As a mother of four, Marlene Ackermann was quite familiar with the usual "mommy-and-me" classes offered by churches, synagogues and community centers, where mothers (or dads) and their babies gathered for socializing and discussion.
But with her third child, Brandon, it was different. Brandon has cerebral palsy. While other 2-year-olds are walking, running and talking, Brandon can barely sit by himself. Ackermann tried taking Brandon to a regular mommy-and-me group, but "it was the worst thing I ever did."
"I had to constantly explain what was wrong with my baby," she said, cuddling Brandon on her lap. "Then a lot of the mothers wouldn't talk to me because they didn't know what to say or they were afraid to be near us."
So when Ackermann heard about the class for children with special needs at Temple Judea in Tarzana, she was so excited she nearly wept.
For years, Natalie Smolens, director of Temple Judea's Parenting Center, said she dreamed about offering such a class, a place where mothers could share a normal activity with their handicapped child.
Class for Moms
According to Smolens, who organized the Parenting Center 13 years ago, "Moms with special- needs kids didn't feel comfortable in other classes because they couldn't share the same things other moms could." Like rejoicing when Brandon got up "on all fours" to crawl, or accepting that maybe you'd never see your daughter wear a prom dress.
While there are many special services for handicapped children, as well as support groups for parents, Smolens said, most are therapeutic. The Temple Judea class, she said, is unique because it is as much for the moms as for their offspring.
"Wherever these children go, they're treated differently," Smolens said. "Here, they're treated like any other toddler.
"These moms needed a place that was not geared only to the medical and physical needs of the child, but to the social development of the child and the emotional needs of the mother."
The format of the 1 1/2-hour weekly class, which first met last February with six youngsters with various disabilities, is similar to mommy-and-me classes for children up to age 3. The classes are designed for parent and child to socialize through games, music and snack periods, with independent play time for the children while the parents talk.
"This class is as normal an experience as the child can tolerate," Smolens said, walking into the sunny, rectangular room. A flowered, lavender sheet covers a thick floor mat in the center of the room. Brightly colored toys beckon.
Philip, a gregarious 23-month-old with Down's syndrome, was the first to arrive and promptly began chewing on a large snap-lock bead. A shape sorter, stacking toys, a rocking horse and a yellow rocking duck, two small slides, a mirror, a wagon and some dolls are scattered about. Sitting in a "sensory box," a child can stroke, poke and pour different things each week--this week beans, perhaps next week cotton balls.
There is no "special" equipment, and the only odd item is Deanne's walker, which sits unused in a corner. Deanne, a near-drowning victim, is too impatient to use the walker, her mom said, smiling as the girl happily did a fast crawl from one activity to another.
The first 15 to 20 minutes of class is unstructured playtime while everyone straggles in. "We encourage them to come on time," Smolens said, "but it's hard enough to get out of the house with the usual baby paraphernalia of diapers and bottles, let alone some of the extra time these kids need."
Gathering everyone in a circle on the mat, teachers Tammy Theodore and Holly Dinur, ably aided by a green hand puppet, sing a "hello" song, greeting each child by name. After a few more songs ("Old McDonald" is a definite favorite) and some fun with musical instruments, mothers and babies participate in a group activity--anything from playing with a big parachute to blowing bubbles.
Today, they are singing "Jack and Jill" while rolling down a soft, vinyl-covered yellow wedge, with Theodore and Dinur assisting. This is a crowd pleaser, especially for Deanne, who returns for a second and third turn.
The best part of the morning, the mothers agree, is the discussion period. While the children play, occasionally crawling back to the comfort of a warm lap, the women explore such questions as: How do you handle people who always ask what is wrong with your baby? How do you deal with your anger, your fears, your self-hatred and guilt? How do you cope with the stress this child brings to a marriage?
"The need is so overwhelming for parents to have someone to talk to," Smolens said. "They need someplace to express their negative feelings."