A Letter to New Mothers

I’ve got several friends who are expecting, or have recently welcomed, their first babies this year. Whenever I think of them, I have an instant flashback to my first week home with Claire, which is blurred at the edges with the ungodly sleep deprivation that comes with the gift of parenthood.

I would not say that I handled the adjustment well. I remember my mother-in-law calling me “unflappable,” and my own mother saying how wonderfully laid back I seemed, but this was either a great ruse on my part or it was simply their interpretation of what I remember as a feeling of utter overwhelm.

After talking with two friends this week who now live farther away from me than I would like, I was also reminded of the blessed kindness extended to me as a new mother. These two women – one, the mother of two, and the other a mother of none – somehow knew that I needed help even though I’d been stunned into silence by my new role, and they arrived at my doorstep with encouraging spirits and a peaceful one-day-life-will-feel-normal-again presence for which I still feel grateful.

They didn’t come to chat, or to harangue me with advice, or to coo over this being who’d kept me up all night, but to hold and love my baby so that I could take a shower in peace, or go back to bed, or just sit on the couch and not feel the weight of the world swaddled in my arms. I have never accepted help so guiltlessly.

There were others who brought food (every other day, for seven weeks!), a neighbor who brought hot tea and the sound advice to leave the screaming baby in her crib and step outside for fresh air if necessary, the doctor who prescribed an antibiotic for mastitis without forcing me to come in to her office because she could hear the desperation in my voice. And there was the husband, so constant, so confused about how to help beyond folding every piece of laundry and scouring the kitchen, who  would take the screaming baby on long strolls in the evenings. When he returned, he would find me lying under our dining room table with Ivy, our dog, in retreat.

Four years in to motherhood, despite the toddler tantrums, the big-girl-bed transition nightmare, the what-to-do-when-your-baby-throws-food-and-refuses-to-eat-anything-other-than-blueberries-and-cheesetoast crises, AND the arrival of a new sibling, I still contend that there is nothing more difficult for an independent woman, no matter her work/life plans post-baby, than transitioning to life with children.

Unless a new mom begs for advice, or is really specific in her asking, I generally do not offer it. But there is something about having a handful of friends on the brink of this major life change that’s made me want to put together a top five list of instructions. See below:

1) Get a good pedicure the week you’re due. Face it: you won’t be able to reach your toes to paint them, and labor makes a girl vulnerable enough. While you’re at it, indulge in some delicious smelling body wash, because the hospital provides only antiseptic soap.

2) Read Great With Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. As someone who feels debased by most pregnancy/parenting books, I feel very well qualified to make this recommendation. The book is as beautifully written as it is insightful. Even if you don’t have children, it is well worth reading.

3) New mothers: accept all offers of dinner delivery and/or meal calendar set up. New fathers: The week you return to work, pack a lunch for your wife each day. Don’t ask her what she wants, or whether you have any mustard, or wonder aloud if it is OK to eat yogurt past its expiration date. Just make the lunch quietly and without flare. Make the effort to go to the grocery store and fill the fridge with healthy snacks the new mom in your life can grab (with one hand) easily. For extra points, hide a thoughtful note of praise and/or deep gratitude where she’ll be sure to find it.

4) Know your boundaries. People love to visit new babies and/or families with new babies. They will overstay. You will want to cry and ask them KINDLY to LEAVE. That’s OK. People forget (or else do not know) how exhausting it is to have a newborn. There is absolutely nothing wrong with turning away visitors, no matter how well-meaning. The ones who love you the most will understand.

5) When I became a mom, I felt like I’d entered an entirely new dimension – a scary dimension, a dimension worthy of identity crisis. But it was, I found, also a dimension filled with people who were really great at being moms – confident women who continued to maintain a strong sense of self, thoughtful women who have great ideas about how to raise children who turn into respectful, grateful adults¬† – and who were willing to talk about how hard the adjustment can be, how exhausting the days, etc. Make friends with people like this, parents you admire who continue to invest in their own relationship while keeping the empowering perspective that the purpose of parenthood has less to do with the precious, well-dressed, cherub-like babe-in-arms and/or the days of apparent drudgery than with the person he or she is bound to become.You will also meet other types of parents in this new dimension; when possible, disregard them.

I have advice on swaddle blankets and sleep methods, too, but really – you’ll figure all that out on your own. For now, young mothers, put your feet up, drink a milkshake a day, and enjoy all the attention you’re getting. Shortly, that’s all about to change.

Art House America published a new essay of mine today: “Death by Neti Pot.” You can read that here.