Tips for sensitivity: New mothers

Photo by Andreas Klinke Johannsen.

Photo by Andreas Klinke Johannsen.

The following tips are admittedly heteronormative and apply to couples who’ve had a biological child. Though not entirely universal in application, I still highly suggest you read and take the advice.

Tip 1: Do NOT tell a mother whose child was born premature that “the baby just wanted to come out.” The baby did not want to come out. The mother provided a safe and warm place for the baby to grow, and the baby would have liked to have stayed there until full term. Telling a mother her baby wanted to escape her womb is telling her she did something wrong. She did not. And if you think she did I suggest you say absolutely nothing at all to her, ever.

Tip 2: Tell the new mother the baby looks like her.
This tip I learned from my Lamaze teacher. I’ve experienced its worth firsthand. The truth is babies almost always come out looking like their father. But no matter how she had the baby, Mom just went through a lot, so even if the baby is a clone of his or her father, pick at least one feature and call it Mom’s. And the baby’s features will change, so constant comparison to Dad is not only premature but insensitive.

Personal note: I have a very attractive husband. Comparing Henry to his father is and always will be a compliment. But for better or worse half of Henry is me. Also, since I was very, very blessed to be adopted as a baby, Henry is the only person in this world I know who I am biologically related to. This looking like someone phenomenon is a brand new one for me. So I repeat: be sensitive. I still have hormones that need to be worked out, and I’d rather not have to work them out on you.

Tip 3: Don’t constantly ask new parents what you can do for them or what they need.
It’s great you want to help, but don’t be needy. Constant nagging stresses them out. They need time to figure out what they want and need, and it does not help for you to force them to make those decisions. A simple “Let us know if you need anything” – without a daily follow-up – is the most helpful. They’ll let you know how you can help. If you absolutely MUST do something immediately, buy them toilet paper or frozen pizza.

Tip 4: Don’t be a guest when visiting.
If you’re brave enough to visit brand new parents and are staying for more than an hour, act more as if you live in the house,* not as if you’re visiting, especially you are visiting intentionally to help.** If you want to make dinner, don’t ask “What do you want for dinner?” Having to make such decisions is excruciating for new parents. Ask, “Any dinner requests?” or give them a choice between two options. Or just make something. (If it’s in the house, chances are the parents bought it because they will eat it.)  Like tip 3, don’t ask what you can do. If there are dirty dishes, wash them. Trash in the trash can? Take it outside. Something can always be vacuumed or dusted. If the baby poops or pees while you’re holding him or her, change the diaper. You are by no means obligated to perform such tasks, but they are truly helpful if you are comfortable doing them. If not, just hold the baby while the parents housekeep or sleep, which is also very helpful. Don’t take it personally that the parents aren’t devoting sole attention to you – know they are VERY happy to see you. Come with ways to entertain yourself and activities you’d like to do outside of the house, especially if traveling a distance and spending the night. Making new parents find ways to entertain you is not very nice. The fewer unnecessary decisions new parents have to make, the better.

*This is not permission for you to redecorate. In any way.
**If you have been asked to come help, these rules do not apply to you. (Thanks, Mom. You actually set these standards.)

Tip 5: Don’t take pictures of Mom without her permission.
In fact, don’t even ask “Can I take your picture?” Say, simply, “Let me know if you want a picture of you and the baby.” If you want a picture of Mom and Mom doesn’t want her picture taken, too bad for you. If you need a photo to remember the moment then maybe you shouldn’t be visiting so soon. Mom has a weirdly shaped body, her clothes don’t fit right, she has dark circles under her eyes, and is very likely not wearing makeup or wearing her hair the way she’d like. These things are important in pictures, and it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t care how the mother looks. I posed for requested pictures recently, and I should have offered instead to be kicked in the shins; at least that pain is impermanent and less mean.

Tip 6: Take it easy on the stuffed animals.
Newborns aren’t even supposed to have stuffed animals. I know that you want to be the one who buys the baby his or her favorite toy, but chances are, since the parents, at least early on, are the ones who get to decide what the child’s favorite anything is, the child’s favorite stuffed toy will be one Mommy and Daddy picked out. (On that note, you can buy stuffed animals parents registered for.) Quantity does not help your chances. Don’t leave the parents with a pile of stuffed animals. I know they are super cute, but please try to resist buying a stuffed toy unless it is very special. Baby wipes are much cuter.

Tip 7: Buy age-appropriate gifts.
Buy gifts the baby can use or wear as soon as possible. Don’t buy the baby a scooter or a backpack for kindergarten or an Easy Bake Oven. Or, if you do, keep them at your place until the baby/child is old enough to use them. It’s hard learning to share space with a new person, so don’t laden new parents with objects that will sit untouched for more than a few months (especially if they live in a one-bedroom apartment).

Don’t worry – we’ve all done these don’ts at one point. We just won’t do them ever again.

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