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Gymboree class caters to the cradle contingent [The Journal]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Journal
March 10, 1997

Northern Virginia families sometimes feel like they are stuck in a centrifuge—spun around and pulled apart. Two-income households, 10-hour workdays, and impossible traffic jams, are all to blame.

One area business—imported from California—seeks to counter some of the stress of the nonstop’ 90s. And it’s just the tonic Hilary Brandt needed.

The new mom just signed up 7-week-old son William for the class. “Until now, I was too scared to drive alone with him,” she said. But Brandt summoned her courage and headed for CradleGym, the newest program in the Northern Virginia branch of Gymboree play programs for newborns to 3-month-olds.

“I am here to learn how to play and interact and to see what I can be doing at this stage of the game,” said Brandt. “I’ve come to learn to be a better mother. I still feel very green at this. Every day it gets a little easier, but still, if I can learn tips on helping him stop crying, to sleep, I’d feel a lot better.”

The other five new mothers around Brandt, all sitting on multi-colored mats, let out a collective sigh as Wilma Hazen reached over to touch Brandt’s arm. The early childhood development expert is the owner of five Gymboree sites in Northern Virginia, and has helped hundreds of new moms get through those first few months.

“You can start to feel very isolated and go a little stir crazy,” she told the group. “New parents feel a need to be around other moms and dads. Once a couple has a baby, it is a completely new world for them. They need someone to answer their questions.”

As the mother of two (William, 16, and Corrine, 11), Hazen knows just how important it is to get support, encouragement and practical advice.

“Women used to live around their mothers and grandmothers, and that is where they learned about being a new parent,” she said. “These days, we are all scattered about and new parents don’t have moms or grandmothers to lean on to give practical tips or to tell you that you are doing a good job. We are here to try and be that sort of support group, and to fill in the gaps.”

Hazen was searching for some of helpful herself when her son, William, was only a few months old and Hazen didn’t want to return to her full-time job. But she needed to keep working.
She had heard about the program, begun by another mom in 1976. So, Hazen and her husband took the family for a trip out west to investigate. Upon seeing what Gymboree offered, they were sold.

“We fell in love with the concept of encouraging kids to explore their own abilities in a safe, supportive play environment,” says Hazen. “All that was really available to new parents in this area was a class at the Alexandria Recreation Center. But there were only a few spots and they would fill up very fast. We knew that opening a Gymboree site in this area would be successful.”

Parents sign up by the season and pay approximately $10 a session for an eight- to 11-week package. Although graduates of CradleGym get to climb red ladders, go through bright blue tunnels, and play under a big parachute, newborns are ready only for a few verses of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”

Topics of discussion include: What to do about crying (Hazen says it is perfectly normal for a newborn to cry about two or three hours a day, just to release tension and to communicate); how to ease the transition when it comes time for mom to go back to work; and how to help your child sleep.

“This is just good to go to a place where there are babies your child’s age, rather than go to a friend’s house who has older kids,” says Janet Miller, mother of 3-month-old Remy.

“I get ideas about how to play. The child development books tell you a lot of things, but they don’t teach you how to play.”

Carole Maslin, mother of 8-week-old Julia, just needs a reality check. “CradleGym gives me a lace to go. A place where I get to meet other mothers who can tell me I’m normal or not. I don’t really need to know if Julia is normal, but neither I am!”

Julie Shields, mother of 3-month-old Elizabeth, agrees. “It’s good for me to talk to the other mothers, and to have a semi-public place to nurse,” she says. “Plus, Elizabeth likes Wilma, especially her voice.”

In fact, Elizabeth and William are looking directly at the sing-songy voice of Hazen every time she speaks.

“Babies at this age listen to me,” says Hazen with a grim “If only my kids did, too, my life would be perfect.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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