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When she was struggling with postpartum depression, 'co-mothering' saved her


On this Mother's Day weekend, a recipe of sorts, passed down for generations. While growing up in Phoenix, Maria del Carmen Parra Cano watched her mother feed her own family and all the children who'd stop by. She was a kind of mother to many. Reporter Laurel Morales has the story of a young woman who's found a way to keep the memory of her mother alive.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: In Latin America, when a child scrapes a knee and comes running, it's common to hear a mother say, sana, sana. Heal, heal, little tail of the frog. If you don't heal today, you'll heal tomorrow. Carmen's mom, Maria Cristina, was so busy, she'd just shorten it.

MARIA DEL CARMEN PARRA CANO: She would just be like, OK, sana, sana. OK, now vamonos. Let's go (laughter).

MORALES: When it came time for Carmen to have her first baby, her mom stayed by her side - to listen, to tell stories and to cook her comfort foods, family recipes like quinoa con leche and a hot cinnamon drink called atolli. This is how Maria Cristina cared for her nine kids.

PARRA CANO: I don't know how my mom did it, but each of us felt - like, she would make time for each of us.

MORALES: Two years later, when Carmen was pregnant with her second child, Maria Cristina was having dizzy spells. On the day she was heading to the doctor, she fell, hit her head and died.

PARRA CANO: She would always tell us, when I die, don't cry - just have a big party. And we ended up having a funeral for her. And mariachis traveled throughout the state to play for her.

MORALES: Just three months after Maria Cristina died, Carmen had her baby. It seemed impossible to experience this momentous event without her mother to share it. She felt lonely and isolated and quickly fell into a depression.

PARRA CANO: I was grieving deeply, and even though I had a brand-new baby, I didn't have her with me at that moment.

MORALES: In the midst of that dark place, she turned to social media.

PARRA CANO: I started a long message via Facebook to people just pretty much telling them I needed help. I needed support. I needed community.

MORALES: The response was immediate. Within the next couple hours, she had a date with 10 other mothers. The group of women started meeting regularly. They talked about parenting and food and Carmen's Indigenous Nahua culture, and Carmen discovered the ingredient missing from her life - something called comadrismo.

PARRA CANO: The term comadre means co-mother. It actually comes from a Nahua word of comale. Comale - this was the person who would help birth the child and then became their godmother.

MORALES: They decided to call themselves the Cihuapactli Collective, which means women's medicine. Co-founder Perla Farias says after having four small children of her own, the group became a refuge where she could speak Spanglish and be understood, and someone always fed her for a change.

PERLA FARIAS: Coming together just really gave me a lot of comfort, and it made me feel like, OK, like, I can be a mom in this day and age with my family's teachings and just feel, like, a sense of community.

MORALES: When it came time for Carmen to deliver her third child, she was having complications and called in the comadres to prepare some dishes her mother, Maria Cristina, had once cooked for her.

PARRA CANO: OK, I need a caldo, which is like a stew. I would have to instruct, but it was all using my mother's recipes. And that really community care, having the strong community care is what helped me survive.

MORALES: Through those recipes, and the women who prepared them, Maria del Carmen Parra Cano says she's still co-mothering with her mom, Maria Cristina.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales.

SIMON: This story comes to us from the podcast "Two Lives." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Morales