When Julianne Vande Water moved to Columbus, Ind. (pop. 39,059), two years ago, the young mother didn’t know a soul in town other than her husband, Ryan; and their closest relatives were more than an hour’s drive away. Relocating with Ryan’s electrical engineering job, she had given up her pottery store in Madison, Ind., to stay home and care for a preschool-age son and daughter, and was about to give birth to the couple’s third child.
While feeling blessed to be a stay-at-home mom, Vande Water also remembers those days as exhausting, overwhelming and even a little lonely at times—until an acquaintance suggested she join other new mothers who gather twice a month at Grace Lutheran Church to encourage and support each other. At the Wednesday morning gatherings, she discovered about 40 women going through the same joyful but intense experience of early motherhood.
“I wanted a place to make friends, get a break from the kids, and kind of renew myself,” says Vande Water of her participation in Mothers of Preschoolers, or MOPS, a Christian-based organization dedicated to the belief that “better moms make a better world.”
In the process, she was reminded of the three reasons—Oliver, 5, Stella, 3, and Charlie, 1—that she chooses to stay home in the first place.
“It reaffirms that mothering your kids is an important job,” says Vande Water, 36. “You know it is, but it’s reassuring just to have other people say, ‘Yes, you’re doing the right thing.’”
The need for friendship and support among new moms is what inspired MOPS’ founding in 1973, when eight women in Wheat Ridge, Colo. (pop. 30,979), gathered one February morning in a preschool classroom at Trinity Baptist Church. While caregivers watched over their children in the church nursery, the mothers sat on child-size chairs and shared stories of early motherhood. They talked, laughed, prayed, drank coffee, made a craft and passed a basket to pay for childcare expenses.
“From the very start, MOPS was a place to come and find friendship, a creative outlet and spiritual perspective,” says Jan Horner, 67, one of the founders, who now lives in Longmont, Colo.
Horner’s oldest daughters were 3 and 1 when she helped organize the group’s first meeting. “It was a great time for the moms to connect on an adult level with the other moms who were in a similar stage of life with the demands of young children,” she recalls.
Now with three grown daughters and eight grandchildren ages 2 to 13, Horner marvels that, through word of mouth and grassroots enthusiasm, MOPS now has 100,000 members and has touched the lives of more than a million moms. Horner, however, is not surprised that the organization and its purpose continue to resonate with young women, since the challenges to motherhood during her generation—families who live far apart and our career-driven culture, just to name a few—still exist.
“Many times, young moms feel so isolated and alone, and being a part of MOPS met a lot of those needs. We encouraged each other to stay strong and focused in our mothering; not to resent it, but to embrace it,” says Horner, whose daughters Kelley, 40, and Andrea, 32, participated in MOPS when they became mothers.
“Motherhood is probably the most influential role you can have as a woman,” she says.
Today, MOPS is headquartered in Denver, with 3,520 chapters in the United States and another 115 international chapters that welcome any woman with a child who is newborn to kindergarten age. Most meet in churches. Some groups are geared specifically for teenage moms, while others meet on military bases and cater to families in the armed forces. Some MOPS groups have added evening meetings to accommodate the schedules of working mothers.
Organizers say MOPS has struck a chord for nearly four decades because its principles are timeless—valuing each mother as an individual and affirming her role in helping to rear and nurture the next generation.
“A lot of moms feel inadequate,” says Elisa Morgan, 55, of Centennial, Colo., who has two grown children and one grandchild, and was president of MOPS International for two decades until her departure last year. “The season of being a young mother is a season of being face-to-face with ourselves, for good and for bad. And sometimes we need community and some kind of a context to process what we discover in order to be the best moms we can be.”
Naomi Cramer Overton, 46, brings a personal appreciation of MOPS to her job as Morgan’s successor. “It was a cool drink of water in a parched and cracked period in my life,” says Overton, who participated in MOPS in San Diego when her three children, now ages 11 to 17, were preschoolers.
A lifeline for young moms
Chartered through local faith-based organizations, MOPS groups draw between 10 to 200 women to weekly, semimonthly or monthly meetings. Typically, their children receive care in church nurseries or other nearby facilities in their own MOPPETS program, allowing the mothers to enjoy fellowship, hear inspirational speakers, make crafts and participate in service projects.
At a Wednesday morning meeting this spring in Columbus, Ind., young moms munched on quiche, fruit and muffins while exchanging thoughts about a myriad of shared experiences—throwing children’s birthday parties, whether to have more children, surviving a husband’s job loss and impending moves.
“For any mom, it’s vital to find that lifeline to other moms,” says Aubrey Smith, 37, mother of Caroline, 5, and Makenzie, 2, and coordinator of a MOPS group at Grace Lutheran Church. “We all go through the same thing—dealing with a biting toddler, potty training, finding the right preschool. Just being able to talk about issues with someone who has them in common is a blessing.”
Suzanne Lammert, the mother of five children ages 3 to 14, shares in that blessing in Columbus. She joined MOPS when her youngest son, Ben, was an infant.
“Being a part of MOPS has helped me be a better mother in many ways,” says Lammert, 37. “MOPS has allowed many mothers to realize that what we do every day—no matter how repetitive, boring, messy or exhausting it is—is very important in the lives of our children.”
Vande Water agrees. Walking down the hall from her MOPS meeting, she stops at the doorway of a childcare room and watches Stella, her adopted daughter from China, making butterflies and flowers out of blue Play-Doh. Looking up from her play, the energetic toddler breaks into a wide-eyed grin and runs to her mom with outstretched arms.
“I love my job as a mother,” says Vande Water, scooping up the child in her arms. “It’s the most important career I’ve had.”