Lazy days cuddling with your newborn and spirited afternoons whiled away at the park sound like the picture-perfect way to raise a child.
But trust me, it gets old quickly. When you're alone in your house in the middle of a snowy day while your child refuses to nap, you're going to want someplace to go where everyone will understand the temper tantrum that's about to erupt. That's when playgroups come in handy.
If it weren't for my playgroup, I would have never known that the little boutique in Lincoln Park is the best place to find a pair of extra-wide shoes and that there's a secret preschool a few streets away that doesn't advertise but has the best program in the South Loop.
Can't find one? Start one
If you aren't already in a playgroup and have no idea where to find one, don't worry-it's super easy to start your own.
Kim Shaw, who lives in Chicago's South Loop, enrolled her daughter, Clare, in a local music class when she was just 6 months old.
"I thought it was a bit much, considering she barely moved back then, but it turned out to be the greatest thing we did," Shaw says. "We met babies all around the same age."
Turns out, those moms and babies were just as eager to meet other people in the neighborhood as Shaw was.
So she got everyone's contact information and invited them to form a playgroup, suggesting that if they knew other moms with similarly aged children, they could keep adding playgroup members.
"We would recruit others we met at the park or at Gymboree or wherever. If they wanted to join us, the more the merrier," she says.
Shaw set up a free Google calendar so that everyone in the group could suggest play dates, walks and outings to the zoo. The group of about 10 moms and toddlers has been meeting for just over a year, and they see each other at least twice a week.
Shaw's goal was to meet local stay-at-home moms with children of similar ages. But Anne Hoffman, of Northbrook, wanted to find a group that accepts children of all ages, since her two children are four years apart.
To find other people who wanted to join her group, Hoffman paid $72 to www.Meetup.com, the world's largest network of local groups. For that subscription cost, she was allowed to organize multiple groups.
Hoffman created Mom 'n' Kid Caring Club, a community service group for moms and children of all ages, and Chicagoveg Kids, a group for vegetarian and vegan parents.
"It was really easy to do," Hoffman says. "I have met some amazing moms, and my children have become friends with other kids. I'd suggest other moms find out what's important to them and start a group based on that."
Find common interests
The most important thing to do before starting a playgroup is to figure out what you want out of the group, says Kim Storey, who started a group via Meetup called Northshore New Moms Club.
"I think my biggest advice is that you should be yourself and make the club as unique as you are," Storey says. "As an organizer, you basically set the tone and the atmosphere of the group, so you want to make sure the group turns out to be what you want and are looking for. It's the worst feeling if you start a playgroup and don't love your playgroup."
Pauline Williams, creator of Bumbles Busy Ba-Bees Playgroup of Chicago, started her Meetup group when she was a stay-at-home mom and found herself always staying at home. She wanted to find other parents looking to explore the city with their children.
She says it's very important to realize the playgroup will take
up a lot of your time.
Williams understood that, since she was the founder of the group, she was expected to go to most or all the events on the calendar.
She also knew she'd have to keep finding new mothers to add to the group and continue the momentum.
"A few of our members I met in different places such as the grocery store and the pediatricians' office. You now share something in common with what may have been a complete stranger before," Williams says.
"Be careful not to come on too strong, though. It's slightly obvious when you walk up to a fellow parent and start commenting on how cute or adorable their baby is, but if you say something like, 'I've been eyeballing that stroller for a while now, what do you like about it?' or 'We're about to graduate to sippy cups too, what made you decide on that particular brand?' you will automatically be linking yourself to that person through common interest."
Once you start the group, you may find that your motives change. Shaw says she wanted to have a playgroup so she could have a reason to leave the house in the dead of winter. But the group quickly turned into much more than simply an excuse to get out.
"I feel like my girlfriends in the playgroup are my new work friends," she says. "We all come from different backgrounds and would never have met otherwise, but we have the babies in common. We are lucky to have these moms and babies in our lives because they keep us active and happy."
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and mom living in Chicago.