Today's two-paycheck economy often empties neighborhoods during the day, and isolates new mothers. Gone are the days when mothers met with their neighbors over the back fence or in each other's kitchens, where they could discuss the nitty-gritty of mothering.
Enter the Maternal Support System of Chester County, an 18-month-old nonprofit agency started by volunteers as a friendship network for new mothers. It offers a 24-hour ''warm'' line and a full schedule of monthly meetings.
The ready availability of a supportive listener helps to ease a new mother's anxiety. ''More than anything else, the new mother needs somebody to talk to. You think you're the only one until then,'' says cofounder Mary Helen Mapes.
The Maternal Support System was started by mothers Madelyn Kujowski and Mrs. Mapes after they met several years ago at a Chester County American Association of University Women (AAUW) meeting for mothers and children.
Support systems for new parents are a response to the national trend of postponing childbirth until parents are in their 30s, according to Dr. Martin Binder, consultant to the Mothers' Support System. In Philadelphia there is Booth Buddies of Philadelphia's Booth Maternity Hospital, a volunteer organization of older, trained parents offering encouragement and support to new parents. In Santa Barbara, Calif., AAUW member Jane Honikmen started Post Partem Education for Parents.
''The woman who has a career first and baby second finds herself far removed from the traditional family-support systems of mother, sister, and aunts when her first baby is born,'' Dr. Binder says.
The need for such organizations is accentuated by the fact that in the United States maternal education has generally been provided before childbirth for both mother and father, but not followed up afterward, according to Dr. Binder. Motherhood may be challenging and lonely for the woman who is used to the social contacts and stimulation, pressure and control of a career.
Mrs. Kujowski had been teaching at a secondary school in Utica, N.Y., going to graduate school, and attending prenatal classes with her husband before their first baby was born. When she came home from the hospital, her husband, an executive with General Electric, went on the road.
''I was trapped in the house with snow up to the second-story window, no need to get dressed up, and nobody to talk to,'' she recalls. A telephone-support line would have made a big difference in those first three months, she says.
Listeners on the Maternal Support System's warm line are mothers, not psychological counselors, who have learned to listen without being judgmental, to give information without offending, and to screen and refer the caller who needs more than a friendly chat.
Volunteers, who have had some training in early childhood development, recommend a list of books to the callers. They find that many mothers have no idea how a child is supposed to act at a certain age. ''Their expectations are too high,'' Mrs. Kujowski says. ''If you've come from a responsible position of authority, it is a shock to have a toddler shake his head and say, 'No.' They forget that no is a very easy word to say when you are just learning to talk.''
Many of the calls deal with eating, sleeping, and behavior problems and the new mother's feelings toward the baby.