Posted by Betsy Johnson
At the 2019 JF&CS Women’s Breakfast, Betsy Johnson gave a heartfelt speech about the long-lasting impact the Center for Early Relationship Support® has had on her life. You can read the speech below or hear Betsy deliver her remarks in the embedded SoundCloud player.
Well, it’s been 16 years since I was a client of JF&CS. My husband and I left our family and friends in Pennsylvania to move to Massachusetts after he accepted a job transfer. We were hesitant to start a family of our own, as I had some medical issues that we knew would make pregnancy and child rearing difficult for me. In addition, my own mother had experienced a severe post-partum depression and psychosis that had psychologically crippled her and our family, and I was petrified I would have the same response.
So when I learned I was pregnant in October 2000, although I was so excited I told a complete stranger in the elevator on the way home from the doctor’s appointment, I was also frightened. I was mostly scared of not knowing how to be a mom.
Things seemed to be going well however; we planned to tell our families at the holidays when we visited home. Two days before our scheduled trip, with framed photographs of the ultrasound pictures wrapped up as Chanukkah gifts for our family, we went for a routine ultrasound, only to learn that there was no longer a heartbeat. It devastated me.
A midwife suggested I get in contact with JF&CS to learn about their miscarriage support groups. There, I met others who had experienced pregnancy loss, and I found a haven of support. It was a place that felt safe to say the hard things, a place to listen, a place to grieve, and even a place to hope. While involved with the group, I got pregnant again and lost again. Although just as painful, this time I had people who I knew I could talk to. It made a difference.
Finally, in October 2001, we conceived Rebeccah. As you can imagine, the pregnancy was fraught with anxiety. But slowly, ultrasounds continued to be positive, and I’ll fast forward through nine months to tell you that on July 24, 2002, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl.
With no family here to support us and no good model for mothering, it was challenging for me. I felt that I lacked the tools, that although I felt more love for Becca than I ever felt possible, I was unsure of her love for me. I felt ill-equipped and utterly isolated, as well as guilty for feeling that way. Since I had experienced a negative model for mothering, I had to figure out how to do it differently - how to redefine it.
Peggy Kaufman and Debbie Whitehill of CERS came to the rescue. In addition to a New Moms group led by a caring and skilled facilitator that met weekly, they also set me up with a Lauren & Mark Rubin Visiting Moms® volunteer. Jennifer came weekly for an hour or more. We connected immediately. She listened to my fears, she encouraged my efforts, praised my successes, helped me figure out how to fit an infant carrier into a shopping cart (for which I am forever grateful), made me laugh, and helped to start me on a path to start to see myself for what I know I am today - a good mom.
When Becca was 9 months old, she was sitting in her high chair when all of a sudden her eyes rolled up in her head and she became unresponsive. It lasted about a minute. We were terrified. We rushed her to our pediatrician, then a neurologist. In order to rule out seizures, doctors ordered an ambulatory EEG for 72 hours. We were sent home and were told we needed to watch her and press a button every time we saw an episode, at which point the EEG would start recording.
I came home and cried because how could we possibly watch her for 72 hours straight? I was overwhelmed and terrified. My Rubin Visiting Mom, Jennifer, called Peggy and told her what was going on.
By the end of that day, the phone rang. It was Peggy. They had garnered 12 JF&CS volunteers to help. They came in two-hour shifts, for the next 72 hours so we could rest and take a break. I was overwhelmed again, but this time with such immense gratitude. Other agencies certainly offer cookie-cutter support. But this was community support on steroids. It was personal. It was customized. It was unique, and it was timely. She said, “We’ve got this Betsy.” I will never forget this immense kindness. This is who JF&CS is at its core.
I’ve stayed connected with Peggy and Jennifer over the years with cards and holiday cookies and emails and an occasional lunch. But this is the part of the story that feels really important now.
Becca is 16 years old and several years ago was diagnosed with autism type 1 as well as a complex tic disorder, and this year also diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Type 3, a genetic connective tissue disorder. It’s been a very hard journey with lots of highs and lows and a whole lot of fear for her future.
Although she is an accomplished pianist, loves scuba diving and karate, had an amazing conversation with Elizabeth Warren about autism, and is completely obsessed with all things Broadway, she has also had scary lows, school refusal, been a target of bullying, suffers from panic attacks, and has frequent and severe meltdowns. But drawing on my experience with JF&CS, this time, my first instinct was to seek out community again. I spoke to Peggy who gave me information and autism referrals. I’ve connected with yet another community of parents on this journey, and we support each other daily. Some of my dearest friends and supports are in this community.
I have this favorite ceramic cup. It was chipped in a way that made drinking tea impossible. I lamented the crack, as the cup has a great deal of sentimental value to me. I could not bring myself to throw it away. Finally, I took the cup up to the room where I do my writing. I put all my favorite pens in the cup and set it in the sunlight. The crack was still there, but now it is covered with bits of ink and creative process. It was only because of that crack that this mug found its new and beautiful purpose.
Sometimes healing happens when the pieces are glued together and things go on pretty much the same - but now with an important tender place. Sometimes healing happens when the pieces do not go back together in exactly the same way. Something new was discovered, a different way of being in the world that could not have been found without the breaking and mending experience.
You see, we can call something broken and end the sentence. Or we can take what is broken and fashion something that might be improbable, but not at all impossible. We have this power. We always have. We have pulled threads of hope from fabric that was frayed, turned it into a quilt, and called it Jacob’s ladder.
How can we find the courage in life as things break apart around us? You see, I experienced the power of community 16 years ago, and so when we learned of these diagnoses, I knew that part of my healing was to seek out and find community and make something out of the broken pieces. JF&CS taught me that.
JF&CS taught me that however long, short, wide, or deep a true community might be, its impact is timeless. It’s like you throw a stone in a lake and the ripples extend out into forever. So the goal is not to make moments of true community last forever, but to inhabit them as fully as possible for as long as possible, and to carry their legacy with you. The ripples of the services I received from JF&CS, from miscarriage support, to lactation support, to new mom support, and to creative personalized support are still moving outward into forever. And then I think about all JF&CS does for everyone over so many years, and how it multiplies and multiplies out into forever in ways we never imagined at the time.
JF&CS is so many things: a safety net, a haven, a sanctuary, a soft place to land, a supportive network. But really you create community – fostering support, space, resources, and the relationships to nurture this journey wherever it ends up taking us. And I’m so grateful I can say I am part of this community.
To learn more about all of our home and community-based services for parents and infants, visit our Center for Early Relationship Support® page.