The care and feeding of your new-mom friend

September 5, 2014

Over the last 12 weeks, I’ve learned what a terrible job I did of caring for my friends who entered motherhood before me. I’ve learned this by going through my own postpartum period, which I will forever refer to as the period when I was a bottomless pit of need. I’ve also learned this by seeing the disparity between how I cared for others and how others have cared for me.

To those who, in their wisdom, generously poured out incredible care that I couldn’t begin to deserve: thank you.

To those who, in their misfortune, suffered graciously through my misguided, rather useless attempts to care for them: I’m sorry.

I’m writing this to myself circa 2008, telling myself all the things I wish I would’ve known six years ago. Dear Allie, here are four ways to love your friends well in their early days of motherhood.

(This list turned out much longer and more verbose than I planned. I’m sorry for that too.)

Ask good questions.

If you ask vague, overly open-ended questions (“How’s motherhood going?”), expect equally vague, non-specific answers (“It’s challenging, but we’re figuring it out!”). I have a couple of friends who always ask insightful questions when we get together, and it makes me feel deeply cared for.

If you don’t have children yet, your friend is probably worried about boring you or oversharing; if you do have young kids of your own, your friend is probably worried about being judged by you; and if you have grown kids, your friend is probably worried that what she’s going through will seem insignificant to you. If she’s anything like me, she lives in fear of sentences that start with “just you wait until…” or “I thought that was hard until…”

Ask good questions, really listen to the answers, and validate the heck out of her. If you aren’t sure what to ask, some ideas to get you started…

Thoughtful questions:

  • What has been the most surprising thing — good or bad — about motherhood so far?
  • What is your biggest challenge right now? How can I support you in that?
  • What’s one thing that you’ve learned about the character of God through being a mom?

Follow-up questions:

  • When you were pregnant, you said that you were [scared/nervous/excited] about [specific aspect of motherhood]. What has that been like?
  • How have your expectations of motherhood compared to your experience so far?
  • I saw your [Facebook post/Instagram/Tweet/Vine] about [topic]. How is that going?

Questions with a specific timeframe:

  • What did the baby do this week that’s new or different?
  • What are you most looking forward to about your baby being [one month/three months/six months/etc.] old?
  • What was your favorite thing that happened this week?

(P.S. Her answer to your question is almost definitely not an invitation for advice, a chance for you to give her some perspective, or an opportunity for you to talk about when you had a similar but more difficult/profound/impressive experience. It is an invitation for encouragement, a chance for you to tell her what a good job she’s doing, and an opportunity to validate how difficult/profound/impressive her experience is.)

Shift from “what” to “when.”

Whenever you have a friend who’s going through a big life change — moving, getting married, having a baby, grieving the loss of a loved one — you want to rally around her. But 90% of the time, you have no idea how to do that. So you ask what you can do. And 90% of the time, you get a really unhelpful answer.

That happens for any number of reasons. In the case of your new-mom friend, she’s spending her every waking moment (and, let’s be honest, most of her precious sleeping moments) trying to figure out what her new tiny human needs. She has no idea what she needs anymore because she hasn’t thought about it in weeks. Or, if she does know what she needs, she’s afraid to tell you because she doesn’t want to inconvenience you. Her whole life right now is inconvenient, so the last thing she wants to do is inflict inconvenience on anyone else because she knows (oh, how she knows) how it feels.

Or maybe she’s not used to needing to ask for things and has no idea how — even when someone invites her to ask. Or perhaps she secretly thinks you don’t really want to help and that you’re asking just to be nice.

Instead of asking what you can do, pick something that you want to do for her and ask when you can do it.

Picking something to do is simpler than you think. Because here’s the thing: your friend is still your friend. Yes, she’s a mom now, and that has added a whole new dimension to her person. But chances are, she still likes the same things she liked a year ago. And in fact, she’s even easier to please now, because what was once a basic everyday affair is now an indulgent luxury.

Let your experience and observation guide you. If you’re still stumped, there are some things that I can almost guarantee every new mom would enjoy:

Uninterrupted sleep. More specifically, a time when she doesn’t have to sleep with one ear open.

