When Mari Mineta Clapp became a mother in September 1987, her world was upended. The 26-year-old PR professional, always so accomplished at work, couldn't get out of her bathrobe. Home alone with her infant daughter, Michelle, she worried that she was doing everything wrong.
At the suggestion of her husband, Clapp joined a support group for new moms at San Jose's Good Samaritan Hospital, where she had given birth. It turned out to be a decision that would change her life. There, she met nine other women with whom she could share in the joys and anxieties of new parenthood. Almost three decades later, the 10 women kept their "playgroup" going, later adding a regular Moms' Night Out and family vacations. The friendships endured, even when four of the women and their families left the Bay Area. They also supported one another through divorces, financial hardships, the death of one of the dads and a son going to war.
The moms rendezvous for weekends in October, and the families gather for an annual Christmas party in San Jose. As for their 23 offspring, they are now 17 to 26 years old. Their group includes high school graduates and women with college degrees, Republicans, Democrats, agnostics and a Mormon who, unlike her friends, eschews coffee and wine.
In an era when people move away and friendships come and go, Clapp and her friends appreciate that they have created an enduring proverbial village, even though it never occurred to any of them to try.
"We started on a journey together because we loved our babies and wanted to be great moms, and never dreamed this 'playgroup' would develop into these lifelong friendships," Clapp said. "We celebrated together as our children took their first steps and started school, and it's amazing that we're still together at their weddings and as they start their own families."
So what made it click? A shared sense of humor and an ability to roll with people's different backgrounds and personalities, they agree, as well as the willingness to avoid judgment and competition.
"When you're with friends with babies, there is a tendency to compare your kids and how they are doing, but we were doing it in a positive way," said Janice Akridge. She was the first mother to move away with her family when her husband's job reassignment took their family to northern Virginia when her oldest son was 6. But her playgroup friends always kept her in the loop, and Akridge hosted a moms' D.C. tour in 2012.
When the playgroup began, all 10 women lived in and around San Jose, with babies born between August and December 1987. Most of the new moms were in their mid-20s to early 30s.
The hospital group was held Wednesday mornings in a basement meeting room cluttered with moms, babies and strollers. After a nurse offered newborn care tips, a core group hung around to talk.
Judy Barrier was grateful when her new friends continued their conversations over lunch. Her son Josh, born 10 weeks premature, was a sensitive infant who didn't sleep much, and she needed some company. "It was one more thing to do before going home alone with the baby," she said.
When their babies "outgrew" the hospital's support group, the women organized regular gatherings on their own. These included "restaurants with toddler misadventures," zoo trips, Easter egg hunts and joint birthday parties, said Melanie Molinaro, a mother of three who lives in Atlanta.
After some mothers returned to work, they arranged play dates to accommodate everyone's schedule. Mom-bonding gained new urgency when the women gave birth to second or third children.
The frequency of play dates decreased after the "first" generation of kids started kindergarten, often at different schools in the area. Still, the moms continued their monthly nights out, occupying large tables at restaurants where they often kept talking past closing time.
The families also started to vacation together. A popular destination was the city of San Jose's Family Camp, near Yosemite National Park. The best part of these trips was watching the kids laugh and play games together. "They were amazing together, like cousins," Barrier said.
Jackie Sanders and her family first moved to Danville when her oldest, Stephanie, was about 8, then a few years later to the Czech Republic for a two-year stint. Sanders and her family traveled from Europe one summer to go to Family Camp. "My kids didn't want to miss it," Sanders said.
When the women first became friends, they expected their families to prosper, their marriages to endure and their kids to grow up to be happy and healthy. But they soon learned the hard lesson that "no one's life is perfect," Anne Barbin said.
They reassured one another when their kids faced challenges. Barbin said the moms helped her understand "it was going to be OK" when her son, Jeff, then 9, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
The playgroup's first divorce came in 2000. This mom, who didn't want her name publicly associated with her breakup, remembers sharing her fears about having to support herself and her kids. "Whether it was the physical arms wrapped around me or the emotional support, I felt very loved," she said.
The dot-com bust cost Renne Kruger's husband his business. In 2004, they relocated to Phoenix, and she and her son and daughter had to leave friends behind. But Kruger felt rejuvenated following visits with her friends at Christmas or to Barbin's house on the Delta. "It was so good to be around what I considered my anchors," she said.
