One recent cold November night, a small meeting room in the Mount Horeb Public Library is warm and inviting - and packed. Over the course of an hour, 19 women trail in, many carrying babies or chasing young children, most wearing the familiar fatigued look of parents at the end of a long day.
Still, they're eager to speak up when asked to introduce themselves. They come from several communities in rural Dane and neighboring counties, and all have children ranging from one week old (in attendance) to nearly grown. Many are stay-at-home moms; others have their own small businesses. Still others work outside the home as nurses, chiropractors, social workers.
They speak of their interest in nutrition, alternative medicine, sustainable living, gentle parenting - and also, almost to a woman, laughingly confess to taking a guilty pleasure in junk food. A sense of camaraderie arises among the women, most of whom have never met each other.
This is the first meeting of the South Central Wisconsin chapter of the Holistic Moms Network (HMN). A national organization with over 120 chapters, HMN was founded in 2002 by a group of New Jersey women looking for support for parenting practices that are often outside the mainstream. And while many of their ideas are drawn from the past, the network has one eye trained on the future.
The local chapter got its start last summer as a result of conversations between three women at different stages of the parenting journey - in fact, one has yet to have children. Brenda Trudell, a Mount Horeb chiropractor, found that her patients who were parents had many questions about health and wellness, ranging from nutrition to alternative health care and concerns about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
She wanted to give these parents a chance to share information and resources. "I also wanted to develop a support network that would be available when I have children of my own," she says.
Trudell enlisted her patient Katie Helwig, also from Mount Horeb, as a co-leader. Helwig, with a 2-year-old and another child on the way, felt that her parenting philosophy was at odds with that of many of her acquaintances, and there were many issues she didn't feel comfortable talking about with them. She found some support from workers at a local health food store, but felt the need for more peers to share information with.
In previous generations, Helwig points out, the kind of intentional community provided by HMN wouldn't be necessary. "My grandmother had 13 children, most born at home. A midwife was always available for the birth. Everybody breastfed. Now we need to seek out support for these practices."
Trudell and Helwig found a representative from an older parenting generation in their co-leader, Lisa Wachholz, a retired nurse-midwife and current instructor at the UW School of Nursing. A self-described "holistic grandma," she says that the births of her two young granddaughters made her realize "how difficult it is for the current generation and how many barriers there are to healthy living. There are so many toxins in the environment, so many toys are made of plastic instead of wood, the quality of food is so low."
Wachholz saw in the network a potential resource for her daughter, Emily Gauger, and other parents who were trying to parent in what she describes as a more mindful style. Mindfulness, she believes, is the most important factor in holistic living: "being aware of the impact of your decisions on how your child develops physically and emotionally, being aware of your environment and all the factors that influence our health."
In some ways, Wachholz sees the interest in more natural lifestyles as coming full circle, back to the healthier lifestyles of our predecessors. "My mother grew up in northern Wisconsin, and they ate nothing but natural food. There was nothing processed at all." In the 1970s, when Wachholz was raising her own children, there was plenty of processed food around, but Wachholz was part of the "back-to-the-land" movement of the late '60s and early '70s. "All our friends from college were doing it. We moved out to the country, grew our own food, milked goats, had chickens, an organic garden."
Now Gauger, of Belleville, looks to her mother's example. She feeds her family minimally processed, organic foods as much as possible. She nurses her children for an extended period and uses cloth diapers. They practice attachment parenting, which calls for parents to stay close to their children and develop a strong bond with them to protect their emotional health. She does feel that these practices have isolated her somewhat in her community: "I'm looking forward to being connected to like-minded parents" in the group.
At the introductory meeting, members are asked to introduce themselves by stating both their favorite holistic practice and their favorite non-holistic practice - this is where junk food ranks high - to make the point that no one is living a perfectly holistic life and the group's goal is to support rather than to judge.
Overall, the group is not about conforming to a particular standard of parenting, but about trusting your instincts as a parent and taking greater responsibility for the health of your children and family.
The term "holistic" generally refers to the pursuit of wellness by addressing the needs of the whole person - physical, mental and spiritual. But HMN has chosen not to strictly define which practices constitute holistic parenting, so as not to narrow the group's focus and appeal. HMN "welcomes all individuals and families interested in natural living, health and wellness, mindful parenting, a sustainable environment and better balance in life."
The word "moms" in the group name is a matter of some controversy; fathers, grandparents and other family members are welcome to join the group and participate fully, but some members feel the name may prevent men from feeling comfortable attending. And others feel there's value in having a group primarily for women, who might not want to speak freely about some issues around men.
The network provides a variety of resources: Monthly meetings will focus on a particular topic, such as natural childbirth or nutritional supplements, and offer discussions, guest speakers and other presentations; playgroups and family gatherings may be offered. The group also provides an email newsletter and online discussion list.
"What's the definition of 'holistic'?" one member muses philosophically. Maybe it's "using all your resources to lead a healthy life." For local families, HMN is the latest resource at their disposal.
On the web
Meetings are held on the third Wednesday of the month, 6:30 pm, Mount Horeb Public library, 105 Perimeter Rd. The next meeting will be Jan. 21. The topic is "Holistic Resolutions."