Registration for the 2021-2022 Quaker parent mutual support groups opened in September of 2021. We launched the groups November 15, 2021, and finished on April 24, 2022. Each group met by Zoom every two weeks for a total of twelve meetings in six months. The purpose of the groups is to provide a supportive forum in which Quaker parents can talk about their parenting and their faith. They celebrate one another’s successes and provide fellowship for one another through difficulties. Each group has two co-facilitators whose own children are no longer living at home. The co-facilitators are responsible for structuring the conversations, emailing reminders about meetings, and so forth.
This was the second year of the parent support groups. We had 85 registrations and eight groups, compared to last year’s 65 registrations and seven groups. This year’s parents came from seven countries on four continents. They represented approximately twenty-two Yearly Meetings across all four branches of Friends.
Parents are assigned to groups based on schedule compatibility and age of children. This year, I also made an effort (where possible) to consider other factors, such as single parents, interfaith families, homeschoolers, children with special needs, stay-at-home parents, and shared custody arrangements.
As was also the case last year, group attendance and cohesion varied widely. In one group, attendance was so consistently high that the numbers were almost unmanageable. In another, attendance dwindled to a single couple. Another four groups developed a strong, closely connected core of parents, while two more groups were useful for those who attended but did not seem to bond.
Some groups chose to supplement their meetings with text message threads or email chains between Zooms, but this only seemed to work well when initiated by parents rather than facilitators.
Facilitators were given a lot of discretion about structuring the groups so that they could be as responsive as possible to parents’ needs and preferences. Structures included beginning with worship, sharing of joys and successes, check-ins, worship sharing on queries, open conversation, and prayer requests/prayers at the end.
At least three of this year’s groups are continuing (on their own initiative, with or without their co-facilitators). It is worth noting that two of the 2020-2021 groups are also still in regular contact. One parent said, “We decided to continue meeting once a month to remain connected. It is hard to let go of new friends, it is hard to make friends in general and we did not want to let each other go.”
For many parents, the groups were exactly what they needed.
“I loved hearing other parents share their joys and challenges. Because we are all Quakers in the group, there was a basis of understanding which I don’t receive in other parent groups or get togethers with my kids’ friends from school. How deeply valuable to share with other Quakers my spiritual connection to parenting. Meeting together twice a month enabled us to get to know each other, hear our joys and sorrows, and see children grow. I enjoyed having glimpses at other children on the screen, and how the parent interacted with them. This was one Zoom where it was okay to be interrupted by children. What a blessing!”
“I love how much it feels like we’re able to fit into an hour in terms of reflection and relationship building. So great to feel connected and share our experiences.”
“This has been an amazing group and really has been super supportive and accepting. I am very sad to see we are coming to the end. I really am grateful that these wonderful people were put in my life.”
“I felt held.”
But not every group worked well for every parent.
“I did the first round of parent support group as well as the second, and the second one just really didn’t work for me. The group never gelled, we never got to know each other, and eventually I stopped going.”
“We often spent the first 20 minutes or so having a check-in and sharing about our lives. This was deeply valuable. However, then I was left wishing we had a little more time for the worship sharing portion. A little more time for each person to discover their truth and share it. However, sticking to an hour-long format was very beneficial and enabled me to participate in the group. How to have more time without taking more time?? I have no idea. Both the check-in and the worship sharing brought me closer to the friends on the screen.”
“I feel burned out from a lot of things, and because of various circumstances, this group felt like another obligation instead of something that helped me. I bear as much responsibility for this as anyone else.”
In our end-of-project evaluation, some parents only shared a word or two about their experiences. I’m listing them here because these super-distilled reflections are well worth seeing:
In seeking facilitators for the parent groups, we looked for people who were either experienced facilitators or who were teachers, social workers, pastors, counselors, etc. I also specifically looked for facilitators who were not currently parenting children in their homes. This year, all of the facilitators had one or more grown children. Three of the facilitators were men, eleven women, which is an improvement from last year when no men volunteered to facilitate. (The participation of male facilitators seems important because the groups are for parents, not mothers, and we are pushing against a pre-existing cultural tendency to think of parenting as a feminine activity.)
Most, though not all, of the facilitators said repeatedly that the experience was at least as positive for them as it was for the parents in their group. They felt useful and needed, and they built spiritual friendships with the participants in which the sharing was deeply mutual. One of the most important aspects of building these relationships was the specific instruction about advice. Facilitators were asked not to offer advice to parents under any circumstances unless explicitly asked for it. They established trust through non-judgmental listening and encouragement.
