Like many Boston-area women of a certain age, I reacted to the news that Isis Parenting was closing with a flood of nostalgia for a time in my life that I didn’t especially love. In the summer of 2004, shortly after my first child was born, I stumbled into a room with a group of sleep-deprived new mothers who were equally awestruck and terrified — and equally unschooled in the strange ways of infant carseats and lactation.
We had signed up for a class called “Great Beginnings,” which provided all sorts of useful technical assistance. I learned to hog-tie my daughter with a blanket, in a maneuver known as the “Super Swaddle,” and, miraculously, she slept. But the biggest gift Isis gave me was an abstract revelation. One day, at some point between the infant-massage session and the ritual airing of grievances, it occurred to me that what we were doing, together in a room, was reproducing our anthropological past.
Through most of human history, new motherhood was a collective enterprise, practiced in the company of mothers and sisters and aunts, a built-in community available, at all times, for advice, support, companionship, and complaints. (At least, that’s how it seemed after reading “The Red Tent.”)
The unnatural thing, which most of us were attempting without question, was to undertake parenthood alone, far from families and out-of-sync with friends, making the instant transition from busy worklife to quiet maternity leave. In a modern economy, new parenthood can be surprisingly isolating — and rife with new rules and standards that many grandparents find perplexing. It’s little surprise that we try to fill the void with expert information, plus stuff.
For people who haven’t been in this situation, the widespread lamentation over Isis’s closing seems strange and vaguely mockable. Yes, the parenting centers catered to a certain subset of new mothers, affluent enough to afford extended maternity leaves and facilitated mom-and-baby groups. The business model relied on a certain susceptibility to the retail sales pitch, and for awhile, it seemed fail-safe. A few years ago, I wandered into an Isis branch in Needham — the chain expanded quickly, and had just established beachheads in other states — and found, for sale, a leather baby bouncy chair.
If news reports are right, expensive gear might be part of the reason Isis failed. (Isis also forged partnerships with hospitals for education classes.) In a recession economy, you start to question the need for certain types of baby gadgets — or, at least, you seek out better deals online. That’s not such a bad thing. Human infants managed to survive for centuries without the wonders of slip-on baby shoes or teething-aid fashion bracelets.
But it doesn’t mean the need for a physical place like Isis disappears. At its best, it served as a safe haven for baby-changing and breastfeeding without judgment. It employed a good number of mothers with coveted part-time jobs.
And it was an antidote to isolation, a force whose power is hard to underestimate. Isolation is the reason so many baby pictures get posted to Facebook and Instagram. (Well before Vine, I took lots of exquisitely boring baby videos, largely to pass the time.) Isolation explains the rise of the “mommy blog” — which, these days, is often equal parts source of support and showcase for consumer products.
To some extent, isolation is something you outgrow as your kids get older. That’s another possible reason Isis failed. Like many, I didn’t frequent the place when my second child was born: My days were already filled with dropoffs and pickups, and I lacked the sense of panic that engulfed me the first time around. That’s not to say that modern parenthood is easy; absent social supports, it’s an exercise in cobbling things together and striking your own deals. But it doesn’t require so much facilitation.
But for a brief time — which feels, in retrospect, like a fever dream — you yearn for that old-school, proto-feminist sense of togetherness. Yes, there are ways to reproduce this without a price tag. Christine Koh, who runs the parenting portal Bostonmamas.com, suggests we can expect a flurry of Meet-Ups and town-sponsored baby groups to appear. But I don’t really regret that I once paid. There’s great value in being in a room with other people who understand.