Chances are you won't find this disease listed in any medical textbook. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people who believe it may be reaching epidemic proportions.
Early stages of the affliction, they say, are often marked by an increased sense of isolation and loneliness, followed by a dramatic decrease in vocabulary. Ordinarily intelligent, well-educated adults--usually women--find their everyday speech peppered with redundant usage of monosyllabic words, such as "Let's go bye-bye in the car-car." In acute cases, the person may have the uncontrollable urge in restaurants to walk over to a stranger's plate and cut his or her meat into tiny pieces.
The disease, for many, is called parenthood. And for those who know the true meaning of the terrible twos, or a lack of reliable child care, the symptoms that stem from long-term isolation are very real and rarely something to laugh about.
For the last 15 years, a tightly knit organization has been reaching out to overwhelmed parents, offering them a comforting and often sanity-saving message: Parenthood is not fatal, and can even be fun.
Creative Parenthood, or "CP" as its members refer to it, is a nonprofit organization of more than 200 families throughout the Valley. Its primary function, said Vice President Karen Barkin, is to support one another in the formidable task of meeting the day-to-day demands of raising children, and at the same time to help members maintain a sense of personal identity.
Meeting the Demands
"One of the things we find as parents is that it's very easy to lose a sense of who you are while you're meeting everyone else's demands," Barkin said. "Sometimes it simply gets too much. What Creative Parenthood is all about is giving parents a support system, an opportunity to network with other families, and an outlet for themselves as well as their children."
Although Creative Parenthood is a well-structured organization--staffed by a president, vice-president and two dozen positions on its board of directors--new members often stumble on it by chance. Trying to find Creative Parenthood in the phone book is a little like looking for Sesame Street on a road map. The group's "main office" is simply at the home of whoever happens to be president at the time.
"Word of mouth often is the group's best promotion," Barkin said, "although we intermittently distribute brochures to YWCAs, hospital maternity wards and pediatrician offices throughout the Valley." When its budget allows, she added, the group occasionally advertises in magazines published for new parents.
The all-volunteer organization has several different components. The play group committee schedules regular activities for up to seven children in the same age range, all living in the same area. Children meet about once a week in homes, and mothers get to take the afternoon off.
"The kids really get a chance to make friends with other children their own age," said play group director Liz Hecht-Ward. "These are the kinds of lasting friendships where one kid invites the same friends to his birthday party for six years in a row."
For mothers, the experience is often just as rewarding. "Believe me, when you have a first child and you know no one, or no one with babies, play groups can be very important to you," said Diane Hilty, a mother of two, who also has organized Creative Parenthood's weekly outings to the children's summer concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. "It's really a support system," she said.
Parents learn to better deal with family problems during the organization's "rap groups." These consist of six to eight meetings a year on a variety of topics. Recent ones have included "Food, Family and the 5 O'Clock Hour," where parents discussed the treacherous transition hour when the father or mother comes home from work at the exact time the children are apt to be hungry and tired; and "Choosing a Preschool," where representatives from two nursery schools discussed their philosophies and encouraged parents to ask questions and share their experiences.
"Sometimes just being able to tell another parent who's been through the wringer, 'My child is biting me,' and then to get some feedback about how to handle it is all you need," said board member Vickie Addley, mother of a 3-year-old son.
But when members need advice from the experts they can attend lectures the group schedules six times a year with authorities on parenting from local colleges and universities. "We've had everything from parent-effectiveness training, potty training, discipline and child development phases, to earthquake preparedness, how to encourage your child to brush his teeth and how art can be used as therapy," said Audrey Adams.
Topics that address early childhood development issues are repeated cyclically to meet the needs of new members with new babies, Adams said. Other subjects are suggested by members and frequently reflect current concerns of parents.