Her "anchors" also supported her when she separated from her husband and returned to California, and her son, Kevin, joined the Army and served in Iraq.
The group reached out to Akridge in 2006 when her husband, Lee, suddenly died of a heart attack at age 52. Six years later, she introduced her friends to her new boyfriend during the moms' D.C. trip. "They were my cheerleaders."
All the women feel proud they created something of the proverbial village to raise their kids into happy, thriving teens and adults. Parents helped friends' children apply to college or edited their résumés, and Rita Becerra's husband, Steve, a real estate agent, worked with two to buy their first homes. Like his wife, he calls the "playgroup" his second family and says the kids "are like my kids."
"Now that I have a baby, I wish I had a group like that," said Ashley Bernal, Molinaro's daughter, who lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and 14-month-old son.
But as a playgroup kid, Bernal has close friends she's known since she was a baby, including Sanders' daughter Stephanie, who was the maid of honor at her wedding in Salt Lake City in 2009. And like her mother and her friends, Ashley and Stephanie might only see each other once a year, but "we just pick up where we left off."
For Clapp, the playgroup initially motivated her to get dressed every day and get out of the house -- but it also taught her the meaning of friendship: "I feel like in today's world, the word 'friends' has been redefined over and over again by Facebook or Twitter. We feel so blessed to have friends in the old-fashioned sense."
By the Numbers
23 kids, ages 17 to 26
16 college grads
1 Iraq War veteran
Meet the Moms and their Kids
"Although we were very close, we still had our separate lives, so we weren't totally dependent on the group. And we're all very different, and we appreciate all our differences. That's what makes our group work so well."
-- Janice Akridge, Reston, Va., Realtor; sons, Doug and Stephen
"One important way we were able to support each other was that it was a comfort to know that we were going through the same joys and challenges as our children, and families, grew and progressed through new phases and stages of development -- first smile, first words, first steps, first day of school, college graduation, first loves, first jobs, and now weddings and grandkids!"
-- Marian Gericke, San Jose, special needs teacher;
sons, Kevin, who is engaged, and A.J.
"One of the things you learn is that no one one's life is perfect. You might assume they have it easier in this arena, but what this group really taught us is to not be judgmental. Everyone has their stuff."
--Anne Barbin, San Jose, manages finances for a family business, and wine bar host; children, Jeff, Katherine and Dustin
"Sometimes people don't have families around anymore. It was just helpful to have the support of these women, with so many different ideas and opinions. We could agree to disagree."
-- Rita Becerra, San Jose; children, Nick and Rachel
"The Good Sam hospital playgroup was a major turning point for me and I was able to get up and get dressed every day after that."
--Mari Mineta Clapp, Saratoga, PR professional;
children, Michelle, Tommy and Marissa
"They've come to Georgia for the GRITS (Girls Rendezvousing In The South) "tour." I hosted and we adventured, explored, soaked in Southern charm."
--Melanie Molinaro, Atlanta; children, Ashley (Bernal),
who is married and mother of one son, and Justin and Tyler
"When we moved away, the playgroup gave us a going-away party. The kids got these pillow cases with all their friends' pictures on them and a poem about how much they'll miss them. It was potentially the last time we would have been close. My kids to this day still have those pillow cases."
--Jackie Sanders, El Dorado Hills;
children, Stephanie, Grant and Gabrielle
"It felt so good to have many friends who truly loved and enjoyed my girls. I feel the same way now. It's such a comfort and a joy when the "girls" ask about my daughters, and so fun for me to hear about their kids' adventures and accomplishments."
--Laura Lewis, Saratoga, kindergarten teacher; daughters, Alison (Caldaurulo), married August 2013, and Caitlin
"When we first started going to San Jose Family Camp, which has so many priceless memories, we decided we could get a "better" campsite if we went and stood in line all night, literally! So we did, and I will just say the last time we did it, we did get an OK spot, but it meant getting home at 6 a.m. and freezing our butts off that night. Great memory though!"
--Judy Barrier, Salinas, office manager;
son, Josh, who is engaged
"I was 31 when Kevin was born. I was working in an office, a secretary in a telecommunications company. I had friends at work, but once you have a baby you can't go out for drinks with them and do all those things anymore. And people get tired of hearing stories about your child if they don't have them. So, I wanted to meet people who were in the same boat."
--Renne Kruger, Lincoln, Calif., business owner;
daughter, Shawna, and son, Kevin, an Iraq War vet who is married and has two children