Niagara-on-the-Lake may have a reputation as a retirement community, but it’s rapidly changing: look for the faces of the future and you’ll find them in every corner of town — on the street pushing a stroller, in the parks with their babies and toddlers, and as the driving force of several new businesses.
The young couples have arrived, found homes, settled in and are raising their families.
And they will attract more young families, because they love the community where they have chosen to raise their kids, and are rapidly spreading the word.
Natalie Cooper moved to NOTL a little more than a year ago with her husband Adrian. Their little girl, Olive, was born last July. They came from Burlington, choosing NOTL because Natalie has extended family here: aunts, cousins, and her parents are close by. But after Olive was born, Cooper began experiencing a sense of isolation. The friends she had left behind, who were also having babies, had a support system she was missing. They had stroller groups, with moms who would get together, “have coffee and chat about life after children,” she said.
Cooper conducted an “exhaustive search” for something similar in NOTL, but couldn’t find it. She took advantage of services such as EarlyON, organized by the Region, where she found the public health nurses and the support and services they offer new mothers were helpful, she said. But although they provided valuable resources, she longed for something in addition to that. She was looking for a more informal sharing of experiences, she said, with women who lived close by and were at the same stage of their lives. Practical tips for raising babies are helpful, but she was also hoping for the emotional support so important for new moms, who share the same fears and insecurities and who need to hear from others they’re not alone.
So she set about finding them. She chose the cafe in the community centre as a meeting place, set a time, and posted it on every Facebook page she thought might be seen by local moms. She put posters up around town, advertising an unstructured, free, drop-in meeting place for moms and their children, called NOTL Mamas & Babies, and at that first gathering on a Tuesday morning last October, she had five other moms join her and Olive.
The group now has 42 members, from all corners of town, including Virgil and St. Davids. Although it may only attract seven to 10 moms on any given Tuesday, it has outgrown the cafe, mostly because it includes several very active toddlers who can’t be contained, said Cooper.
“The newborns would sleep, but we have toddlers too, who are always so crazy busy. We needed somewhere safe for them to play.”
Enter Debbie Krause, the program co-ordinator at the NOTL Public Library, who had seen the moms and kids congregating in the cafe area of the community centre. She offered the use of the library’s Rotary Room, and every Tuesday she ensures there are toys out for the toddlers, including soft blocks and a ball pit, Duplo, musical instruments and lots of materials for crafts. The group has been merged with the library’s Power Off and Play group, a program already offered but not well-attended.
It is now.
And it has become everything Cooper had imagined. The women connect outside of their Tuesday mornings. They have become friends. They share. Sometimes it’s the triumph of the little accomplishments so important to celebrate. Often it’s guilt about something they fear makes them a bad mom, until it’s out in the open and discussed, always without judgement. They learn they’re not alone, in their circumstances or their emotions, and the stress of being a new mom is suddenly made so much lighter.
The group also has an active Facebook community, “where we share advice, ideas and ‘baby hacks’ in a safe, judgement-free space.”
Cooper and two other young moms — bright, engaging and loving their new role in life — enthusiastically spoke about all the weekly meetings do for them, and agreed: The lack of judgement is not only appreciated, it’s vital.
They discuss issues such as health concerns, sourcing child care, finding healthy snacks, and that all-important issue with babies — sleeping, or lack of it. They can talk openly. Moms come to the meetings when it works for them, but the support is always there for them, said Cooper.
“And there is no shame in talking about anything.”
Anjali Garcha (Kapoor) says her active 20-month old Jai Garcha loves to play with the other toddlers in the group. An optometrist, she has gone back to work part-time, and drops in when her schedule allows.
Because she was working full-time when she first moved to NOTL, she didn’t have much opportunity to get out to meet people, so the moms group has become a lifeline for her.
“We can talk about how we’re feeling, about feeding and sleeping and the birth experience. At the end of the day all that matters is we all love our kids.”
She said although the women only met a short time ago, “It seems like we’ve known each other forever.”
Ashley Robertson met her husband, Justin Pepe, when she was living in BC. He is a NOTL native, and they chose his hometown as the place to raise their family.
They have a 14-month-old son, Maverick, and eight-week-old daughter Lennon.
“It is definitely a different community” from her husband’s years growing up in town and attending Parliament Oak School, now closed, said Robertson, “but it’s still a really great community for raising a family.”
Her husband has local friends from his childhood, she said, “but this is nice for me to be able to meet my own friends and get out, for my own sanity.”
“It’s amazing to have a baby, and have this network of moms as a support group to be able to share experiences,” said Cooper, who explained she had a week not too long ago where she had had only about eight hours of sleep, because Olive couldn’t settle. Several moms offered suggestions — Robertson joked that she kept quiet on the subject because her baby was sleeping through the night by the time she was two weeks old, and she didn’t want everyone to hate her. Cooper said one mother prepared a list of several different bedtime rituals to ease Olive into sleep. She tried the ones she felt most comfortable with, and it made a huge difference — she was finally feeling less exhausted and much better able to cope. “I felt like a new person the next week. It really does take a village to raise a child.”
Without having family nearby, said Garcha, “Jai hasn’t had a lot of other people in his life. He was a little anxious in a new setting (of the moms group), but now he’s having a chance to play with other kids, and he’s become a lot more social than he was.”
Robertson said she also relies on advice from the other moms, and feels comfort knowing if she needs help, they are there for her, and not only at Tuesday morning gatherings. If she wants to seek reassurance, her new friends are only a text or phone call away. For instance, she said, there was a time when her baby had a fever, and she reached out for advice. She was concerned there might be a trip to the hospital emergency room required, and she knew she could count on one of the other moms looking after Maverick if necessary — which, thankfully, it wasn’t.
Most of the members of the group have moved here from other cities for a variety of reasons. Always at the top of their list is a great place to raise a family, yet missing the support system often found from parents and families living close by.
“Everyone is from somewhere else,” said Robertson.
“This is our family away from family.”
They’ve also learned to share tips about NOTL, such as where to get natural, healthy snacks for their children — they wish there was more selection at the grocery stores, rather than having to travel to St. Catharines for some of the brands they like.
They also would like to see more daycare — there is very little for moms who want to go back to work when their maternity leave is up. They agreed they have heard rave reviews about Niagara Nursery School and Child Care Centre at the community centre, but it doesn’t take kids until they’re 27 months old.
“If you want to go back to work after mat leave, it’s a challenge,” said Cooper. “We need something for younger kids. Not everyone feels comfortable with in-home daycare — it would be nice to have more options.”
“It seems you have to get on a waiting list before you even know you’re pregnant,” added Robertson.”
The women are having so much fun with their group, and getting so much out of their interactions the dads were getting jealous, they said, so they held one Tuesday morning meeting for the men recently to attend with the kids, which was so successful they are planning to hold a second one.
Joshua Garcha said it would be great to see a similar regular drop-in group for dads, maybe on the weekend, so they could have some guy time together but still hang out with their kids. With a grin to underscore he knew he would be sounding like a typical, predictable dad, he said they wouldn’t be looking for the same kind of emotional support the women are — the conversation would probably be about the most recent hockey game or football — “but to be able to do that and still have bonding time with the kids would be great.”
The women are already looking forward to a time when they can get together as friends when their kids are a little older, maybe go out for an evening or on a wine tour, and when they do, they can’t imagine a better place to do that than in NOTL.
“We’ll get to that stage,” said Cooper. “This is absolutely the best place to bring up a family.”
Robertson agreed. “We love it here,” the two women said in unison.
The group meetings are listed under Power Off and Play, the original name of the NOTL Public Library program, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuesdays.