Here’s How to Help A New Mother (Especially When She Doesn’t Ask)

Life

As a new mother, I had a knack for giving the impression that I didn’t need help.

My village lives on the other side of the globe, so it was borne out of necessity, but I wonder if it was more than that. As new (or not so new) mothers, I wonder if we feel as though we’re letting ourselves down if we show that we’re vulnerable. Are we falling short if we admit that we simply can’t do this alone?

That we have one hairy leg because our survival strategies have devolved into shaving one leg one day, and the other the next. And we forgot the second leg…for a week. That we eat breakfast for dinner on a semi-regular basis. And that if one more well-meaning person tells us (as if we’ve forgotten) that we really need to take care of ourselves, we’ll scream.

Because, before becoming mothers we were used to feeling productive. To meeting deadlines. To getting the job done and feeling like a valued team member.

But motherhood shatters that reality. And although it’s bittersweet, thank goodness it does. It softens us. Slows us down. Stops the treadmill of a results driven society, forcing us to reassess what we truly value in this one short life of ours. As parents, we need to redefine success in the context of a journey, with a destination we will never see.

Our work as mothers will simply never be ‘done’.

Brave women have gone before us to fight for gender equality. The lines of parenthood are beautifully blurring as men take on roles that their fathers and grandfathers considered to be women’s work. But, in the early days of motherhood, there is simply no escaping the fact that it’s all about mum.

Mum is comfort. Mum is nourishment. Mum is sleep. Mum is warmth. Mum is home. And mum is exhausted.

But, mum may feel guilty for asking for help. She may feel like she should be able to handle this. Maybe she imagined when she was pregnant, that there would be hours upon hours of blissful naps that she could use to clean the house from top to bottom and have a piping hot dinner on the table for her husband at 5:30pm every night like it’s 1953.

But, this is far from reality.

So, when she’s still in her pyjamas at 4pm for the third day in a row, smelling of milk with a baby who has been nursing and napping (on her) for an hour and a half, her electronic lifeline has 3% charge left and her water bottle is empty she needs someone to take care of her. To truly see her.

A new mama needs a fairy godmother, every once in a while, to take care of her so she can feel free to focus her attention on her baby. To slowly find her new normal. To metamorphose. To bond with her baby. To reconcile that life, while richer beyond her wildest imagination, will never be the same again. To revel in the unique, yet fleeting magic, that is new motherhood, complete with all its ups and downs.

So, here are half a dozen ways to help a new mama in your life, in case she (like me) can’t ask herself.

1. THE GIFT OF PERMISSION 

New mothers need permission, freedom and space to find their new identity. To wear it proudly and to forge their own path, no matter how long it takes. To change their minds. To try one way of doing things and know its ok to change direction without needing to offer an explanation.

Resist the cultural urge to ask her if she has a “good” baby. Don’t ask her if her baby is sleeping through the night. In short, don’t ask questions that may inadvertently leave her feeling like a failure. Leave personal agendas and expectations at the door. She may parent differently to the way you did, and that may be challenging when she’s your daughter, but this is her motherhood to define.

Be humble, curious and courageous enough to support her on her journey, no matter how different it may look to the one you chose.

2. JUST DO IT (YOU DON’T NEED TO ASK) 

It’s safe to assume a new mother is always hungry, thirsty and tired. She’s beyond sleep deprived, suffering from decision fatigue and doesn’t want to feel like a burden, so just do it, without asking.

Bring her a takeout coffee – connect her with the outside world through a paper cup and help her feel normal and pampered. Empty the dishwasher. Surprise her with Lansinoh, her favourite chocolate and Mother’s Milk Tea. Load her freezer with ready meals. Walk the dog. Brush the cat. Remake her bed with fresh sheets. Take out the trash. And always make her a little something before you leave.

(If you live on the other side of the world – order fresh groceries to be delivered, her favourite takeout for dinner or arrange a house clean. The internet makes anything possible).

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3. ADJUST TO AND RESPECT HER TIMEFRAME  

Elizabeth Stone once said, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.” Every new mother understands the truth in this statement. Our babies may have entered this world but they still feel like a part of our physical being in the most literal of senses.

This is normal. This is healthy. This is the “chemistry of attachment” at work. New mothers experience a flood of hormonal changes that are designed to prime her ability to be uniquely responsive to her baby. Let this critical process take place. Let her be with her baby as much as she needs to be. Don’t rush her.

Bear witness to the beauty of this ancient maternal slow dance, as she falls in love in a way she has never known.

4. SQUEEZE SOME LEMONS

For years I’ve squeezed a lemon to sip with warm water first thing every morning. It sounds simple enough but with a baby my morning ritual became a logistical nightmare. As new mothers, it’s often these simple pleasures of our old life that we miss the most.