The sixteen facilitators identified many of the themes that I’ll be writing about later in this report: theological and cultural differences, isolation of parents, pandemic babies and children, Quaker fathers, and intergenerational relationships.
The Quaker parent mutual support groups were open to all Quaker speakers of English who could access Zoom. This was a deliberate decision, made for two reasons: first, I wanted to provide connection for as many parents as possible, and second, a larger number of participants makes it more possible to create cohesive groups with schedule compatibility.
This meant that we had Quakers from all branches of the tradition: evangelical, FUM pastoral, conservative unprogrammed, and liberal unprogrammed, as well as several from independent Quaker groups. Coming together as parents across theological diversity actually worked very well. Parents were encouraged to speak authentically using their own religious language, and I looked for facilitators who, themselves, were theologically diverse and able to support that within the groups. I do not know of any group in which theological differences became a point of discomfort.
In addition, although the majority of participants were from the United States, at least half the groups had at least one parent from another country. The international connections also worked well in most cases.
The most challenging situations were the ones in which one or more participants were both theologically and culturally very different from the other participants in the group. In these cases, trying to bridge the gap may have distracted from the ultimate goal for everyone, which is mutual support of one another’s parenting through a Quaker lens. It is worth considering, if the project is repeated, having groups specific to African Friends (including African diaspora if desired) and also possibly Spanish-language groups for Central and South American Friends (including Spanish speakers from other places if desired). I don’t intend to actively push for these, but if the need were felt and way opened, I would try to find partners who could help coordinate such groups.
“We’ve just gotten back in person, and that has been amazing.”
For some Quaker parents, the connection with a local Meeting is rich. It’s important to note that gathering in person, rather than online, is crucial for many families, as another parent says:
“Nursery reopening allows us to attend Meeting in person and focus on worship. Zoom meeting for worship means one parent can’t worship because they’re watching the child.”
But for other parents, having a virtual or hybrid option is, or has been, essential.
“I attended virtually and felt very connected. My husband has a health condition that reduces his immunity so this was very important. It was an incredible connection. I feel sad that it might be ending soon.”
Another parent said,
“We have been meeting on Zoom. We are a small Meeting of 50 attenders which is like a family. We have been blessed to welcome back Friends who had moved out of the area. We are moving to hybrid this weekend. I have missed seeing Friends but feel like we have stayed connected.”
Many parents talk about their longing for non-parents in the Meeting to take a more active role in making sure parents and families are supported and cared for.
“We have returned to in-person worship, and with the vaccination of our First Day School kids, we have returned to a modified FDS program. I am clerking a committee that makes FDS happen, but it has been very difficult to get enough volunteers. As a parent, I would like to be able to worship too! I’m concerned that our Meeting isn’t sufficiently prepared to engage in the hands-on work of building a spiritual home for children and their families.”
“There are more families with young kids than there used to be and I’ve been working on getting us together. The Meeting has seemed happy that was happening but hasn’t done anything concrete to support it.”
Some parents and families continue to say that they have experienced very little, or even no, support from their Meetings during the pandemic. Without casting blame—since most Friends have been genuinely doing their best in a very difficult time—I would encourage Meetings to reflect on how well they have done supporting families in the last two years. If the answer is “not very,” some form of reconciliation may be needed.
“I visited a single parent Friend who has just started her parenting journey. It brought me a lot of joy to be able to do that. She said she was surprised no one else had been in touch to see how she was doing.”
“There haven’t really been any options for kids my age (1-2) that are in-person (mostly programming has been online) and Covid-safe; the nursery finally was reestablished but little ones can’t be vaccinated so we just haven’t gone to Meeting during the pandemic.”
“I have not interacted with my local Meeting more than a time or two in the past 12 months. Most of the Friends are older and do not have children or grandchildren close by. I receive emails from my local Meeting and feel some connection through these emails. However, I have attended meeting for worship via zoom only two or three times in the last 12 months. Generally I do not find zoom to be spiritually enlightening, connecting, worthwhile.”
“We are no longer part of our church.”
Here are some responses to the question, “If you could ask your Quaker meeting or church for one thing, what would it be?”
