grocery store gift cards, prenatal education, breastfeeding support, and referrals to navigate resources in community. The staff partner with the Archway Abby Dads program to provide a father support worker to expectant parents.
Staff help families with baby essentials and pass along donations of diapers, formula and clothing.
“We have limited funding so all the extra items we give our participants is thanks to the generosity of our community. Generous donors help us extend our reach and this makes such a difference for families that need support with essentials,” shared Tania.
“Some parents aren’t sure about attending a group at first and feel anxious about making connections. We support them with the basics like food, diapers, and other necessities as we work toward building a relationship where they feel safe sharing their journey,” said Tania.
A participant not comfortable attending groups shared that “I am super shy and still struggling with certain things, but the fact alone that the staff regularly still check in with me, even if I don’t answer the text as I just mentally don’t know how to, is absolutely amazing!”
After parents graduate from the Best for Babies program they can transition to the Family Centre groups which offer drop-in groups for families with children up to age six.
Parenting During COVID
During most of COVID, the groups met online. The online groups improved the accessibility for some parents while others found it challenging.
“It’s hard to concentrate when you’ve got kids running around. Some people feel hesitant for others to see their personal space or feel they don’t have the supports needed to be online,” stated Tania. “Our program is so relationship-based and we had to recreate an entire way of being and serving to maintain the connections.”
For others, the online group allowed them a sense of community during an isolated time. One mom who moved to Alberta was able to continue attending groups while she built a network in her new province.
While the groups were largely online except for a few outdoor activities, staff showed up each day and coordinated deliveries and pick-ups of baby essentials. For parents lacking access to food and not comfortable leaving the house, they coordinated deliveries of Archway Food Bank hampers.
The rising cost of living and housing is a constant challenge for most group participants. “It’s not just lower-income families, we also see middle-income families in crisis, and they don’t qualify for a lot of supports,” said Tania.
Without the home visits from nurses over COVID and family, some parents didn’t have the support needed to breastfeed which then added the cost of formula to their tight budgets.
“When you’re paying $1600 a month for a basement suite, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the expenses of raising a child,” said Tania.
As the pandemic continued, staff noticed more relationship conflict as couples were largely confined to their homes. An unfortunate mix of isolation, financial difficulties, general COVID anxiety along with changing parental responsibilities meant a lot more support and referrals were needed.
Another COVID challenge was the missed socialization for many “pandemic babies” and their parents.
“We look forward to returning to in-person groups so these children can play together, take risks outside of their home environment, and develop their language and social skills in a comfortable, safe setting with others,” said Tania.
One child cried and clung to mom the first few times meeting Liz, one of the few strangers she had seen in her life. “She didn’t scream at me last week, so we’re making progress,” laughs Liz.
South Asian Group
Best for Babies runs three groups. One for those expecting, another for new parents and one in Punjabi for South Asian parents.
“While so many aspects of parenting are universal, South Asian communities often live with several generations, which can bring unique generational clashes,” shared Monica, the South Asian Best for Babies group facilitator.
“There are also many benefits to living communally and we found that some of our South Asian parents had an easier time accessing the online groups because they had other caregivers in their home which allowed them to focus on the conversations.”
While attendance at the other classes dropped, the South Asian groups saw almost twice as many parents as normal joining online.
Another reason parents shared for attending online was improved accessibility when they might not have a car or license. They appreciated getting useful information in the comfort of their homes and felt more comfortable attending a culturally specific program.
One participant shared, “I joined last week, and it made me so happy. I have never looked at the clock since I got pregnant and had my baby. But now I can’t stop looking at my clock and waiting for 10 am when the group starts.”
Another participant, who immigrated from India three years ago shared that she learned things she didn’t know including what postpartum depression was and that “this knowledge helped me to understand it’s normal and I’m not the only one. We’ve been given diapers and gift cards and I wish this program went to five years. It’s not a program, it’s like our second family.”
The group usually meets at the Gurdwara temple and is exploring virtual and in-person groups in the fall.
Despite the last year and a half of upheaval and constantly changing guidelines, Tania says there were some positive things that came out of COVID and “If we can live through this, we can live through anything!”
Jenelle’s 2nd Pregnancy
Jenelle’s second pregnancy was marred by the pandemic and a devastating cancer diagnosis for her husband while five months pregnant.
After having surgery, Dave beat cancer and they welcomed their second son in June 2020. Only two weeks after the birth, Dave’s cancer returned. As he underwent chemo and radiation for seven weeks, Archway staff brought meals and supported them.
Jenelle shared, “I love that Archway is an open door, even through COVID. I can’t tell you how many days there were that I had dropped my husband off at the hospital and I had nowhere for me and my baby to go. It was winter with tight pandemic restrictions so we couldn’t be outside or enter a friend’s home and I could only spend so much time walking around stores.
“Liz and Cindy always welcomed me to sit in the Family Centre room. Some days I would just cry in utter disbelief of what I was going through, and other days I would help them go through donations while picking out a thing or two that I still needed for my baby.”
Jenelle and Dave were able to get some diapers, wipes, and many other essential baby items that they needed especially when we were in a financial rut from the medical challenges.
“The fact that I could always go there made my husband’s cancer journey so much more bearable and it helped me stay strong for my two sons who needed me to carry them through this.”
Dave is now in remission, in a new career and the family is again using their experiences to support other parents.
“We don’t want a pity party. I want to be able to share ‘this brought me through, this was really encouraging for me and now this is something I can do for you.’”
Jenelle journaled throughout the pandemic as a form of therapy and is now working on a book on their experiences. The title is still undecided but the message she wants to share is that “you need a community, a village. It’s a beautiful thing what community can be. Through all of our crazy last few years, I wasn’t alone. We couldn’t have gotten through what we did without our circle and our faith.”
“Overall, the Family Centre and Best for Babies has been life-changing. We have learned about grace and compassion, we have met lifelong friends, and we have learned how to better ourselves as parents while having grace on ourselves for only knowing what we know.