When Cynthia Tinajero got pregnant, she prayed that her mother would understand the news.
Tinajero had recently moved across the country for her marriage. She felt isolated, lonely and a little crazy from the pregnancy hormones. Not to mention that her mother had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease a decade earlier. And so when her daughter told her the news, Guadalupe Tinajero’s eyes were blank.
In an effort to try to snap out of her depression, Tinajero sought out other pregnant women online, hoping the strangers would become friends whom she could ask the questions her mother could no longer answer.
The relief she felt after a first meeting over pizza — hours of talking and laughing and sharing all the worries and annoyances and bliss and confusion of a first pregnancy — led her to start groups for other women in Northern Virginia. She named it Mamistad, a combination of the Spanish words for mommy and friendship.
In a few years, membership has grown by word of mouth to nearly 1,000 mamis. For a small fee, Tinajero matches first-time pregnant women by location, due date and post-baby career plans. The dozen or so women in each group then plan when and where to meet and talk and vent. Tinajero has watched women form such strong friendships that they timed their second pregnancies together, and their children are now best friends, too.
Maybe it has struck such a chord in the Washington area because so many people have left homes, friends and families behind for careers in the capital. Or because Tinajero has poured so much into it. She tells the stressed-out, overwhelmed soon-to-be moms not to worry so much: “Don’t miss the miracle.”
Being unable to communicate with her mother sparked the idea, and her mom’s lifetime of helping others made her want to share it with other women feeling as alone as she did. “I think I needed an outlet for all the passion and love my mom taught me,” she said.
And, in a small way, she hopes it helps ensure that Guadalupe Tinajero and all her lessons are not forgotten.
Tinajero’s first memories of her mom are of her going to church, praying the rosary, and taking care of her own mother, who was sick. She remembers grabbing her conservative, ladylike, tiny little mother to dance cheek-to-cheek with her to make her laugh.
Guadalupe Tinajero grew up in Amarillo, Tex., where she became an elementary school teacher, stern but loving, and later a principal at the Catholic school her children attended. She seemed to know everyone in Amarillo — her students and their families and at church, Cynthia said.
Guadalupe spent so much time helping her children, her mother, and others, Cynthia’s twin brother, Carlos Tinajero, said, that she almost seemed to need it — cooking chicken mole to bring to someone, or hurrying to the hospital to pray at someone’s side.
“I learned to give and to love unconditionally because of my mother,” Cynthia said.
Like most of the women, Christina Perez Bass found Mamistad when she was looking for help on how to be a mom. Her mother died when she was very young and she didn’t have any friends who were about to start families.
“Pregnancy is almost like a cult,” she said, with people talking publicly about how wonderful it is to give birth and raise children, but not about the hard parts. There’s pressure, too.
Her Mamistad group became the place where she could vent and ask about whether she was doing the wrong thing, without feeling judged. “It has definitely made me a better mom,” she said.
Constanza Rutland, an obstetrician in Fairfax, heard about Mamistad from her sister and a patient. She agreed to go to one of the monthly sessions at which expectant mothers question new moms, doctors, midwives and experts on nursing. She was surprised that the questions they asked were different from those she was used to from patients; they were more personal, more honest.
The women first meet while pregnant. Some drift away, but others keep getting together to reassure one another about caring for newborns, give advice on managing toddlers, and let the children play together as they get older.
“I get teary-eyed at every [introductory] meeting when I look at them sitting there with their little bellies,” worried and overwhelmed, Tinajero said. She wants them to know they can get help for post-partum depression and advice for their newborns. “Just be kind to yourself. This world can be so harsh. Don’t get caught up in all this. . . . This is the most beautiful, amazing part of your life.”
Guadalupe Tinajero was 59 when her family realized something was wrong. Cynthia, who was working as an investment manager in California and doing acting on the side, left her friends and moved to Texas to take care of her mom.
She and her husband, Reggie Brothers, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for research, brought Guadalupe to the Washington area after they got married. Their Vienna home is an eight-minute drive from the nursing home where Guadalupe lives, and Cynthia visits daily, just as her mother did with Cynthia’s grandmother. She shares breakfast with her, brushes her hair, prays with her, holds the hands that are just like her own.
Jasmine Brothers, 5, knows the place so well that she can run right to her grandmother’s room, to the swing set outside.
A few days ago, Guadalupe, who rarely speaks, only occasionally making sounds, said her daughter’s name. Cynthia couldn’t believe it: Did she remember her? “I’d like to think so,” she said.
Her mother, confined to bed or a wheelchair that rolls over the institutional green formica floor, seems strangely joyful for a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient. She smiles, she laughs, she giggles.
Cynthia wrapped her hands around her mother’s smooth face. She kissed her, and stroked her graying black hair. Guadalupe’s dark eyes held her daughter’s, and she laughed softly.
“Hi, Mama,” Cynthia said.