Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Talk to a New Mother

Funny -- I looked happy here, didn't I?

Ah...this is actually happy Randi -- crappy hair, PJ's and all!

Many of my friends have either recently had babies are expecting their sprouts within the half year. Every time an old friend reveals that she is pregnant or planning to adopt, I am elated. Having a child is such an incredible experience, after all, but I'm also selfishly happy to have another old chum in the Mommy Club. You know, a friend to whom you can discuss explosive poop but who can also laugh until dawn with you remembering old, ridiculous, possibly scandalous, pre-baby times?

However, this elation is usually followed by a moment of trepidation and worry. What if this mom-to-be whom I love so much goes through what I went through? What if she stubbornly acts like everything is OK, refusing help from anyone (including me) while suffering alone? What if I miss her depression the way others missed mine? What if she spends the first year of her beloved baby's life flustered, frustrated, possibly even suicidal while I chase after Stella, blissfully unaware?

While there's not a whole lot those of us lacking psychology degrees can do, I do think that choosing our words carefully when speaking to a new mom can be incredibly important. Part of the reason it took me so long to recognize my problem and seek help was that I was constantly being asked about how much I loved motherhood, not IF I loved it, so I felt completely alone and abnormal. I was afraid of what others, including a therapist, would think of me. I felt ashamed.

So, I'm going to start with a list of things I think you should NEVER say to a new mom. I'm no expert, so you might disagree, but these were the statements that exacerbated my feelings of isolation.

1. "Aren't you just loving it?" This question assumes that you are in a state of bliss, and if you answer to the negative, it will seem strange. How many times was I asked this question and I wanted to reply, "No, in fact. I realize that I wanted a baby, worked hard to conceive, and now I should be grateful. However, since I've slept a total of ten hours in the past two months, have raw nipples that leak milk almost constantly, and spend my days carrying around a writhing kid who seems to scream a good 4/5 of her waking hours (and almost all of them are waking hours), I pretty much want to bang my head against a brick wall most of the time."

2. "Have you tried ________ to help her sleep?" If you know someone whose kid is really sleep troubled -- and no, I'm not talking about a 2 month old who wakes three times at night or a 7 month old who takes short naps -- I'm talking about a person who is on death's door because her child almost never sleeps -- please don't offer advice. I know that seems counter-intuitive, so let me explain. If that person is suffering to that degree, they've almost certainly tried every conceivable trick you can think of. Also, if the baby is truly that sleep-challenged, he/she most likely will not respond to the nifty trick that caused your baby to go from 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep to 12. This will make that mom feel even worse about herself and her mothering skills, because why on earth would someone else's baby be that easy to pacify if hers isn't? The best thing to do is offer sympathy -- TELL THEM ABOUT ME AND STELLA FOR GOODNESS'S SAKE -- and offer to help. This brings me to Number 3.

3. "Let me know if I can do anything." New moms are completely overwhelmed. Trying to take care of oneself and keep a helpless human being alive is hard work. When someone makes a statement like that, it puts it in the mom's hands to come up with a way for you to help. I remember being so exhausted and unhappy when a dear friend, Jess, wrote me an email saying, "I'm coming over on Tuesday. What time is good?" I started sobbing upon reading that email. Had she asked if she could help, I would have said no. Have I mentioned that I'm stubborn? Well, I am. But she insisted she was coming, and come she did. She took Stella and pushed me out the door -- forcing me to go on a solo walk. This is what you need to do for new moms. Insist that you help -- bring food, take the baby so she can nap, whatever. Take the ball out of her hands.

4. "Wow. You look really tired." Those first few months of a baby's life, most moms look like crap. Especially moms suffering from baby blues or PPD. We know we look like crap, but there's not much we can do about it in our state. Please don't remind us of that, and especially don't remind us of how little sleep we got last night. Because we can't forget about that. Stretch to find a compliment. Maybe you like our ratty flip flops, or maybe that greasy, stringy ponytail looks incredibly punk. Whatever -- just tell us we look good. And if you can't do that, pay for a spa day and some childcare so you can make a sincere compliment! (This goes along with #3.)

