Jill Talbott is the picture of the put-together mom: makeup, nice black sweater, khaki shorts, black sandals. Her 5-week-old daughter Emma, nestled in a pretty pink outfit, seems content in her stroller.
But Talbott has brought this composed exterior to an overcrowded room in the depths of Greater Baltimore Medical Center only to explode the illusion.
"She's been smiling all the time," Talbott, 33, says of her daughter to the room full of new mothers. "And then she throws up on me."
Her tiny insides roiling from acid reflux, Emma has been screaming around the clock. Talbott's incision from her Caesarean section still hurts. Her husband keeps looking at her as if she's crazy. The Sparks mother jokes -- with that kernel of truth that makes a joke good -- that she has thought about flinging herself through a window or fleeing the jurisdiction to escape this new existence.
The mothers listen as best they can. Their babies, many still small enough to fit along a forearm, are alternately eating, wailing, sleeping, filling their diapers and coolly appraising their surroundings.
The mothers are here to consult with Dee Dee Franke: registered nurse, baby whisperer and, to many new mothers, patron saint.
By the end of a four-hour session of "Mother to Mother," the free weekly support group Franke has run at the hospital for 12 years, two of more than a dozen mothers present will have confided that they are seriously depressed. Several others will have raised their hands to confess that only with the help of medication did they start to feel themselves again.
Nearly everyone admits to crying -- a lot. And to mourning the unexpected loss of their former identities. And to loving their tiny companions more than they ever thought possible.
Taking it all in, Franke, 44, is part confessor, part motivational speaker, part one-woman comedy show. Her voice is permanently raspy, from shouting from the sidelines in her other job as a girls' lacrosse coach, and from years of talking, talking and talking to mothers. They cling to her as one might to a field guide with the only map out of the jungle. No question is too small or too stupid.
Psychiatrist Ildiko Hodde made her way to Franke's group after she delivered her first child three years ago. New mothers "are in a very vulnerable stage, and there's really not an outlet or forum where they can get their questions answered," she said.
Hodde was so impressed with Franke that the two teamed up to start an evening group at the hospital for mothers with postpartum depression. Neither is paid for that work.
'Surrender to chaos'
For the main mothers' group, Franke's got secrets and strategies. When shopping with a hungry baby, nurse in a dressing room. Wrap a crying infant in a blanket tight as a burrito. Take regular walks with other moms. Buy a rectal thermometer; you'll get a more accurate temperature, and, trust her, the baby won't break.
The biggest secret of all: The baby magazines, books and prenatal classes don't give a clue about how crazy early motherhood can be.
"Where do they tell you in the baby book that you may find yourself sitting on the toilet, nursing your baby?" she said during one session.
She ticks off seemingly impossible numbers with the aim of making mothers feel better about them. Three blown-out diapers a day? Perfectly normal. Only three hours of sleep at a stretch? Also normal. Zero sex? Comes with the territory.
She calls babies peewees and butternuts and firecrackers. She believes in bringing the baby to bed with you if she's had a bad night, and using a pacifier for a while if it helps. She thinks that you can never hold an infant too much. Her motto is "Surrender to chaos."
And surrender to new love. Rita Blackwell, 37, is going back to work. How will she leave baby Langston after just 12 weeks? "I just love him so much, I don't want to leave him," she says. (Franke's advice: If it makes you feel better, call the sitter every five minutes to see how he's doing.)
Franke tells Jill Talbott about www.reflux.org, a Web site with information about the disorder. As for the incision pain, Franke wonders whether Talbott is doing too much.
"I don't think so," said Talbott. "I carried the groceries in yesterday."
"You know what I would say?" asked Franke.
"Don't do that?"
"Don't do it."
Tips and friendships
The mothers share their own tips. One confided that she'd used a bag clip to hold her swaddled baby's blanket closed. Another raved about the women's restroom at the Towson Nordstrom, which has a room for feeding and changing.
They branch off into friendships that, in some cases, last until their children are toddlers and beyond. Franke insists that they introduce themselves by neighborhood. Lately, mothers have been meeting several times a week to walk at a Lutherville park. Some gathered recently at a pottery studio, making photo frames for Father's Day decorated with their babies' footprints. Some meet again on Thursday mornings at a similar support group, sponsored by St. Joseph Medical Center, that also has run for about 12 years.
As much as she wants to make moms feel good, Franke won't hesitate to tell them when she thinks they're doing something wrong. She listens with pursed lips as one mother admits that sometimes she lets her 5-week-old daughter sleep on her stomach, despite pediatricians' advice to put infants on their backs.
You can't ignore the fact that back-sleeping has decreased SIDS by 40 to 60 percent, she tells the mother. "I know what I just struck into you: Mommy guilt," she apologizes.
Even the subject of post-baby sex is on the table. Franke encourages the women not to neglect their marriages, because new fathers often feel sidelined. Yet she says that after tending to their babies all day, new mothers are often "touched out."
"You're a little afraid: If you start giving them a little attention, omigod -- where's it gonna go?" Franke says to laughs of recognition.
Dee Dee Dowden grew up in the suburbs of Washington, the second of four children. A graduate of the University of Maryland School of Nursing, she worked as a labor and delivery nurse and later became a childbirth educator and breast-feeding consultant.
She married Bill Franke, now a state parole administrator. Starting when she was 27, they had three children in three years and four months -- a boot-camp-like immersion that led Franke to understand that new mothers need mothering, too.
That comes out in her group. She freely tells the story of the time when, overwhelmed, she laid one baby on a blanket in the dining room and simply walked away. (She walked only to another room to take a breather, but it felt like another country.)
"I'm pretty type A, but the greatest gift my kids gave me was surrendering control," she said. "That's not really a gift I thought I wanted."
While mothers -- and her advice to them -- have stayed much the same in the last 12 years, both also have changed. These days, Franke said, "Women are fed this thought that you can do it all, you can do it 100 percent."
Franke is known to make house calls. Nancy Riess, 32, has benefited from her Stoneleigh home's proximity to Franke's in Anneslie. Franke has shown up some nights to help baby Gabrielle nurse or sleep.
"She's amazing," said Riess. "My baby pooped all over her; she didn't care. She's got a gift."
Sometimes, the greatest gift Franke gives is the reassurance that all is well.
Before the mothers' group began one day, Karena Rush, holding her 10-week-old daughter, Bryn Mortenson, pulled Franke aside.
"I didn't want to say this in front of the 4-week-olds," Rush semi-whispered, "but she slept nine hours last night. Is that OK?"
Franke reared back. "You kiss that baby, Honeybun!" she said. "Kiss it and enjoy it."
Help for mothers
When: 10 a.m. Tuesdays
Where: Greater Baltimore Medical Center, 6701 N. Charles St., Towson
The free group is for mothers with babies up to 8 weeks old. A group for mothers with babies 8 weeks to 1 year old meets Fridays at GBMC and costs $7 per session with a discount for multiple visits.
Other support groups:
* Anne Arundel Medical Center's Infant Play Group costs $15 for four sessions at the medical center in Annapolis. Call 443-481-4000.
* Healthy Families Howard County, a free group for parents of children up to 3 months of age, meets weekly at Howard County General Hospital. Call 410-715-3716, Ext. 223.
* St. Joseph Medical Center's free mothers' support group meets at 10:30 a.m. Thursdays at First Lutheran Church of Towson, 40 E. Burke Ave. Call 410-337-1880.
Other hospitals have similar parent support programs; call them directly for details.