four women stand in a bright, book-lined space. they are chatting amiably.
Moms talk and nosh at the Nest, Peninsula JCC’s new space for parents

Building a social ‘nest’ so parents don’t have to go it alone

Tearful new moms regularly stopped by her office, telling of their loneliness and expressing doubts about their mothering skills and ability to cope.

Many had just dropped an older sibling off at preschool, and were exhausted and dreading a day at home alone with an infant. Some were from overseas, and didn’t know anyone in the Bay Area with whom they could confide.

That’s when Stephanie Levin, chief engagement and innovation officer at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, started dreaming of creating a welcoming space for new mothers to share experiences and emotions.

“In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more moms just struggling with postpartum issues, with feeling isolated,” she said. “And I know women are reluctant to ask for help the second time around.”

Levin was interim director of the PJCC preschool in 2012-13 when the moms started dropping by her office. She wanted to create a place for them, but didn’t have the funds until the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation made the idea a reality with a two-year grant of $110,000.

Now the PJCC is offering the Nest, which opened this month in the preschool’s library. On a recent morning, new mothers — some with infants, some on their own — mingled with expectant moms and others over bagels and coffee. A couple of new dads had dropped by earlier in the morning.

“You can come as you are, we don’t care if you’ve showered, if you’re in your pajamas,” Levin said. “I want them to feel like they have a place to belong to, that the journey of parenting is not something they should do alone.”

The Nest is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 9 to 10 a.m. It’s free and open to the public, though most of the visitors are expected to be parents who have just dropped a child off at the preschool.

Programs may be added in the future, such as a visit by a lactation consultant or yoga and wellness classes. A staff person will always be on hand, whether to answer questions or shmear cream cheese on a bagel for a mom whose hands are full.

Come as you are, we don’t care if you’ve showered, if you’re in your pajamas.

Nest coordinator Laura Johnson, a doula for 15 years, came to the Bay Area two decades ago from Liverpool, England, and said she remembers what it was like to be in a new place with no support group of family or friends.

“A lot of moms around here are transplants from far away, so it’s important just to have a space where you can sit and connect,” she said. “I think they’re just really tired and isolated. They might have a partner at home for a few weeks, but then they go back to work.”

Levin said one of the goals of the Nest is to foster the idea of parenting from a Jewish perspective, such as discussing rituals and holidays — from lighting candles to singing Jewish lullabies to newborns. That information is especially important, she said, because there are so many Bay Area Jewish interfaith and multicultural families in which at least one partner did not grow up with Jewish traditions.

“We really wanted to create a space for women to think about parenting Jewishly. Those discussions about bringing Judaism into your home begin before a child is born,” she said.

“Judaism has such a tremendous value on being together, and that’s what I want this place to be. The tradition has a lot to say about the value of community. Raising our children is something that needs to be done in a community.”

That’s one of the reasons the Federation made the Nest a grant recipient.

“To be part of a Jewish community, the ‘fourth trimester’ is really when connections are made,” said Janet Harris, the Federation’s director of early childhood education. “And it’s a focus for us to empower parents to be their children’s teachers.”

The Nest is housed in a modular building, though a window was added and new furniture was installed in the library to make it more welcoming. Levin said.

“I had been dreaming of having a space like this for four or five years and couldn’t afford it,” she said. “That’s what a JCC is all about — when you’re falling apart, we’re going to open our arms to embrace you.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.