  • Good: Take the baby on a long (90 minutes-plus) stroller ride while mom stays home.
  • Better: While mom’s feeding the baby and getting him ready for your outing, make sure that the dishes are done, the living room is tidy, and the laundry is switched.
  • Best: If she’s pumping or bottle feeding, take care of the baby overnight. Bring an air mattress and your pillow, and spend the night in the nursery. (It’s one night of limited sleep for you, but you can catch up the next night, and you’ll feel so good in the morning when your friend can’t stop hugging you.)

Her favorite coffee, sandwich, cookie, etc. You’ve probably brought her one (or more) of these things before, and it’s even more appreciated now.

  • Good: Text her and ask her what time you can bring her lunch tomorrow. If she’s busy tomorrow, keep suggesting dates until she accepts.
  • Better: When you show up with lunch, also bring two treats: one for a mid-afternoon snack, the other for when she’s feeding the baby at 2 a.m. that night.
  • Best: Put a book or magazine and $10 in her hand, and send her to the coffee shop/deli/bakery by herself while you watch the baby. Her life is filled with can you hold the baby while I [fill in the blank: go to the bathroom, wash the changing pad cover, restock the wipes container]. An hour of can you hold the baby while I do something nice for myself is a true gift.

A long shower or bath. You know, the kind where you get to wash your hair and shave your legs. (This is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do for your friend. You get to sit and hold a baby for 45 minutes, and she gets to become a new woman. Win-win.)

Dinner that requires zero effort and zero clean-up. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the homemade meals that were so graciously brought to our door and that arrived in lovely ceramic dishes for baking and that provided leftovers I could stow away for lunch the following day. But I have to admit a certain fondness for the night that we were brought tacos from a nearby taqueria, or the night that someone brought us pizza and beer. The pizza box went in the compost, the beer bottles went in the recycling, and I went to bed.

A date with her husband. Your friend is now a mom all day, every day — and it’s an unfathomable blessing, but that role has (for now) eclipsed all others. She desperately needs to feel like a wife and a woman again — even if it’s only for an hour while she walks to Chipotle and shares a meal with this man she really likes but hasn’t seen much lately.

A room in her house that is both clean and tidy. If you’re already a mom of multiple kids, you might think this is just silly. Your house is a mess? Welcome to parenthood, you say. But think back to before you had a kid and how neat your house was. And then remember what the loss of that orderliness felt like. Right now, everything in your friend’s life is changing, and she’s desperately trying to hang on to some semblance of her former life. A clean house is proof positive that her world hasn’t spun completely off its axis (or at least hasn’t yet).

Anything and everything in this blog post. (This should be required reading for anyone who has friends who are having babies.)

There are exactly two things that a new mom wants to hear about her appearance.

They are:

  1. Wow — you look unbelievably well rested!
  2. Wow — you’re so thin!

That’s it. That’s the end of the list. If your friend looks exhausted and fat, you have exactly two options: lie or choose something else to compliment. (Baby flattery is acceptable. Approved remarks include: Wow — how do you have the time to have such gorgeous hair? Wow — how are your clothes always so clean? Wow — the pictures you’ve been posting of your baby look like they were taken by a professional photographer! Wow — your baby has the most stylish wardrobe ever!)

This is especially true if you see your friend at a social gathering of some kind. Let’s say that your friend had her baby four weeks ago, and you see her at a birthday party after work. You had to rush home at 5 o’clock, touch up your hair, throw on some heels and extra jewelry, and dab on some lip gloss at a stoplight on your way over. Your friend, on the other hand, used every single minute of baby nap time that day to shower, blow-dry her hair, find an outfit that doesn’t make her hate her body, and put on enough concealer and mascara to compensate for third trimester insomnia plus the all-night labor that preceded her 3 a.m. delivery plus the month since then of sleeping no more than 90 minutes at a time.

She walks into the party half an hour late but feeling pretty dang good. Look at me, going out on the town!

And then some very well-meaning person tells her how exhausted she looks and not only is she now incredibly self-conscious but, to add insult to injury, she feels like she just wasted an entire day of hard work.

