It was about ten days after the birth of my first baby. My husband was back at work, the visiting family had gone home, and my mom, who lives close by, still checked in often but had resumed her normal schedule and commitments. In other words, I was on my own.
I was on my own, but I wasn’t alone in the house. As a gift, my parents had arranged for a cleaning service to come for the day – just to help get the house back to semi-normal as we adjusted to life with a newborn. Sounds wonderful, right? Generous, thoughtful, and just what a new mom should want. But as the housekeeper scrubbed my kitchen counters and un-stuck pots and pans from a week-old Jenga puzzle in the sink, I sat on my bed at the other end of the house holding my daughter and having a quiet panic attack.
Like most hormonal/emotional breakdowns viewed from a distance, this one doesn’t make much sense now, but I’ll do my best to put into words what I was feeling. It went something like this:
I’m hungry, but I can’t go make myself breakfast because there is a stranger in my kitchen. And I can’t face the stranger because I’m not wearing a bra. I’m not wearing a bra because I haven’t showered. I can’t shower because I don’t know what you’re supposed to with a baby while you shower. What if she cries? What will the stranger think? I’m hungry.
So I sat there and cried and nursed my baby in my pajamas, starving, until my mom happened to drop in. What she did then I’ll never forget, because it was exactly what I needed. She listened to my irrational story about how I didn’t want to go make a piece of toast in my own kitchen and then, without judgment or comment, she left the room and gently let the housekeeper know that I wasn’t feeling well and that we’d need to reschedule the cleaning service for another day.
Let’s get the obvious over with: I realize this story makes me sound spoiled, ungrateful, irrational and totally selfish. And in fact, at that moment I was all of those things. I was also in a place of extreme overwhelm and vulnerability that I think many new moms can relate to, and it boiled down to this: I didn’t know how to ask for help, and the “help” I had been offered wasn’t what I wanted or needed at that moment.
New moms all hear the same advice: take it easy on yourself, accept help from friends and family when you can, and (of course) sleep when the baby sleeps! And while some women have trouble letting go of the “I can do it all” mentality, I think many moms go into the postpartum period actually open to this advice and willing to accept help. But somewhere between good intentions and real life, things can get tricky.
Sometimes it’s that we’re not sure what kind of help we need. Other times, like in my sad little story, the help that’s offered actually causes us more stress than relief. And very often, I think, new moms aren’t able to check in with themselves emotionally and ask the question: what would really relieve and nourish me right now?
If we don’t know what we need, we can’t ask for help. And if we don’t ask ourselves first, we’ll never know what we need.
No two postpartum experiences are exactly alike – some new mothers crave quiet alone time with their baby, where I always wanted company and someone to chat with. One mom might want a break from baby and the chance to go get a pedicure, while another craves support from other moms in a group setting.
Every new mom is different, but I’d be willing to bet that every one wishes at some point that babies came with a “HELP” button. And it is as valid, I think, to wish someone would come clean your house as it is to wish the person cleaning your house would magically disappear.
Easy for me to say now, right? I’m less than 10 weeks away from entering my third postpartum period. I’ve had a couple of chances to practice asking for help, accepting help, and getting to know my own crazy mind and whacked-out body during the postpartum weeks. I’ve also had the opportunity to be on the other side, to offer help to friends adjusting to new babies and observe how different moms are in how they handle those first few weeks.
Over the years I’ve come across some outside-the-box ways to help a mom who is adjusting to life with a newborn (though maybe not as unusual as the Asian postpartum traditions that Erica wrote about in this space last week!). If you’re heading into the postpartum period yourself, or looking to help a friend who is, here are a few ideas.
Think beyond (and between) dinner
I’m not a meal planner or much of a home chef for my own family, so I always squirm when an email goes around organizing meals to be delivered to a family with a new baby. I know those meals are gratefully received; I’m just not the most equipped person to make them. Instead, I’ve started delivering a grocery bag or two of healthy snacks to friends with new ones (because, hey! It’s not just dinner that a new mom needs help with, right?).
I mix easy and nourishing snacks like healthy granola bars, string cheese, almonds, and dried fruit with a few fun items like cookies or a frozen pizza. I stock up on fresh fruit – especially if there are older siblings in the house – so the new mom has healthy snacks to feed her other kids as well. I know that I am always ravenously hungry in the early days of nursing, so a well-stocked pantry is key to my overall sanity, and a saved trip to the grocery store? Well, that’s downright priceless.
“I’m at Target – what do you need?”
There’s a subtle but important difference between a general “hey, is there anything I can do to help?” and a more direct offer with specific intention. If someone asks me what they can do to help, I often feel unsure – both of what I want and need, and also of what would be appropriate to ask for. But if a friend texts to say: “I’m at Costco right now. Need anything?” I’m much more likely to take her up on the offer.
And on the flip side, it’s easy to offer this kind of help – you’re already out and about and it may be a more convenient, cost-effective way for you to help out a friend than, say, shopping for a gift for the new baby.
Consider the company you keep
I mentioned earlier that I crave adult company when I’m home with a new baby. I know others are just the opposite, so this is an area where it’s best to know yourself – and know your friends – before accepting or offering help. I would so much rather a friend come to chat (bearing coffee would be lovely) and help me fold laundry or set up an art project for the older kids than I would have the same friend come take the older kids away or watch the baby while I nap.
Feeling lonely and isolated is a trigger point for me in the postpartum period, and it’s amazing how much better I feel if I can visit with a friend while I do the things I’d be doing anyway – feeding the baby, playing with the older kids, or picking up around the house. If you’re the same way, I’d encourage you to ask for company from your friends – and it doesn’t just have to be at home. Outings with a new baby can be overwhelming – why not buddy up for a trip to the pediatrician or the grocery store?
Let someone else capture the moment
Taking, printing, sharing and framing newborn photos is high up on the “should do” list for most new moms. But on the list of things that have to get done in a day, it can fall pretty low. I try always to take pictures when I visit a new baby, and then surprise the family later with printed copies (or even just the digital files by email). If you can snap a sweet candid moment of the mom and baby together, even better, because as we’ve talked about here on The Happiest Mom recently, those photos are few and far between for many of us. If you are the one asking for help, hand your camera over to a visiting friend and ask her to snap a few photos of you with the baby.
Give the gift of light reading
On one hand, caring for a newborn can feel like there’s little time left for anything else. On the other, though, there is some built-in down time that leaves many new moms wandering aimlessly around the internet or flipping channels on late-night TV. Especially if you’re breastfeeding, several hours of your day and night are guaranteed to be, well, sedentary (unless you’re nursing while chasing your toddler around the playground, in which case, been there done that too). I always appreciated some light (read: semi-trashy) reading for those long drawn-out nursing sessions (I also appreciated free episodes of the Bachelorette on my iPad while nursing baby #2, but that’s another story). A few magazines or a compelling novel – or a gift card to Amazon or iTunes if your friend reads books electronically – make great, inexpensive and much-appreciated new-mom gifts.