Finding strength in numbers
Laura Giltrap from Ainslie, left, and Canberra MamaBake community manager Karen Swan. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Participants refer to it as internet dating for stay-at-home mums, but in reality MamaBake - a social occasion centred around cooking together - doesn't have the horror stories of internet dating for singles, and at the very least, you leave with a week of dinners sorted for the family.
MamaBakers describe the concept as a movement, a push toward sharing the load of motherhood to make time for yourself while eating well, and in Canberra it's catching on quickly.
The movement started in NSW three years ago when founder Michelle Shearer was given a lasagne by a friend, freeing her to go surfing for the afternoon instead of cooking dinner.
Joel Lewis, 19 months, from Palmerston and Alex Sakkas, 3, from Jerrabomberra play while the mums are busy. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
"The idea of cooking together and sharing the meals so that everyone could get some time off made sense and so MamaBake was born," the website proclaims.
Word spread through social media, which is how Karen Swan joined in. Two years ago she held her own MamaBake session, and today she is the community manager for the business which is catching on globally through social networks.
They know of groups as far and wide as Mozambique, Portugal and New York, showing there are no cultural boundaries to the notion of using a village to raise a child.
Karen invited us to her Jerrabomberra home to see firsthand how MamaBake works. The theory is each mother makes a big-batch of something - be it a meal or snack food - and, at the end, everything is divided up, and the mothers take home a variety of food for their families. "It's chaos," Karen explains.
"But it's chaos even if you're trying to do it on your own - cooking the evening meal with a toddler on one hip and a baby crying. It's chaos regardless, so you might as well have group chaos."
It's Thursday morning, and she has three "mamas" over - Yvonne Lewis, an old workmate from their pre-baby days, Pia Rowe, one of Karen's ''best mates'' since they first met in an early MamaBake session, and Laura Giltrap, a new convert to the movement since having her first baby last year.
"I don't know any stay-at-home mums," Laura says. She moved to Canberra from Sydney a few years ago so "meeting someone else who's at home during the day with kids is nice."
She found MamaBake on Facebook, then joined the Canberra-specific group and put a call out to join a cooking session.
"It's blind dating, except for stay-at-home mums," she jokes.
"We're like an introduction agency, with food," Karen says.
While the service is great for Canberra's sometimes-transient population of mothers, cooking with strangers isn't necessarily how it usually works.
"It's easier if you start out with people that you know, because you are inviting people into your home … and people tend to get a little bit bogged down in the logistics of it, so it's easier if you're in a situation where you're comfortable," Karen says.
"But if you've just moved somewhere and you don't know anyone, it's a really good way to also meet people."
The logistics of each cooking a dish to feed four families at the same time does seem daunting, but no big issues seem to eventuate and one sliced finger is the only injury, quickly fixed with a band-aid.
Karen's kitchen isn't large - a bench with just enough room for the four women to chop vegetables for the big pumpkin spinach and chick pea curry Pia is cooking.
Yvonne has her "noatmeal cookies" baking - now that Karen has found a tray that actually fits in the oven - so she volunteers to chop onions, something she says she can do without crying.
Karen's butter chicken is bubbling on the stove. Laura pre-cooked (a popular option) home-made baked beans, so she is free to assist in the food prep and help keep an eye on the kids, who are playing together around the house.
Everything on the menu is gluten-free to cater for coeliac Karen, and while Yvonne has a preference for paleo food, free of dairy, grain and sugar, she is happy to go home with some dishes that may not comply.
But says she's never gone home with something inedible.
"All the meals I've had have all been really good - some of them may not be what you'd normally eat, but none of them have been awful."
"I think you're just so grateful for it at six o'clock …[when] the kids are going a bit nuts - you're happy to pull out anything you don't have to actually do other than put it in the oven and carry on with what you're doing."
The women all seem to have similar attitudes to food, with Pia describing them as "semi-foodie" types.
"We all just want to feed good food to our kids and use as little processed stuff as possible, but when you're a mother you're just so pressed for time all the time," she says before she rushes off to collect her four-year-old and come back.
Karen says her stocked - sometimes overflowing - freezer makes for better choices.
"If you've had a bad day or a rushed day or whatever and you know you've got something healthy pre-prepared in the freezer, you're not going to stop at Maccas on the way [home].
"I mean we've all had those days when we've had cornflakes for dinner, but this kind of means you don't have to."
The mention of cereal for dinner struck a chord with me, raising the question of the concept expanding to different demographics. Apparently there are already spin-offs.
"There is SisterBake - so working women, [it's the] same thing - grab the girlfriends, couple of bottles of wine, cook one night, come home after a hard day at work and you've got dinner. We have BlokeBake, too," Karen says.
Jokes of barbecued sausages aside, she makes the point that cooking "needn't just be the realm of mothers" but said the reality was it often fell to mothers.
Working mothers aren't forgotten by MamaBake either, and while finding time on a weekend can prove tricky, it's where the social network can help.
"It's just as or even more important for the working mums, too, so that the time they are home they can spend with their kids, not stressing about what they're going to feed them while they're trying to get them in the bath," Karen says.
Central to the MamaBake movement is their "mamafesto" which includes the slogan "curiosity without judgment" - something they pride themselves on.
"It's not a contest, it's not who's the best cook, who made the most gourmet meal, who spent the most amount of money," Karen explains. Indeed, there is never any mention of money, with the ''what goes around comes around'' attitude prevailing.
"There should be no feelings of 'oh, it's MamaBake, what am I going to make? What are they going to think? What if my house is a mess? What if my kid's in a really bad mood?' It's not what it's about; it's come as you are, if your house is clean, awesome, if your house isn't clean, doesn't matter - no one's going to come over for a MamaBake and say 'what's all that washing?'
"It's kind of smashing that myth of the perfect mother and the perfect household, perfect kids, because it doesn't exist."