Also: The longer it’s been since she had the baby, the more she needs to hear nice things. Deep down, she expected to be out of the fog of exhaustion and into her skinny jeans at six weeks. Actually, that was her worst case scenario; she really thought she’d be there at four. Now, she’s five months postpartum, has one pair of pants that fit, and her baby slept through the night for exactly three nights before hitting a sleep regression and now she’s back to nursing twice each night.

Check in with her.

Consistently. Often. And over the long haul.

This is a profoundly lonely, isolating, and depleting season for your friend. If she’s an extrovert, she’s missing the social interactions that breathe life into her spirit. If she’s an introvert, she’s both missing the connections she enjoys and she is never, ever alone — which, somehow, makes her feel isolated from herself.

She may not want to tell you that she cried more this week than in her nine months of pregnancy combined. She might not want to describe what it’s like to wonder how one distinguishes the line between stress/exhaustion/this is really hard and postpartum depression — or admit that, some days, she thinks she might’ve drifted over it. She may think it’ll sound too ridiculous if she admits she’s scared that her friends have forgotten about her — or that she’ll lose their friendship because she’s not able to be the caregiver/check-er-in-er that she’s accustomed to being.

Output may be heavy for your friend right now. Even the output of words might be too much. Because right now, every bit of output she can muster is poured out in love for this tiny person in her arms. This post (another must-read) puts it so beautifully:

The love you will feel is nothing like you have felt before. It will be foreign and familiar all at once. It will fill you to the very top of your heart, nearly spilling over. The thing about this kind of love, though, is that it can feel heavy. Disproportional. You may feel like you will nearly break in half from the top-heaviness… This love will crush your ego. It will destroy your capability to trust yourself. The fear that creeps in the shadows of this love will paralyze you… You may never feel like you will get the hang of carrying this love.

You can’t help your friend carry this love or trust herself — but you can make sure she knows, day in and day out, that she is loved and that your love for her can be trusted. It may sound backward, but when output is heavy, your input — those text messages and emails and notes that demonstrate your deep affection for her — lightens, and gives light, and is light.

Ultimately, that’s what caring for your friend is — no matter what that care looks like. Bringing lightness to her life. Making her feel seen, and known, and valued. Loving her well at a time when she finds it hard to love herself.

Two months

August 13, 2014

Dear Eva,

This week, I had to take your newborn clothes off their hangers and out of their drawers. Well, I suppose I didn’t have to, but I needed to stop being tempted to squeeze your body into too-small outfits just because I’m emotionally attached. This weekend was the last time I’ll ever put you into your orange striped romper with the little blue whale. I have a lot of feelings about that. Every time I look at it, I think about all the times you fell asleep curled up on my chest wearing it. That’s something that doesn’t happen much at all anymore. I have a lot of feelings about that too.

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Meanwhile, you are still my string bean baby. I went through all of the 0-3 month clothes and altered the summer items, stitching two inches or more off the sides. By the time you fill out those outfits width-wise, they’ll be much too short, and summer will have come and gone. Because not only are you the string bean baby — you’re also the hollow leg baby. We have spent the last two months trying to figure out where you put all that food, and no one’s quite sure.

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You have added a number of tricks to your repertoire this month: sleeping a seven-hour stretch at the beginning of the night (not always, but often — and I’m scared to even acknowledge it in fear that you’ll stop); grabbing everything attached to mommy (hair, clothes, etc.) and everything attached to you (clothes, pacifier, etc.); being naked (and even taking baths) without crying; giving lots of smiles to everyone; babbling and practicing your own little vocabulary; smiling at me from your bed when I come in to rescue you after your naps. You even rolled over once during tummy time, but it was definitely a stroke of lucky flailing and not even a little bit on purpose.

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You also continue to be your own woman. You are still our FOMO baby, entirely too busy observing the world (and trying to figure it out) to have any interest in napping. Strangers and friends alike constantly comment on how alert and observant you are. You determined your own (quite early) bedtime — and if we try to put you down for your last nap of the day too late, nap time becomes bedtime and you sleep in your daytime clothes because waking you in anything resembling a kind or gentle fashion becomes impossible. You escape every swaddling blanket ever created, and on one particularly impressive occasion, you even managed to escape the Houdini swaddle. You love to watch the sequined curtains dance, to follow us with your eyes when we walk around, to hear us talking or singing — but you have zero interest in toys, even the ones that make silly noises. We still “play” with them, but it’s more like me playing and you looking out the window.