Ask parents for what they want out of a children’s program instead of planning things that don’t work for most parents…
A more structured and reliable First Day school program…
Connections with elders who have the time and space to support those who are actively parenting younger kids to provide listening and guidance…
A paid position of a First Day School Coordinator who would plan and teach lessons along with volunteers, to decrease the burden of finding sufficient teaching support…
Phone calls every so often to see how I am getting on…
Meet at a better time for kids’ naps…
Childcare offered during adult education classes…
Parent’s Night Out events…
Be more visible in the local community so other families with children might join…
Dedicated childcare during in-person Sunday worship…
Checking in with parents about spiritual support needs and what would help us participate in the life of the Meeting.
There are two questions I’d like to address for Meetings with no families. The first is, “How can we get families in our Meeting?” The second is, “How can we support parents and families if our Meeting has none?”
If you’re trying to figure out how you can attract families, I hope you’ll start with the question of whether you are genuinely led to do so. If your faith community is set up to serve mostly the needs of older adults, and if you can’t see being clear to make big changes, then you may not really be led to be a multi-generational community—and that might be okay.
However, if you’re ready to experiment, I have some pieces of writing that will support that. I also recommend that you take a look at the work of Melinda Wenner Bradley, which can be found at her website “All Together Now: children and families at the heart of spiritual community.”
Then there’s the question of how Meetings without families (or individuals) can support parents and families. They are definitely in need of support. A Meeting might consider hosting a free family fun day (games, snacks, music) for people in your community every few months—not as a form of explicit outreach but simply as an act of hospitality without expectation of reward. Meetings could also offer free outdoor space to parent-led play groups; isolation is a constant theme rising in the support groups. Friends might volunteer time with organizations supporting foster parents or donate toys and clothing to nonprofits that reunite parents being released from prisons with their children. You might offer monetary support to projects that center on children and families.
Support for parents can be part of any Meeting’s ministry, even if that Meeting has no families in membership.
“I think being seen as a parent who needed support was perhaps the most valuable piece of this experiment. Acknowledging I continue to have a spiritual life even in the face of all the difficulties of parenting was invaluable. Thank you. A place where other parents with the same spiritual views could commiserate about our struggles day to day was a blessing.”
“I really enjoyed the connections we made whilst people were sharing their trials and successes. It was especially helpful to have parents with similar life moment: multiple children, or similar development stage, queer parenting, etc.”
It makes some sense that Quarterly Meetings, Yearly Meetings, and umbrella organizations historically haven’t thought of direct support for parents and families as part of their charge. We tend to think of direct support and pastoral care as a matter for local Meetings. This makes sense. Generally, pastoral care is best done in smaller communities by people who know one another well.
The trouble with this theory is that many Quaker parents in the twenty-first century either don’t have a Quaker community nearby at all or else don’t have a Quaker community in which there are other Quaker parents. And we’ve heard in the support groups again and again that Quaker parents need other Quaker parents, especially other Quaker parents in similar circumstances to their own. This is a numbers game. It can’t be done locally if there simply aren’t enough families.
Quarterly Meetings, Yearly Meetings, and umbrella organizations may need to look again at who is best positioned to support Quaker parents and how. If local Meetings legitimately cannot do it—and they often can’t—then wider bodies of Friends might consider how best to step up.
Examples? Quarterly Meetings can host Quaker family meet-ups (not necessarily on Sunday mornings), in which parents can have a chance for mutual sharing while children enjoy a separate program, after which the groups come together for snacks and social time. Or they can try something like “giant children’s meeting,” first tried in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, in which families come together by videoconference platform for semi-programmed worship, sharing, and crafts. Yearly Meeting sessions and large gatherings of umbrella organizations can organize family neighborhoods—places where families can sleep nearby one another and have gathering spaces for toys, stories, intergenerational games, and spontaneous parent conversations over cups of tea. When in doubt, ask; families can probably identify what they would find helpful.
What was most helpful about the groups? One theme arose among parents’ answers again and again:
“Not feeling alone during a time when parenting is even more isolating than usual”
“Being able to talk about parenting to someone, anyone. Being able to talk about parenting with the background of Quaker ideals. Being able to talk to other adults in English.”
“The feeling of not being alone”
In the first year of the parent support groups (2020-2021), parents expressed feelings of profound isolation. I expected those feelings to come up less often this year. They did not. It is certainly the case that our sample, being self-selected, could over-represent parents who feel isolated, but even considering that factor, the problem feels immense.
