In all the excitement around the birth of a new baby, often we forget that mom is a real person, with real feelings, who has just experienced one of the most life altering events of her lifetime. We’ll chat for days about all the lovely baby related things, however, rarely do we consider what her raw and honest experience might be. Having birthed 3 children, I am pretty familiar with “new mommy small talk” and how frustrating it is to be unable to express the REAL truth about how you’re doing, feeling, coping (or not). Simply put, we ask the wrong questions leaving mothers feeling isolated and alone in their experience.
I believe that the “village” isn’t just made up of people who physically lend a hand, but of people who are willing to hold space for our honest and uncensored emotions and needs. Here are 5 commonly asked questions and how to turn them into tools to reach out and love, encourage and help the new mom in your world.
1. How are you feeling?
While this is likely a genuine question, I feel like we often ask without considering what it could possibly trigger for someone recovering from childbirth. Speaking from experience, I KNOW you don’t want to know about the near constant pain in my uterus, vagina and breasts. I KNOW you have no interest in the anxiety I feel over nursing, which still hurts by the way!! And I KNOW you aren’t looking for me to tell you about how alone, afraid and totally inadequate I feel, let alone that I have yet to truly bond with my baby. So I answer as cheerfully as I can “I feel SO great! Recovery has been good. I’m in love with my sweet baby and am just so excited to be a mom”. I have never once had someone call me out on that BS, but I have wished many times that someone, ANYONE would at least ask if that was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god.
Instead of inadvertently asking a question so deep that even the most devoted husbands dare not ask, replace it with something like this; “Have you been able to rest?” This is a yes or no question that opens the door, depending on your degree of friendship, for an offer to lend a hand. If she says yes, smile and say that’s wonderful. If she says no, either an empathetic “I know, it must be so hard.” I’m here for you.” Or asking how you can give her a hand is a great way to be even just a small part of her village in that moment.
2. Is baby sleeping at night?
The answer to this is almost always NO. Newborns only look like they sleep all the time because whenever you visit, its day time. Have you ever met a newborn, or any other baby younger than 2, after 8pm? They don’t sleep. They eat, because they just spent all day sleeping, pooping and crying and now need to replenish their energy stores to do it all again tomorrow. Some babies are naturally good sleepers, so there is a slight chance that mama is getting a wee bit of rest. However, I feel like this question should be avoided for the obvious reason that if she says “hell no!” you won’t have a clue what to say, and will likely reply with something like “you should sleep when the baby sleeps”! or “yeah you look so exhausted”, as if she is unaware of the fact that she looks only a fraction of how tired she really is because dry shampoo and concealer are a thing.
Again, this question could do more harm than good on an emotional level for her and she may not answer honestly. Instead, take the opportunity to affirm her by saying something like “Look how content and happy your baby looks. He/she feels so safe with you.” or simply “You’re a wonderful mom.” That’s right, don’t even ask about sleep or her appearance. Unless your plan is to offer to fold her laundry, do her dishes and cook a meal or three while she takes a nap, just smile and tell her you see her doing her best, lifting her spirit and hopefully helping her to hold her head high like the kick ass mom that she is.
3. Are you going to try for a boy/girl? and 4. Will you be having any more?
I totally believe these questions are asked out of pure curiosity about the hopes and dreams of another woman for her family. However, it could also unearth some “gender disappointment” for her which is incredibly difficult and heartbreaking for her to have to shoulder. Also, she may have struggled to conceive or had an incredibly difficult pregnancy, making the subject painful or anxiety inducing. There are so many reasons why these questions may not be as innocuous as they sound and can trigger some big feelings that you may not be willing/prepared to hold space for.
If you are a close friend/family member and are privy to the intimate details about her and her family on this subject, by all means, let her know that you are open to hearing her truth about this! If not, instead of asking her to think about trying to control something she can’t, even if she can/wants to have more children, asking her about her little ones personality or what they look forward to the most in the near future might be better. Moms love to talk about their little ones quirks and isms and these questions are likely to remind her of all the wonderful things she loves about THIS baby, avoiding the uncomfortable feelings of maybe not being “complete” as a family.
5. Let me know if you need anything.
This is obviously a comment, not a question. That being said, I have heard it from EVERY ONE of my friends or family members upon the arrival of my bundles of joy. Clearly, the people around a new mom want to offer kind words and help if they can! That’s awesome and there is nothing wrong with that! That being said, I can count on one hand the number of people who actually stepped up to the plate after such a comment, even when asked directly.
Please, I beg you; do NOT make this kind of open-ended offer to help a new mom unless you plan on following through. In fact, if you’re serious about this comment, replace it with “I’m free on (insert day) at (insert time). Is there anything I can do for you then?” You could even go so far as to offer her a list of things you are WILLING AND ABLE to do during that time, so she doesn’t feel like she’s inconveniencing you or asking you to do something you would rather not.
The Best Way to Love, Encourage and Help a new mom.
On your next coffee date with your sister, cousin, or friend who just crossed over the threshold of motherhood, remember this list and do your best to help her feel empowered and loved in her vulnerable state. If you forget some of these things, your friend will not fault you for it. Just be mindful that she has just undergone one of the most amazing and challenging changes of her life and likely already feels inadequate, tired, afraid and like she has none of the answers. She may even be struggling with PPD, PPA or just not feeling very happy about being a mom in general right now.
If you are a close friend, try to convey your genuine desire to hear how she’s REALLY doing and be open to whatever her truth is at that moment without judging or offering solutions. You have the power to be a source of sanity and encouragement at a time when she feels crazy and possibly unfit for this motherhood gig, even if she’s had a couple kids already.
Above all, Hold Space
Holding space for the, sometimes hard, realities of being a new mom/parent is one of the best ways to be the village. If we did nothing else, we would still begin to see a more encouraged and empowered community of moms who could then go out and be the village for others. What kind of ripple effect could that have?