In 1974, three Chicago Lamaze instructors found themselves
overwhelmed with questions from expectant parents. These soon-to-be
moms and dads were looking way beyond when to push and when to
breathe-they wanted help finding day care, choosing a pediatrician,
picking a car seat. And they wanted to hear it from those who had
been there before: other parents.
Jason Geil/Chicago Parent
Ian Smithdahal and his son, Gabriel, 3, in
Lincoln Park. Smithdahl says Neighborhood Parents Network has
helped him navigate the ins and outs of raising a kid in the heart
of the city.
So Mary Harris, Roz Woodward and Jo Miller organized a phone
hotline to try to provide some answers. Over the next several
years, small phone trees and babysitting co-ops sprang up around
the city and its suburbs. In 1980, one group, centered around
Chicago's North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Lakeview,
rebranded itself as the Northside Parents Network.
These parents saw themselves as somehow different, in the
trenches. While their peers were suburb-bound, they were navigating
uniquely urban issues: gentrification on the city's North and West
sides, upheaval in the public schools and finding parking for their
station wagons amid soaring real estate prices.
"Raising a child in a city like Chicago is just a different
experience, a little less intuitive," says Nancy Sinclair, who
joined NPN when her first daughter was born in 1980. "There are all
these challenges, which is why so many people end up leaving for
the suburbs. We're the ones who stay."
Thirty years later, NPN is still a mainstay for Chicago's
parenting community. Its name is now the Neighborhood Parents Network, and its
membership, 4,500 families strong, stretches from Evanston to Hyde
Park to the far West Side.
From a budget of just under $4,000 and an all-volunteer staff in
its early years, NPN has grown to 12 paid employees and a 2010
budget of $290,000, money that goes toward its annual school fair,
newsletter and events, from prenatal yoga to "Parent University"
courses. The school fair draws almost 100 organizations and its new
website will launch this fall, designed as a hub of Chicago tips,
parenting advice and events.
"It's a way to make the city feel smaller," says Sarah Cobb, the
group's executive director since last fall. "It can be easy to get
lost a little, especially when your neighbor might be a college
student or an elderly couple."
Neighborhood Parents Network is not a PTA; most families phase
out by the time their kids are in kindergarten, when school
communities start to take over. It is not purely a "meet-up" group
either, though events like zoo walks, park play dates and
neighborhood coffees are a big part of its programming. And it is
not solely a professional parenting advice organization, though
tips on choosing doctors and "let-your-baby-cry-it-out?" fly
through its local chapters and online discussion forums.
It is a little of all those things: the largest and most diverse
parent network in the city, with three decades of insider tips on
what it takes to raise a child on the potholed streets of
In today's world of Facebook and Twitter and 26 million mommy
bloggers, it's hard to remember parent networking before the
Internet age. But in the early days, NPN reached new members with
postcards alerting them to events in their area.
In the spring of 1980, one of those postcards arrived at
Sinclair's Lakeview home, inviting her to a drop-in coffee at Gill
Park. Her first daughter, Katie, was a few months old and she was
having trouble finding other first-time parents amid the
Wrigleyville bars and condos cropping up around the stadium.
"I can't tell you how valuable it was to find that community,
that group of other parents all trying to do exactly what I was
doing," says Sinclair, who attended a Memorial Day barbecue this
spring with several members from that group.
NPN had stopped sending out postcards by the time Cobb had her
daughter in 2001. She came to the group the way most of today's
members do: word of mouth. She and her husband were older than most
first-time parents, and many of the friends she would have turned
to had already done the panic thing.
"I had nobody who was exactly where I was and I had all these
questions," says Cobb, who joined the board of directors soon
after. "A co-worker said to me, 'You've got to check out NPN.'"
So she joined a new moms' group and found immediate comfort in
the home of another first-time mother. Meetings turned into
mornings at the park and, as the kids grew, discussions about
preschools over coffee.
"I went from panic attack to play group in about 10 days," she
says. "It was great to find all these women who were not only
dealing with the same thing I was, but had actively chosen to find
people to share it with."
In the beginning, NPN was a loose organization run entirely by
volunteers. Locations and events varied from week to week. The wife
of the pastor at St. Luke on Belmont was a member, so they started
holding meetings in the rec room. An early popular program was
"Mom's Morning Out," where parents could drop their child off for a
few hours and run errands.
Programs popped up in response to interest. A member with
writing experience started a newsletter, where parents could take
out classifieds for babysitters or advertise strollers for
NPN also responded to issues of the day. As car seats became a
hot topic in the 1980s, the group started a program to educate
parents on the new safety recommendations. When charter schools
moved into Chicago in the early 2000s, questions about education
became more pressing, so NPN started a school fair. The first year,
20 schools, mostly preschools, attended. This year, nearly 100
attended, and NPN is considering a similar event for day care
"Most of our programs have been really organic," says Lee Haas,
president of the board of directors. "People have a question and
realize other people have the same question, and so we try to
figure out how to get some good answers."
As NPN's membership rolls have grown, so has its public profile.
Earlier this year, its leaders met with Chicago Public Schools CEO
Ron Huberman to talk about mobilizing city parents on behalf of new
In 2003, NPN had 872 families on its membership rolls and now
stands at more than 4,500.
As the numbers have changed, so, too, have the faces. Once
centered in the largely white, upscale neighborhoods of Lincoln
Park, Lakeview and Roscoe Village, NPN now stretches across the
city and into Evanston and Oak Park. More than 700 families
attended an event in heavily Hispanic Pilsen in March, and over the
years, the organization has sprouted play and support groups for
single parents, adoptive parents, Asian parents, same-sex parents
and dozens more.
The group's programming has also evolved. In the 1980s and
1990s, potluck dinners and babysitting drop-offs made up most of
the calendar; today, NPN's "Parent University" series brings in
experts to talk about raising a "green" family and navigating the
ins and outs of school choice.
But Cobb insists that beneath all the changes, NPN's core
mission remains grounded in the same simple premise: gaining
confidence by connecting with other parents.
"I think we provide some answers to important questions, and we
try to stay relevant, but sometimes just knowing there are other
people out there with the same questions is the more valuable
part," she says. "That hasn't changed in 30 years, and I don't
think it will ever change."
Ian Smithdahl, a stay-at-home dad who joined NPN when his son,
Gabriel, was born four years ago, says the group's deep city roots
set it apart from other "meet-up"-type organizations.
"You can always find people who want to have a cup of coffee or
talk about burping," he says. "But people at (NPN) know Chicago and
they know parenting and they know how to be parents in
See more of Liz's stories here.
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