Some parents are literally alone. There are Quaker parents living in countries in which Covid lockdowns are still in effect. These parents may not have socialized with other adults, or left their homes for reasons other than occasional shopping trips, in two years. Other parents have very young children who have not yet been able to be vaccinated and are choosing to continue isolating for safety. Still others have family members with immunity deficiencies that make it extremely dangerous to be exposed to Covid.
Other parents feel isolated despite not being literally alone. Parents in the group talked about the isolation of being the only Quaker in their geographic area or the only Quaker family in their Meeting. They talked about the difficulty of developing deep friendships in modern society. They talked about their hunger for connections with parents in similar circumstances: other disabled parents, other single parents, other foster parents, other parents with shared custody arrangements.
Facilitators heard it repeated again and again: “I feel so alone.”
“My kids have never attended First Day School since they became school age during the pandemic. I feel at a loss with their Quaker education since I became a Friend as an adult. I would love resources to help them learn about God and spirituality.”
The majority (but not all) of the parents in the groups have been taking active steps to avoid Covid-19 since March 2020. As you can see in the above quote, even school-age children have missed a lot because of Covid mitigation measures. Parents of school-age children (mostly elementary schoolers, but sometimes middle schoolers and high schoolers as well) talked about their children’s feelings of anxiety in connection with entering groups of people again. Even children who remembered pre-pandemic times needed additional support in navigating social situations. Many children ages eight and under have no memories of pre-pandemic school, lessons, and clubs. They may not remember any Quaker Meeting experiences.
This theme is even more present for pandemic babies and toddlers: children who were either born during the pandemic or who are still under the age of five. As of the writing of this report, these young ones still are not eligible for Covid vaccination. Some have rarely had social contact with anyone outside of their families. There are not yet any solid longitudinal studies about the effects of pandemic isolation on very young children, but we know anecdotally that there certainly are some.
Quaker Meetings and churches will need to be conscious of the particular needs of pandemic babies and children in the coming year or two. Aside from adapting children’s programming and childcare in regard to Covid practices (better ventilation, outdoor gatherings when possible, etc.), Meetings will need to adapt in regard to social differences in young children. We can all help by being very flexible and proactively communicative with parents. Will their children need time to adapt to a new physical space? Will they need to meet strangers much more slowly than we would expect? Would it be helpful for young children to meet Friends first in small groups and in their own homes or yards? Might Quaker Meetings and churches even set up ministries of very small outdoor playgroups to help pandemic babies, toddlers, and children ease into broader social circles?
Because we simply do not know yet what will help—and especially because what will help may be unique to each child and parent—Friends will need to be open to experiments and receptive to new leadings from Spirit.
“Other men!” – quote from a parent when asked what felt missing from the support group experience
I don’t ask parents to indicate their gender explicitly on the registration form for the parent groups, but based on names of registrants, I can say that about twenty of the eighty-five parents who registered were fathers, as were three of our fourteen facilitators. I remain concerned about why, when groups such as these are advertised as for parents, the Friends who join are mostly mothers. And because we had so few fathers registered (which makes it difficult to assign a critical mass of fathers to any one group), fathers were vastly outnumbered in each individual support group as well.
Obviously, it’s not a fundamentally bad thing for parents to meet in mixed-gender groups. But there might be real virtue in occasional gatherings specifically for Quaker dads. I’ll be searching for ways to make space for this and for the right person or people to provide leadership for such gatherings, and I hope that others reading this report might do the same.
In the start-of-program facilitator training, I put a lot of emphasis (spoken and in writing) on the danger zone of advice. Parents in the groups share openly and vulnerably about their experiences. Sometimes they actually do want advice, but sometimes they are specifically looking for deep listening, sympathy, and/or prayer. So we emphasize for facilitators (and for other parents): do not offer advice unless the person has explicitly said they want it.
Facilitators who follow that guidance, however, discover an interesting shift that tends to occur after the first few sessions. In the beginning, no one asks for advice; once trust has been built, many do. And even when they do not, a surprisingly beautiful relationship begins to form between the generations. One facilitator told me, “The parents are just so grateful to know that somebody has been through this and has come out the other side. They know our children are functional adults. So when we say that we’ve had experiences like theirs, that’s a really hopeful thing. You can get through it. You’re doing better than you think.”
I did not anticipate the full potential of this dynamic. In choosing facilitators whose children were grown, I thought only about the message it would send: we value you parents sufficiently that those of us who are not currently parenting children in the home will step up, show up, and make space for you. This is indeed a powerful message. But in some cases, what materialized was quite a bit more. It was the sort of relationship that might exist in societies that have multi-generational living—but without the additional layers of interpersonal difficulty that exists with literal family.