So, what is your new mama’s metaphorical lemon juice? What is one simple thing that’s important to her? Her tiny symbol of self care that makes her feel like her? Find out what it is, squeeze a bunch of lemons and help keep a little of her old world in her new. Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference.

5. NOTICE HER

Babies are super cute. They’re soft and cuddly. And they’re the first thing everyone notices. People can’t help it! I get it. I’m the same.

But, when mothers consistently feel like the encore it hurts a little. We feel invisible. My family used to lose their minds over our baby and it made me so happy, but when it took minutes for them to even say hello to me, in person or on FaceTime, it kinda hurt.

So, make a big deal of the baby, but remember to notice her. Say hello to her. She’s a mum now, but she’s still an individual. Give her a hug. And most importantly, check in with how she’s doing. Motherhood is beautiful but brutal; there isn’t a new mother on the planet who doesn’t need a shoulder to cry on.

Let her be real, honest and authentic. Be there for her and…

6. REMIND HER HOW WELL SHE’S DOING

Without a doubt the best words my husband said to me as a new mother were, “You’re an amazing mum”. (Closely followed by, “I’ve ordered takeout for dinner”). His words always made me smile. No matter how rough a day I was having, those words felt like gifts. They were the emotional fuel I needed to dig deeper and keep going.

Because, in the early days of motherhood there is very little feedback, very little validation that we’ve got this. That even though we have no idea what we’re doing, we’re somehow getting it perfectly right. So, whenever you see a new mama, tell her what a great job she’s doing. Or send her a text. Remind her that her baby is so happy, so loved, so healthy – and it’s all because of her.

What would you add to this list? What is the smallest gesture that has had the biggest impact for you as a new mother?

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COMMENTS
  • July 10, 2017
    Adina

    I would add, validate the father and affirm the importance of his role. I would also add, don’t shut out the extended family. You and the baby are part of something bigger than yourselves. In our self-centered north American mind set, we think it’s all about us. Enjoy, savour and take advantage of the fact that there is often a whole “village” within the family, regardless of what the dynamics are within that family. (Recognizing there are exceptions) Give the new member of the family the best gift; being welcomed by the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Adina – so true, fathers are the unsung heroes of parenthood. Love your words.

  • July 11, 2017
    Corinne

    Simply perfection! Wish I had this as a new mom. A year later so much still resonates and the cumulative impact of a year, not a week of little sleep (as I refused to sleep train) makes this list hit home even more. Thank you so!

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      That makes me so happy Corinne! Keep going mama…this too shall pass. Sleep will return out of the haze of new motherhood and the bond that you will have formed as a result of being there day and night for your baby will be the greatest investment, the most beautiful gift of your life. You’re a wonderful mama.

  • July 20, 2017
    Arika

    I love this article! I am almost in tears because of the accuracy! I think I would add “Listen to her”. With being a new mom there are so many stories, stories of small victories or even somewhat failures. I appreciate a friend or family member who will listen and respond to me whether they have no clue what I am talking about or if they have advice to help me next time. An ear to hear you or even text you is a true gift! Thank you for this!

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Arika and I am so happy it resonated with you. I love what you added as well – so true. Some to truly hear a new mum makes such a difference. Thank you so much for your lovely comment. xx

  • July 22, 2017
    Kate

    The father should be in this, I agree on that part with other readers. However, the extended family is not experiencing the adjustment period or the physical healing that has to take place and tend to way over step boundaries rather than helping. Often times it’s the so called village that is self centered, they think showing up to hold the baby so you can do housework is a service. I think the village needs a lesson in what’s truly helpful.

    • July 24, 2017
      Lisa

      I agree. After my first baby, I learned to cocoon my nuclear family for several weeks when we had a newborn. No visitors at all except for my very closest friends. We have five children and extended family did not spend time with us during the first month. That time was crucial for my healing, my bonding, and my baby learning to nurse. Plus siblings and dad adjusting and bonding. Never tell a mom that she owes something to extended family. Extended family needs to learn not to encroach, to offer actual help and accept a “no” without pouting.

      My extended family only increases my stress. I don’t need to be guilted into meeting their needs during that critical newborn time that can never be gotten back.

      • July 28, 2017
        Loz

        Thumbs up for honesty! We live away from family, and my parents were very offended when I told them no one would be invited to stay in our home in that first month. They couldn’t understand why I’d make them get a hotel. However parents-in-law took it like champs, never presumed to encroach!

