Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Letter To A New Mother (What Not To Say)

A friend of ours had a baby last week, and when I sat down to write her a card, I realized how many things people say to new moms that aren't helpful or true, and vowed to never say these things again. Truth be told, some of them are actual quotes of things that were said to me:
  1. Aren't you totally in love with your baby?
  2. How are you sleeping?
  3. We're going to Starbucks -- wanna come?
  4. Let me hold him!
  5. Oh, I washed my hands this morning.
  6. You're not breastfeeding in here, are you?
  7. Which one is the good one? (when I had twins)
  8. Ouch!! That's why I would want a c-section/epidural/home birth!
Let's think, for a moment, of what a new mother could actually be feeling in the first weeks and months after she's given birth. In all likelihood, not great. Or maybe fabulous. But you won't know unless you ask, and give permission to mama to let you know what you might not be predisposed to hear.
  1. That whole instant-mother-love myth can, in fact, be a myth. And if you don't feel so into your baby, like I didn't, it can feel extra crappy for people to keep pointing out your lack of maternal instincts and feelings. Far better to offer a gentle opening -- "What an amazing little being. You guys are going to get to know each other so well. You know, I even have a friend (okay to fib) who said it took a couple weeks to really connect with her baby. Everyone's different."
  2. People are obsessed with your sleep. Often it's because it's the only thing they remember about the early days if they have children, or the only thing they've heard if they don't. It's none of your business, and not helpful at all to focus on it. Try this instead -- "The best part about being with a newborn is how time makes no sense. Ditch the clock and sleep when baby sleeps. Did you know sleeping through the night is defined as five consecutive hours? So don't stress about it. Stay in your pjs for the next forty days, if you can."
  3. This last-minute invite thing is going to come up a lot. Sometimes from childless friends, sometimes from friends with older kids, and sometimes from friends with full-time nannies. I know that part of it is because you still think of the new mom as her former self, but she can't really get up and go on a dime. So if the old gang is heading out for lattes and leaving her behind, offer to bring her takeout or just be quiet about it.
  4. The baby is cute, I know, but he/she just came out of someone's womb. Sometimes that womb feels a little empty, and it can be weird to watch your newborn passed around to all assembled. If other people are nuzzling your baby, it can feel like your services are no longer needed. (That's why it's great for new moms to nurse -- they have a reason to get baby back. So if you do get to hold the baby, give him or her right back.
  5. Wash them again.
  6. Wherever here is -- hospital room, living room, car -- is where the new mom is stuck for now, and however she gave birth, moving around might be a tad uncomfortable. So if you have issues with breasts, make yourself scarce. And, by the way, babies signal their need to nurse by opening their little mouths like baby birds and rooting around. By the time they're crying, it's too late. Pay attention, and let mom know it's okay to feed her baby.
  7. I almost have no words, and that's pretty unusual. :) How about never, ever asking a parent of twins to differentiate them based on value judgements? Not even, which one talks more, or any personality trait they could take on. Just offer, a simple, "God bless you. That's amazing to have two/three/four infants at once." Leave out the "I don't know how you do it" -- she doesn't either!
  8. If the mother feels like sharing her birth story with you, hear it, and reflect on what she's said, so matter how scary or against your personal biases it may be. Because, guess what? That's the birth she had, and telling the story is how she processes it and makes peace with it. If something seems to upset her, you almost can't be wrong by saying, "that's not at all unusual." We all just want to hear that we did our best.
My favorite things to hear as a new mother?
  • "What can I get you to eat?"
  • "May I make the beds?"
  • "Where's your washer and dryer?"
  • "You hold the baby -- I'll take your toddler/dogs out for a walk"
  • And, the all-time winner, after all of the above have been said, "Lie down/have a shower/I'll let myself out."

Oh, one last thing. I've had four babies. I thought they were all pretty amazing looking when I met them (except for one). When I look back at the pictures, though, the truth is that most babies are pretty hideous. So lie. (I had someone actually say to me that my baby looked better in person than in the photos I'd sent her -- what?).

"The baby's beautiful, and so are you."

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