“They [the facilitators] were so encouraging with their words. They never downplayed a struggle one of us were having, and they often pointed out themes that showed how well we were doing. They were so humble with their own parenting skills, making us feel solidarity easily.”
“They were a joy to connect with and even invited me to attend their home meetings.”
“They offered perspective as both were grandparents. However, both were sharing about their time with grandkids, bringing us closer to each other as we were all parenting young children.”
“They accepted me as I was.”
What led to these relationships? It’s not a scientific formula (and, in fact, didn’t happen in every group), but I think that older Friends showing up, making space specifically for parents, listening deeply, and committing to ongoing relationship made the connection possible. I wonder what kinds of opportunities Quaker Meetings and churches might create to nurture similar relationships.
For the sake of reference, we asked parents to let us know what sorts of resources might be helpful in the immediate future. Our sample size is small (nineteen respondents), and one of the things the answers show is the diversity of needs among Quaker parents.
Also, in the words of one parent:
“I didn’t fill in the bit about what I think I would find useful in the future because where I am right now it is really hard to see ahead.”
When I coordinated the first round of groups (2020-2021), I had no thought of repeating the project. It was an emergency response to extreme isolation during ongoing pandemic restrictions and the closure of many Quaker Meetings and churches. What I did not realize at the time is that (1) some Quaker parents are always isolated because there are no other Quaker parents, and sometimes no other Quakers at all, anywhere near their geographic location, (2) many parents experience isolation on a seasonal basis in the winter because many outdoor activities are not accessible during that time, and (3) a lot of Quaker parents are seeking connection with other Quaker parents even if they would not describe themselves as feeling isolated.
I still can’t say for sure that we’ll repeat the project in 2022-2023, but there are two primary ideas we might consider if we do. One is logistical, and the other is relational.
Logistical: we might seek even more co-sponsoring organizations. The combined efforts of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, and Friends United Meeting helped a lot with getting the word out to parents and with recruiting facilitators. But even this year, we know for sure that many Quaker parents either never heard about the project or didn’t hear about it until well after the registration deadline. More co-sponsoring institutions would probably mean reaching more parents.
Relational: we might add opportunities for parents and families to mix between groups in affinity-based ways. For example, we might have an afternoon of baking bread together on Zoom, or an hour-long session for people of any age who like Legos, or a singalong, or a gathering to hear read-alouds of picture books. There might be occasional opportunities for parents only to join conversations on specific topics. No one wants to overwhelm families with meetings, and joining such gatherings would not be required of parents participating in the support groups, but a number of parents expressed real hunger to find additional ways for both parents and children to meet even more Quakers and possibly begin longer-term friendships.
Friends who are currently parenting young people are engaged in significant ministry. Many are longing to connect with other parents and with people who feel called to support their parenting. Importantly, these Friends are also human beings with spiritual gifts and journeys and challenges that may be unrelated to parenting but still deserve attention from the Quaker community—and the very fact that parents are busy parenting often means they are not able to access that care.
Suppose that Quaker communities committed to asking the question, “What would it look like for parents and families to be placed in the center of our Meeting or church?” As things stand now, parents and families are often an afterthought, mostly because parents aren’t able to be in the room at the moment decisions are made. Quakers know that in order to live our testimony of equality—to act as though God’s seed is truly present in all people—we must pay particular attention to those who tend to be forgotten. In Friends’ communities, that very often means parents.
Many faithful Friends worked together to shepherd this project.
Institutional Support (Communications, Networking, and Funding)
Friends United Meeting
New York Yearly Meeting
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Resource Friends (Facilitator Recruitment, Support for Facilitators, Written Resources for Parents)
Melinda Wenner Bradley
There are two Quaker organizations that, while they are not directly connected with this project, have been nurturing Quaker parents for a long time: the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative and, most especially, the Quaker Parenting Initiative and its coordinator Harriet Heath.
And, of course, the parents. Though I often abbreviate for convenience, there is a reason this project is called Quaker Parent Mutual Support Groups. Facilitators and I provide the space and the structure, but the parents themselves bring extraordinary spiritual depth, wisdom, courage, and mutual care.
 Melinda Wenner Bradley did an FGC gathering workshop about just this topic in summer 2021.
— Emily Provance
Quaker Parent Mutual Support Group Coordinator