    • July 24, 2017
      CarolAnn

      Here here Kate! So true! I’m sorry, but I offer Postpartum support as a profession, and in the hundreds of families I’ve worked with, I’ve had maybe 3-4 extended families who are TRULY helpful to the extremely vulnerable and exhausted new parents. Who actually get everything in this article. If your son or daughter are not inviting you in to their Postpartum nest, perhaps check in with yourself to see if there’s perhaps “a way of being” you need to change. Holding the newborn (other than when Mom is taking a shower or is suffering from Postpartum depression), is NOT helpful.

  • July 22, 2017
    Kristin

    I love this artice!! I would also add, let mom offer the baby to you. If she doesn’t, it might mean she’s not ready to. And that’s okay. The bonding between mumma and babe is vital. It helps mum heal and babe thrive and feel safe.

    Thanks for shedding light on this issue. There needs to be more conversations about this topic.

  • July 23, 2017
    Mia

    Also, I would have really appreciated if somebody assured me these feelings were normal. My family made me feel guilty for feeling miserable, anxious, scared and overwhelmed by the responsibility over somebody else’s life. They frowned upon my tears and fears and feelings of terror. The only person who stood by me without judging was my husband. I dont know how we would have survived without him. There must be a safe haven for a mother who is learning how to become a safe haven for her baby.

  • July 24, 2017
    Lisa

    I love this article. Every time I had a baby (I had 5) I felt like someone was stepping on my air hose at the same time I was falling madly in love with this person. I was suffocating under the loss of self but delighting in the reason for it. It’s a complex time in our lives that is incredibly challenging, precious, and so worth it.

  • August 01, 2017

    What a wonderful article to share with new moms and moms to be. As an RN and Lactation Consultant who works with new moms, I see the faces of stress from not being able to speak out their own needs. Every mom needs to enlist her circle of sister friends to help support.
    Dads need the same. I try to educate the grandparents on this topic as well.

  • September 16, 2017
    Suzy Shires

    I always offer an open door. Once the initial flutter of visitors has tailed off, you can feel lonely. Getting out of the house is a big deal too and being able to welcome someone into your home, feed them, hold the baby, take the baby out for a walk & let mum have 10 mins peace is invaluable.
    When I had my children, friends brought me hot dinners- casseroles piping hot from the oven or lasagne. I try and do this now. It doesn’t matter if it can’t be eaten straight away, it doesn’t matter when it’s eaten but it’s there as back up.

    Such a lovely article.

  • September 19, 2017
    Claire

    Hi,
    I would also add…you aim your blog at breastfeeding women…doesn’t mean to say a non breastfeeding mother is not as exhausted/stressed/guilty as the next….Have a little awareness that BF is wonderful when it works but humilitating and guilt ridden when you can’t.

    • September 19, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Claire,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the blog tells a lot of my own personal story which is the nature of blogs and I am fortunate to have been able to breastfeed so I write a lot about it. But I do recognize that not all women can or want to breastfeed and I wrote about the link between not being able to breastfeed and PPD a few months ago. You can read that post here. Having said that breastfeeding mothers (certainly beyond 6 months) are in the vast minority and need a voice. Many breastfeeding mothers feel judged for their choices and judged for nursing in public – I’m trying to contribute to normalizing breastfeeding as much as possible. I myself was a formula fed baby and believe that many of the benefits that naturally come with the physical act of breastfeeding can be replicated by mothers who bottle feed if given the right information. We all need support no matter our choices.

  • September 25, 2017
    Alina

    Help from others is a great thing when it is a quickie visit to drop off a casserole or dessert, however, don’t be shy about turning away those that will stay too long, when you need rest. This is not the time to have to entertain visitors. Many will offer their advice which often differs from what you learned from La Leche League or your pediatrician. Follow your heart and your maternal instincts.

  • October 12, 2017

    Hi Tracy,

    Awesome post! As a mom to a two-year-old and a five-month-old, this article really resonated with me. I wish my boyfriend had read this before we had kids, that would have been really helpful. Now that I’m a mom, and I “get it,” when my friends have babies, I can be more sensitive to their needs, both spoken and unspoken. You have some great suggestions here which I’m going to apply. Also, love the Elizabeth Stone quote.

  • November 13, 2017
    Kate

    My most treasured memory was of my older sister dropping by after work one day (after calling first!), picking up a pen and paper and coming to sit beside me while I was in bed. She quietly transcribed my groceries list – without judging any of my crazy requests – grabbed the credit card and headed out to the shops without fuss or fanfare. When I came downstairs she had stocked the fridge and pantry, done the washing up and cleaned the kitchen. She made me a cup of tea and started to make dinner for my family before she headed home and left us to our quiet night together. We have always competed and aren’t particularly close but I love her so very much for that and will never forget her selflessness in those weeks. It was exactly what I needed.

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