Thursday, April 19, 2018
Parenting & Relationships

'Mama Tribe' creates bonds beyond mommy wars

The mamas gather together, infants on hip and toddlers underfoot, but this is not a play date.

No one came to force small talk while the kids play.

The women here belong to the Tampa Mama Tribe. And tears or sunshine, they stand by each other. They nurture each other. Bonded by an "It takes a village" attitude, they defy the mommy wars concept.

"We are friends first," says 39-year-old Dora Smyka, artist, mother of two boys and founder of the Tribe. "I guess it's good our kids get along too."

On this day, Smyka welcomes a few Tribe mamas into her home, a townhouse where crocheted hammocks replace living room furniture. The women sit on the floor, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling abstract art, and unpack toys they brought for the littles to share. They check in with each other.

Toula Markopoulos, a 24-year-old earning her masters in psychology, is planning a backpacking trip through Europe, just her and 10-month-old daughter Josie.

"It's not crazy and you can totally do it," Smyka says to Markopoulos.

The other mamas chime in with travel tips.

•••

Abby Moore, 34, is mother to 4-year-old Bennet, 3-year-old Coen and baby girl Annabelle. She studied dance and theater at Bowling Green University. She spent time in Africa. There, she saw mamas wearing their babies and sharing parenting duties. The maternal love she witnessed, she never forgot.

Chelsea Castillo, 31, also a mother to three, works encouraging women through the birth process. She organizes Blessingways for the Tribe, events where women share stories and offer affirmations to pregnant mamas. She is a certified child birth educator.

Beth Creasey, a 25-year-old member of the Army National Guard, just returned from drill. She is expecting her second child. Following a traumatic hospital birth with her first, daughter Caroline, she found support in the Tribe.

The mamas help each other with child care. They support one another's small businesses. They swap maternity clothes like siblings. They bring birthday cakes when husbands forget.

When a fire left Gracie Rivera's family homeless, the Tribe rallied together. Members collected funds. They donated clothes, toys and food.

When Moore's mother fell ill and passed, mamas held her as she grieved.

When Castillo started selling children's accessories, the Tribe helped spread the word.

"Until I found the Tribe, I didn't know women could really even get along," Castillo says, holding her youngest, 2-year-old daughter Wren. "The Tribe is for us. It's about women empowering other women and it's beautiful."

Pregnancy. Miscarriage. Depression. Parenting anxiety. Domestic violence. The Tribe helps you through, mamas say.

And in the day-to-day, whether you're feeling overjoyed, want to punch something or you just want to hide in bed, the Tribe is there.

"I was pregnant, severely depressed and sleeping at a friend's house," Markopoloulos says, watching Josie crawl giggling to Miss Dora's snack table. "My dad had kicked me out. Most of my friends thought I should have an abortion. The Tribe supported me."

•••

A 2012 post by blogger Abby Theuring, known worldwide as the Badass Breastfeeder, inspired the group, Smyka says.

The post encouraged moms to find their 'tribe,' a group of likeminded women to serve as a support system and extended family tree.

"When I first became a mom, I didn't have mom friends to support me," Theuring, 40, says. "I had trouble with breastfeeding and I didn't know what to do. Looking back, it was a scary time."

Feeling lost, alone and doubting herself, Theuring turned to social media.

"Online, I connected with a few women and we became close," she says. "I was able to go to them for advice. It changed everything for me. I wrote the blog because I wanted to share how important it is to connect with other moms."

More than 300 groups in nine different countries popped up as a result. Theuring acquired more than 250,000 followers.

In the West, specifically the United States, women are tired of doing it solo, Theuring says.

"The way the modern world is set up, moms these days can feel really isolated," she says. "When you think of villages in Africa, where everyone helps everyone, and then the western world, where we don't really have any type of community set up."

Mamas such as Smyka, who practice attachment parenting, sometimes feel scrutinized in mainstream circles.

AP, a term coined by pediatrician William Sears, includes breastfeeding, co-sleeping and positive discipline practices.

In Tampa, Smyka visited local moms groups but felt out of place. At home, she sobbed. Her husband suggested she start her own group.

"At other meetups, I felt ostracized," Smyka says. "I breastfed and cloth diapered. I wore my baby. No one seemed to get it. I felt alone."

•••

The Tampa Mama Tribe began as a private Facebook group, a place for mothers to seek advice, vent frustrations and find comfort.

The closed online group now includes more than 250 women, spanning four Tampa Bay area counties.

Out of the online group, close bonds formed.

The core active members and admins meet regularly, at parks and coffee spots, one another's homes and the zoo. Sometimes, they bring the kids. Other times, they get together for nights out. They drink wine, eat fondue, listen to bands and make noise.

The mamas' interests, styles and personalities differ. There are working moms, work-at-home-moms and stay-at-home moms. Some members practice attachment parenting. Some do not. Some are religious. Some are not. The mamas differ on everything from fashion to politics.

Smyka, who owns apparel company Warhole Designs, is a fiery bottled-made redhead. She curses without shame. She vacations on rock-n-roll cruises, requires coffee and doesn't try to appear perfect.

"I yell sometimes," she says. "I make mistakes."

She also makes everything into a learning project for her sons, 6-year-old John and 4-year-old Orion. When they cook together, they practice math. For science class, they build robots. They dig into nature and read books exploring the human skeleton. They paint and dance on the bed.

•••

Smyka sacrifices personal time to keep the Tribe strong. When a mama has a need, she tries to help. She fits last minute babysitting into her busy schedule. She answers midnight phone calls from hysterical mamas.

And the members reciprocate.

"Dora created something that I think is very important to all the members including herself," husband Jim Smyka says. "It may have created stress and frustration at times for her and us, but the upside is far greater in my opinion. The amount of love and sharing in Dora's group has gone beyond my original expectations."

The Tribe offers refuge and reassurance, laughter and inspiration, Smyka says.

"When I created the group, I wanted it to be something where moms learned from one another, where they could feel safe and comfortable, and not be judged," she says. "It grew to become this beautiful sisterhood, which is what I wanted initially. But it took years to evolve into this."

"We all feel like we're failing as moms at some point or another," she says. "It is a learning process every day. The tribe gave me the courage and strength I needed as a mom. Without it, I don't think I would be as involved with my kids to the degree that I am. It has made me a better mom. I am more connected to my children because I know other moms."

In February 2016, I went online in search of a preschool homeschool co-op for my son. A friend added me to the Tampa Mama Tribe homeschool group and the Tampa Mama Tribe. At my first Tribe event, a trip to Sweetwater Organic Farm, I instantly felt welcome. The mamas offered me support and encouragement throughout my second pregnancy. They are always there when I need a listening here. The love and support the women show for each other is remarkable.

Contact Sarah Whitman at [email protected]

 
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