I was asked to come along to a health visitors meeting last year to talk about Mothers Uncovered. I took along Heidi, one of my new facilitators, who is so very passionate about what we do. As she talked about what the group had done for her, I couldn’t help noticing that while some of those present looked supportive and interested, others did not. ‘We run groups,’ piped up one defensively. They wanted to know why we charged people to attend and how much a group cost to run. I said about £800-900, depending on the cost of the venue. There was much teeth-sucking at that – the groups they run are free. Yes, but the salaries of those who run them are paid and they are held in venues where there is no charge and an administrator to deal with enquiries and publicise the activities. I would love to offer free courses, but the facilitators have to earn a living too. As we have now had to start charging for courses we can no longer run them at children’s centres, which is ridiculous as these have the best environment for them, not to mention a ready made clientele.
Some of them clearly felt more comfortable once they had pigeonholed Mothers Uncovered as a 'creative group', therefore probably a bit hippyish and insubstantial, not like the ‘real’ work they did. Yes, there's an arts element to what we do, but arts therapy is an extremely well established and respected tradition across a wide range of spheres. We were rather taken aback by the hostility; after all, we’d been invited to attend. So was the person who had invited us, who said somewhat embarrassedly, that she didn’t understand the attitudes of some of those present. I didn’t have the presence of mind to defend our position fully at that point having not anticipated the attitude, but I can here.
What Mothers Uncovered and many other fantastic groups offer is peer support and the building of a community. This means that those who run it are not present as experts who are teaching the group skills or imparting wisdom, but as someone with a similar experience. As it says on our publicity; ‘We are not perfect mothers. We certainly don’t want to tell you how to be mothers. We are going through it all too. In short, we are just like you.’ Women attending our groups begin to feel less isolated, they start to take ownership of their lives and their decisions and they want to give back to the community that has helped them. Of course it is essential to have the statutory services there – many people are in need of medication and specialist counselling and the majority of those who contributed to the report we commissioned were very grateful for the care that the NHS had provided. However, if the peer support services were given better prominence, (maybe sharing venues with the NHS?) and were supported themselves, then the massive burden placed on the NHS would ease and we might have the ‘Big Society’ that Cameron yarps on about without a clue as to how to achieve it.