Only what you need for your baby. Really. (OK – and some fantastic things you don’t that are pretty cool.)
First, there’s Golden Gate Mother’s Group. It’s the most formally organized of all the ones I’ve joined. They started several years ago and are very professional and well-established – which means well-moderated forums, a snail-mail quarterly magazine (quite good), and hosted events year-round. (They use the word “moms” a lot but I assume it’s fine if dads join too.)
GGMG has a $75 annual fee, which I balked at but got over when I realized that they’re a deep resource for finding both gear and help (nannies, babysitters, doulas) and they offer discounts at places like Recess (indoor playground in Potrero), Peekadoodle (ludicrously expensive play and teaching space in Ghiradelli Square) and a number of baby stores in the city.
They also help set up local, age-specific playgroups for working and non-working moms/kids. (I went to one of those organizational events and it was super well-run but definitely skewed towards new moms, so you’ll have a wider array of moms and options if you go before your little one is six months old vs. when she’s 9-12 months as I did.) There’s also a lot of conversational advice and support on the forums (which I haven’t taken much advantage of since Astrid was born).
The main reason to join GGMG in my opinion is to have a wide and deep resource for finding childcare. We found our excellent postpartum doula, Caroline Kerherve, on their message boards, and the site has a dedicated recommendation board for nannies and babysitters, so you can read references and notes before you even talk to a candidate. (The site has recently standardized all submissions looking for or recommending childcare professionals. All posts are reviewed before going live and only first-hand recommendations and requests are considered, so it’s much more organized and reliable than the free-for-all on craigslist or even the neighborhood parents’ boards.)
The more local, more bare bones and free option are San Francisco neighborhood parents’ boards. The ones I belong to are all hosted on Yahoo and are message boards only. The sites do have “owners”, so you need to send a note requesting access, and the boards are usually moderated, albeit a little more passively than GGMG. You can get immediate email notifications of all posted messages (overwhelming!) or a daily digest (more reasonable) or just check the boards on the web site (you probably won’t, so if you want to keep up, get the daily digest).
The posts range from “I’m looking for [fill in the blank: a car seat to borrow for a week, a stroller bag, a wipes warmer, a high chair] does anyone have one to buy/borrow/give away?” to, “I’m selling/giving away _____ – does anyone need one?” to, “There’s a [kid-related event] everyone should know about,” to, “I need advice on [potty-training, kid-friendly holiday locations, brunch spots, switching to a toddler bed]!” to, “There’s a helicopter over my house – what is happening?”
You should definitely join at least a couple of these boards near you. Babies are expensive and go through their initial stages quickly, so buying or borrowing gear from other local parents is a great decision. I haven’t had a bad experience yet.
I belong to Noe, Potrero, Mission, and Bernal’s groups. Noe isn’t that active, Potrero and Mission are pretty active and Bernal is so insanely active I had to unsubscribe because of the volume. (I can still search or read online.) You can join by sending a note to the address listed on their home pages:
I’m sure there are other neighborhood local groups as well, and sometimes they’re difficult to find by just searching online. If you’re a member of GGMG, post on their boards asking about a group local to where you live or – maybe faster! – ask a neighbor mom if she knows where your ‘hood’s is online. They’re a fantastic resource.
(Berkeley also has a very active parents’ group at Berkeley Parents Network. It’s a great source of information for non-Berkeley parents too on general subjects like flying with kids and so on.)