The term “mateřské centrum” (mother center) seemed sexist to me when I heard it; however, when I actually visited my first Czech mothers’ centre in Prague’s Malešice neighborhood, I was struck by how appropriate (if still sexist) the label was at that moment. When I entered the center, housed in a section of a Czech state preschool, I found a group of mothers and children seated in a circle around one mother-teacher who lead the class in English songs accompanied by her guitar. It was the perfect hippy-bohemian dream, mothers in tights and woolen sweaters sipping on tea and coffee while small children shouted out English rhymes. It was mid-afternoon and not a father in sight, which made sense considering the Czech Republic’s then 3-year standard maternity leave.
At that time, I’d been living in Prague as a mother for only a few months, but it’d taken me most of the long Prague winter before I’d gotten up my nerve to check out a course I’d seen on the internet called anglická herna (English playgroup). Even though the course was called an “English playgroup” I didn’t know if the other children would be bilingual like Anna or if any of the mothers would speak English. Finally, I met a Czech mother at a baby swimming class who attended the English playgroup and she convinced me to meet her there the following week.
Taking our place in a circle, we all joined the others in singing and listening to familiar children’s songs. Anna and I mixed up the words since most of the versions used the British text, but we just laughed and kept on singing. After the class Anna raced with the other children while my friend introduced me to the center’s founder and director who’d led the English playgroup that day.
After a few minutes of chatting about our personal backgrounds, we found we were both a part of a mixed cultural marriage. The conversation came around to teaching English and I volunteered that I’d taught TEFL in Prague for two years. Before I knew it I had agreed to teach two courses of English for mothers on maternity leave in the upcoming semester. I hadn’t come to the center looking for a job, but I was interested in finding more ways to actively fit into the Czech community. I also wanted to find other bilingual families who might understand the challenges and the pleasures of settling a family here. I left the center thrilled at the chance to meet new Czech friends and the idea of practicing my teaching skills once again.
In addition to teaching the English courses, during which Anna played with the other children under the watchful eye of a babysitter, we also started going to a kid’s music class and we tried to keep up with the English playgroup. Through friends I also learned about a two other mother centers in neighboring districts and we made frequent visits to try out different courses and make broader connections.
Since the first mother center was started in the Czech Republic in 1992, these grass-roots centers have spread rapidly throughout the Czech community. Initially modeled on the German mother center concept, the Czech mother center quickly adapted its own identity, offering a community network for mothers who shared common ideals of child raising and strengthening family ties in the post-Communist era. Today mother centers across the country offer regular activity courses for children, family counseling, and special integration programs for mothers on maternity leave, including career counseling, computer and language training. Without the competition prevalent in a larger city, many of the centers in smaller villages play a critical role in providing mothers and fathers with community support systems that didn’t exist under the Communist rule. In recent years, the concept of a “rodinné centrum” (family center) has also taken hold, with special course offerings and sports activities just for fathers. Weekend courses, weekend family retreats and week-long summer camps are becoming increasingly popular ways to integrate the activities of the community center with family life.
When we moved from our Žižkov neighborhood to a village on the outskirts of Prague, one of my main laments was losing our mother centers filled with familiar faces and their array of interesting opportunities for toddlers to school-age children. However, there are some mother centers in our nearby villages too. With Anna now in preschool, Oliver and I have signed up for an exercise course and an arts and crafts class at a family center in the next village. Our first class starts in October, and we’re both eagerly awaiting the new faces we’ll meet.