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This month has taught me a lot about what we mean when we talk about strength. I’ve always associated strong things with hard things — steel, carbon, stone. Becoming stronger then means that anything that slams against you ricochets back.

But the problem with things that are hard is that they are also, by definition, brittle. If too much force is applied too many times — if their tensile strength is exceeded — they crack, fracture, splinter.

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What I actually mean when I talk about wanting to be stronger is that I want to be more elastic. To be capable of stretching — and being stretched — further than ever before. To withstand pressure without coming undone. To absorb and transform the impact rather than merely enduring and deflecting. To extend far beyond my bounds and still return to my original shape.

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Every night, after you’re fed and bathed and swaddled snuggly, I recite a benediction over you:

May you know that you are set apart, holy and beloved;
may you go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
may you do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God
all the days of your life.

Then I lay you in your bed and kiss your forehead three times, saying:

I love you, baby girl
I love you, Eva Joy
And I’ll see you in the morning when you wake up

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I love you, baby girl. I love you, Eva Joy. And I will see you — and love you — every morning, forever. Happy second month birthday.

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One month

July 13, 2014

Dear Eva,

You’re one month old today! Every time I look at you, I both can’t believe you’re mine and feel like you’ve been mine forever.

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I know that it will be a couple of months before your personality really starts to shine, but one thing is already clear: you are your own woman. The Baby Whisperer calls it “the spirited baby,” and grandma and I find that very appropriate. Your grandma always describes the women in our family as intense, but this is often met by confused looks and furrowed brows; people seem to think that intense means domineering or aggressive or high-strung, but that isn’t what we mean at all. Spirited seems a much better adjective.

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My running joke these past four weeks is that I should have spent a bit less time praying for a bright, creative, tender-hearted child and a bit more time praying for an easy baby. But I really shouldn’t joke about that. Because I can already imagine the woman you will become, and she’s amazing. I prayed that you would be better than me in every way. I can already tell that that prayer was answered.

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Every week — every day — brings something new and unexpected and wonderful. From the first week: The way you reach out and grab things — my fingers, my clothes, your other hand — so strong and intentional. (Sometimes you squeeze my finger so hard it hurts. And I know they say that this grabbing is just a reflex, but sometimes that’s hard to believe.) From the second week: The way that you’re so observant and aware, always looking around and focusing on things so intently.

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From the third week: The way you sit on my lap in the mornings and look at me and practice all your little faces — smiles, surprise, concern, seeming to mimic the expressions I make at you. From the fourth week: The way you lay your head against my chest and seem to know who I am and who we are to each other. And so much more. The way you smile at yourself as you’re trying not to fall asleep. The way you aren’t phased by the sound of loud movies but flinch when children scream at the adjacent table in restaurants. The way you look different every day.

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Only a month, and already so many firsts. First trips to the grocery store and the mall; first time at church and missional community; first time sleeping in your crib and first smiles. You even had your first taste of grown up food when I let you suck on a piece of apple. You made a crazy face, but you didn’t want to let go, so I can only assume that you liked it.

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This has been a very refining and revelatory month for me as well. I have never been more aware of my need for grace and the depths of my own sense of inadequacy. I always thought I would be a confident and intuitive parent, and I still believe that is my true nature, but I’m having to come back to it after getting sidetracked by all the books and advice and input of others. You are teaching me the importance of forging our own way and trusting myself. I’ve also become even more conscious of how concerned I am with pleasing everyone, of being “easy,” of not bothering anyone, of being liked because of these characteristics. Suddenly I have you, who doesn’t care about any of these things — and it’s so hard, but at the same time, I hope you never care about these things the way I do. I want freedom for you. I want you to be a strong, confident leader, not enslaved by the fear of man, secure in all that God has created you to be.

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I love you, my sweet little muffin. Happy first month birthday.

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