OK, now for a list of positive commandments. Here are the statements that I think you should say to a new mom, statements that either helped me tremendously or would have.

1. "How are you doing? No, honey, not the baby. I can see he's gorgeous. How are YOU?" The minute the baby comes into your life, it seems that's all anyone wants to know about. Hell, that's all you seem to care about. But when someone asks about you with genuine concern, it can cause you to confront those negative feelings and open up a portal for communication. If a mom looks unhappy, don't be afraid to keep asking her this question in the hopes that she'll open up to you.

2. "Did I ever tell you about the time my kid _____________ when she was a baby?" If you have hellish infant stories -- PLEASE SHARE THEM! Especially if you were depressed or if your baby had sleep problems. So much of PPD is feeling isolated and misunderstood, so just knowing that someone else's experience was less than peachy-keen can be incredibly helpful.

3. "Just because you love someone doesn't mean they can't drive you crazy." So many times I'd be in my mommy groups, listening to women share frustrations about their spouses/partners. The people whom we've chosen to be with, the loves of our lives, can drive us to the brink of insanity. But I often find that it's a big taboo to complain about your baby. Especially if you waited until a, um, certain age to have a baby and if that baby took some work to come by. In that case, your baby should be next to holy, or so it seems, and if you complain about her, something's wrong with you. Remind the new mom that, just because she's in love with her new addition doesn't mean the baby won't drive her crazy. It will. Possibly often. Remind her that that's normal and that accepting herself and giving herself a break will actually help her to handle those feelings in a healthy way.

4. And, just as a reminder from above, the following: "I'm coming over on ____________ to help out" and "You look gorgeous." It can't hurt to reiterate.

I hope this helps. If any new moms think of any other helpful/NOT helpful remarks, please add them to the comments. And if you think you might have made one of the "offending" remarks, please don't sweat it. I'm a Sagittarius, after all, so I'm sure I've offended you sometime in our past.


rachel leah said...

My mother said to me before I had my son, and soon after, "It will take you a while to love your baby. At first, you will just really do things for him out of onligation. Love really takes time." This ran counter to anything that I had "thought" was true about motherhood. But she was right. Whenever I repeat what my mother said, people look at me as if I am heartless. Of course I love my son, but caring for a newborn is really fucking hard, hard to the point that "love" for the child, for being a mommy, did not even enter the equation. The fact that my mother, who I love, and who I know loves me, said this to me, was really helpful.

Holly said...

This is great, Randi! You've created an awesome resource in this post.

So far, I'm doing all right, but I think the real test will come once Michael goes back to work next week. Thankfully, my mom's coming down for a few days. But after that is when the rubber meets the road. Thanks for all your openness and insight. I now have a much better idea of what to look out for with PPD.

Tiffanie said...

how about, "let me hold the baby while you go do _whatever you want/need to with two hands_."

Amy G said...

THANK YOU for this post. As the mother of a truly sleep-challenged baby, and as someone who also secretly suffered from PPD, this post is one of the greatest things I've read in the past 9 months. I wish more people knew this stuff...

Randi Skaggs said...

Thanks for the compliments and insight, ladies. I feel so fortunate to know so many amazing, honest, caring mothers.

Randi Skaggs said...

Also -- Amy G -- not to sound preachy, but please make sure to talk to your doctor if you're feeling down. I can't stress enough how much better I feel now that I've gotten help!

ladyk said...

Why can't more women be honest about these things!? Motherhood is tough, and I really appreciate your insights Randi! I too suffered in silence for a long time. My mission is now to show moms that IT's OK to be sad and have bad days. IT'S OK to want to run away sometimes. We all need to just be able to express ourselves without judgement from others.