by Mary Beth Bishop

When Roswell mom Mary Reese and her friends hit the road, all the chattering and catching up sometimes outshine the exciting places they visit.
Scattered across different states, Reese and her longtime girlfriends may not talk much during the year. But once they get together again, the conversation never ends. “They came to Atlanta last year and never left my house,” says Reese. The mother of two boys, ages 7 and 11, travels each year with a tightknit group of friends formed at North Carolina’s Salem College. She had places she wanted to take them in the metro area, but they couldn’t get organized to leave Reese’s home. They were too busy just catching up with each other.
Amid the laughter, they’ve steered each other through everything from bad boyfriends in their early years to providing support when more serious issues came along, including miscarriage and illness.
It’s an association born out of a long tradition. Two of the women’s mothers were also friends long ago at Salem and began the tradition of traveling with their own college friends. Reese and her college chums began their annual getaways shortly after graduating in 1989. Their adventures have included a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands and horseback riding in Colorado.
“It reminds you of who you were before you were a wife and mother,” Reese says. “It takes you back to your essential self. You can go back to who you are inside yourself and not who you are in the world every day.”
Steph O’Connell of Sandy Springs reaches even further back to recharge with some favorite girls. Last month she traveled to Boston and spent time with friends that she’s been close to since the seventh grade  “Self preservation is key,” she says, and friends are a vital connection for the busy mom of four boys.
She also loves to “step out of the mom zone” with local women friends (lots of fellow moms) for a monthly game of cards. “I get to be just Steph for at least one night a month.”
Melanie Bliss, who practices psychology in Decatur, says time with friends is “an important time to relax, to laugh, to commiserate, to share stories, to offer advice and give advice, and to just have fun.”
The mother of two children, ages 4 and 7, takes her own advice to heart, spending regular time with her book club as well as with another close group of friends. Since her husband often travels, she has to plan ahead for childcare, but she says time with friends is worth the effort: “I love not being responsible for anyone but me in that moment.”
“Often, women feel guilty taking time for themselves,” says Athens psychologist J. Kip Matthews. But he says the act of de-stressing with some good girlfriend time can, in fact, make a mother “more attentive and more connected to the child.”
 It also lets children know that friendships are worth the effort.
“I found it important to connect with gal pals when the girls were home as an example to them,” says Debra Baker Steinmann, whose girls are now grown with lots of close girlfriends of their own. “You never are a better mom than after you’ve had a break,” says Steinmann, who lives in the Northlake area.
It wasn’t always easy, but she tried to make time for quilting and other activities with friends when her girls were young. An added bonus for the kids: concentrated time with Dad.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow is reported to have once said, “The best way to mend a broken heart is time and girlfriends.” Girlfriends turned out to be the answer when Le’Dor Phoenix-Milteer of Marietta was fighting her postpartum blues.
Now Phoenix-Milteer makes time for friends every other week. On one birthday, she turned her home into a spa. She went all out with cocktails and music, candles and pedicures, and even fluffy robes.
“You work 40 hours a week and you’re still a wife and now you’re a mother,” says Phoenix-Milteer, whose son is now 2. “There’s traffic. You need to exercise and you want to feel beautiful. When do you look after yourself?”
Whether they have careers or stay home with their kids, she says the group “all agree that together we feel relevant and connected.”

Making it Work
Easier said than done? In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, fewer people said they spent time with their friends and family as a way to relieve stress: 38 percent in 2011 compared to 46 percent the year before. Here’s some advice on finding some time just for you:

  • “Put it on the calendar as a “have to” – just like any other appointment you must keep.
  • Share sitters for easier, more affordable fun.
  • Make it all about you. Matthews notes that young mothers often spend time with friends in conjunction with playdates for their kids. “This is good,” he says, “but it’s also important to have time alone to allow for adult conversation.”
  • Don’t be reluctant to pamper yourself just like you would your child. “Make it a big deal. Buy a new dress,” says Phoenix-Milteer. “It doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Cocktails in the Garden

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Beyond playing bunco or going out for dinner, there are lots of ways to spend time with girlfriends. Just a few ideas:
Movie Night: Sure, you can always join or start a book group – but that can mean homework, and maybe the book is not your cup of tea. For a lower-pressure “girls night out,” consider a regular movie outing, such as on the first Monday of each month. If you skip a month, no big deal; there’s always next month. Grab a glass of wine and an appetizer afterward.
Free Clothes, with Laughs: Judi Holley of Virginia-Highland gets together with longtime girlfriends for periodic clothes swaps. “You bring everything you don’t want and things people have given you,” says the mother of two. Even some things for husbands end up the mix. One at a time, the women present clothes they are ready to part with; the first gal to indicate she really wants something usually winds up with it – if it fits! Bonus: The hostess delivers leftover items (clothes, shoes, handbags, etc.) to places such as local women’s shelters. Holley says the swaps – which provide plenty of laughs – have allowed her to connect to her “former childless self.”
I’ve Always Wanted To…: Have each friend choose something she’s always wanted to do. The whole group could take a course on cooking fine desserts, for example, or perhaps even try a psychic reading.
Girls Night at Turner Field: The Atlanta Braves are celebrating Girls Night Out on Friday, Sept. 14. For $35 each, women get special hats, light blue boas and a pre-game party as well as outfield seats for the 7:30 game against the Washington Nationals. For tickets or info: braves.com/gno or call Stacey Nicely at 404-614-1325.
Cocktails in the Garden: September is the last month to catch Cocktails in the Garden on Thursday nights at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Explore the garden with a drink in hand and watch a chef whip up something yummy from the Edible Garden. The $18.95 admission price for non-members includes one cocktail; dinner is available for purchase. On display now are 19 sculptures by contemporary artists; these will be theatrically lit during the Thursday night events. For more information, visit atlantabotanicalgarden.org or call 404-876-5859.
Artsy Nights: One of Atlanta’s top art districts is open for business the second Friday of each month for an award-winning Art Stroll through Castleberry Hill. There are restaurants in the mix as well for those who think that abstracts and oils go better with appetizers and merlot. And while you’re there, why not try a free hand scrub at Iwi Fresh Garden Day Spa. Info: castleberryhillartstroll.com
Cupcakes Are for Moms: The Pink Pastry Parlor in Roswell has a party package just for grown-up little girls. The Sweet Sixteen – Again! package also includes a buffet of goodies and a Cupcake Tower Cake, activities and more. $399 for eight guests. For information call 770-650-7465.
Lots of businesses gives moms the chance to plan some grown-up play. Head to a skating rink, a cooking school or painting studio – whatever feeds your passion.

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