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.