An unfortunate by-product of our society’s refusal to see birth as a monumental event is the lack of a babymoon or restful, supported postpartum period. Most of the time, moms and dads are expected to pick up with their everyday lives almost immediately.
This is especially true of fathers. A good example of this is the lack of recognized paternity leave in the workplace. When my son was born, my husband took three weeks off. While the company and his bosses “allowed” it, they were flabbergasted that he took so much time away to spend with his new family. Under the FMLA, new parents may take up to twelve weeks leave after the birth of a child, however, the guidelines are difficult to comprehend and many smaller companies seem to have found “loopholes” around it. Financial restraints also often keep one (or both) parent(s) from taking much time off. This, in turn, leads to thoroughly exhausted new parents and, in the case of two income families, infants being cared for primarily by others.
The postpartum period, for many women, is more scary and daunting than actually giving birth. This can be doubly so for moms who have other children that also require attention. Just as families need a cocoon during their birthing time, so do they need it after baby’s arrival. Having adequate support during the first weeks and months can make a huge difference in the family’s life. For my own self, having support with my youngest son helped us gel as a family. Instead of having to be exhausted from making sure I was taken care of, my husband was able to grab a quick meal from the fridge and love on his baby too.
One unexpected place I found help was, ironically, a friend with no children. It is commonly assumed that childless people don’t understand the importance of postpartum support and while that may be true, it is also true that they have a lot more free time to do your bidding. Many people brought my family meals, took my children other children for a few hours, etc., but when it came to last-minute requests or meal drop offs, the most helpful was a friend from my workplace. It was no big deal for her to hop in the car (no kids to cart around, get in and out of car seats) and grab us a quick bite.
Setting up a meal calendar can be a great way to get people involved without feeling pushy. Sites such as Take Them a Meal and CareCalendar simplify the process by offering online scheduling, reminders and tips. I’ve started offering this service to my doula clients and it seems to be a hit! Participants can go in (password protected) to sign up for specific days and the family’s requests (vegetarian, allergies, etc.) are clearly posted.
Below is a list of some of the main Do’s and Do Not’s for a postpartum family. For more ideas, check out this post by Gloria Lemay.
* Always bring food when visiting. Many people ask if they should bring something and many times the new family will say no or be unable to think of exactly what it is they need/want. Instead of asking, just bring it! If you’re unsure about allergies or other issues, pick something simple like a fruit or veggie basket. The most helpful postpartum foods are easy to grab and need no or very little preparation. Think along the lines of raw veggie trays, whole grain muffins, salad mixes with dressing. Meals are great too, but there are times (especially if mom is home alone) when it’s nearly impossible to take the time to heat something up.
* Take the trash out when you go. Even if it’s not full. I distinctly remember my aunt speaking to me about how difficult it was for her postpartum to have to take out the trash…especially during inclement weather. If the main trash isn’t full, check the bathroom or other receptacles and combine them.
* Ask if she needs anything before you come over and again before you leave. Many times, new moms will not be sure of what they need when you ask, but she might have thought of something while you’re visiting and think the time has passed to accept. In addition, some moms really do know what they need but won’t ask. This way, she doesn’t have to feel as though she’s imposing. If dad’s around, don’t forget to ask him too. Sometimes dads are actually more receptive to help.
* Do a load of laundry. Take a quick survey upon arriving to notice if there are clean clothes in need of folding or dirty clothes in need of washing. If you don’t see any, ask. A great way to word this is, “When I had my baby, I found it really difficult to keep up on laundry. May I do a load for you?” If there are clean clothes, you can fold those while visiting and remind her of that so she doesn’t feel like a bum.
* Offer childcare. If you are in any way capable of taking her other children for a little while, offer to do so. She may prefer you to stay at her home and just watch them, or she may really need them out of the house for just a few hours so she can nap in peace. If she doesn’t have other kids, you can offer to come hold baby while she showers or naps, but be sure she doesn’t feel like she *has* to accept or that she *should*.
* Listen to what she really says and needs. If you ask her how she is (and you should), be prepared to hear how she is. Listening, really listening, is an important skill that not all of us have. However, it is imperative that a new mother have someone she can speak honestly with who will hear her. Sometimes, she can not come right out and ask for help but if you really listen to her, you can hear what she needs. Perhaps she had a traumatic birth and needs to vent about it without having to add the addendum “at least I have a healthy baby”, or being interrupted with someone else’s experience. Or maybe she’s feeling overwhelmed and can only articulate that when given the opportunity to freely speak about how she’s feeling.
* Ask to hold the baby. EVER. Remember that baby has spent his/her entire life thus far inside mom. He’s heard her heartbeat, listened to dad talk and is used to them. Since birth, she’s become accustomed to her parents smell. Babies are biologically designed to need their mothers and mothers are biologically designed to need their babies. While mom may not tell you no if you ask, she probably doesn’t really want to let go of baby. If she offers, fine, but otherwise…just keep your hands off. After the birth of my first child, family and friends created a constant stream of visitors and while I appreciated their sharing in my joy, it was extremely upsetting to not be holding my baby. I didn’t feel it was okay to say no to people who had come to see my daughter, but my arms ached without her and I felt almost panicked when she wasn’t in them. Many moms I’ve spoken with report this same feeling. Please don’t make your sister/daughter/friend feel torn between offending you and longing for baby. As a personal rule, I do not ever ask to hold someone’s baby, even my clients who I just watched give birth and many times I don’t get to hold babies until they are several months old. This is fine with me, as I know that it is always on the mom’s terms and not mine.
* Say you’ll drop off food and stay for hours. Some do want visitors right away and if they ask you to stay, fine. If they don’t, drop your food, offer your congratulations and GO. New parents want (and need) private time to love on their babies and to rest from the hard work of birth/new baby transition. They may feel obligated to host you when they really just want to sleep.
* Be offended when she doesn’t want to play hostess. This sort of falls under the previous heading, but I think it bears repeating. A mom’s desire to stay cozy with her baby as opposed to visiting with you is not personal, but she’s just met this tiny person and she’s known you for a long time! Imagine waiting nine long months to meet someone you already know you love and then just when you do, Aunt Jo stops by for coffee. Do you really want to stop oogling your new love for that? It is important to notice if she consistently is turning away all visitors for a long period of time, but in general, the first couple of weeks belong to immediate (as in, living in the household) family only.
* Assume someone else is helping. This is a biggie. Even if you think mom has tons of friends/family support, still offer yours. Sometimes people seem to have a good support network when they really don’t. After my first child was born, I felt completely and utterly alone. My close family members had little ones of their own to deal with and I didn’t have many friends that had children. It was scary and sad. Please don’t let this happen to your friend; even one phone call or meal drop off can make a difference to her.
In our hurried and busy lives, it can be hard to remember to slow down enough to take care of ourselves. This is one of those situations that it is definitely worth taking the time. A mother who feels supported during this transition time will be better equipped to parent her baby and take care of herself in the long run. I see a large difference between the women who get adequate support and the ones who don’t. I can promise that your community of women will be better for it.