Maybe you became a mother long ago, and you remember those early days as a blink and a blur, and mostly from a few smiling photos of you and your newborn. Or maybe you are not a mother at all, whether by gender, circumstance, or choice. No matter – come with me for a moment.
Do you remember what it was like? There was the lovely new baby, of course. You fell hopelessly in love – or maybe you felt a little bewildered, and worried and hoped that you’d soon be in love. We saw you cuddling a little bundle, a new mother smiling for the camera. The visitors and gifts begin to arrive – teddy bears, onesies, and later, in the mail, personalized blankets and knickknacks, with baby’s name, birthday, and birth weight proudly proclaimed. But there is also YOU. Your body feels foreign and battered. The baby is gone from it through a violent exit, and the mounded belly left behind feels useless and heavy. You are bleeding, more than you could have ever imagined. You can barely walk, and the idea of a hot shower sounds both heavenly and impossible. You want to sleep off some of this overwhelming fatigue, but the visitors keep coming. Not just the family and friend kind, but the hospital people. Your doctor, checking stitches. The baby’s doctor. The baby’s hearing check person. The garbage emptier. The water glass refiller. The lunch menu deliverer, and the lunch tray remover. The baby’s heel stick blood test person. The lactation consultant. The birth certificate paperwork person. The postpartum nurse. You’re always especially glad to see her, because she is the only one there whose specific job is to take care of YOU. And you need that. It’s been a few days, and now you’re home. You are trying to breastfeed. You’re exhausted, because baby has been up every few hours around the clock and takes forever to eat. You still wear your stretchy pants, the only ones that both fit and don’t irritate. You’re still bleeding, a lot. Your breasts have swollen and hardened and overflowed, trying clumsily to figure out the exact appetite of the little one they’re trying to nourish. You haven’t made real food for yourself in a week, and you’re desperate for a shower, but the baby wakes up and cries whenever you put her down.
Visitors arrive with baby gifts and good wishes, and you struggle to feel social. Or maybe they don’t come, and you feel so alone. Your life is inside out and you don’t know whether to cry or smile, so you do both, likely all at once. The not-new parents hear that a baby has arrived, and we rejoice. “She is beautiful! Xoxo!” we gush on Facebook. We send a congratulatory card, a baby toy, and a blanket in the mail. We say, “Aw, how adorable…!” at prop-laden newborn photo shoots that seem to have become compulsory in the last five years. We visit, and we cuddle the baby, and snap a photo. Of course we celebrate the birth. It is a wondrous thing, and nothing less than the crux of our entire human existence.
But let us not forget – when a baby is born, so too is a mother. I’m as tempted as anyone to buy adorable baby toys and outfits, but it is the mother who needs us most after childbirth. Sure, bring the tiny cute stuff if you like, but do this too: Bring food. New parents do not have the time nor energy to plan meals, grocery shop, and spend hours in the kitchen. It is an incredibly nourishing act to feed someone you care about. Nourish her. Bring everything she needs, including paper plates. Eat with her if she wants the company, and just leave the food with her if she wants to collapse later and eat it on the couch. Support her baby-feeding choices. So she wants to breastfeed – it’s not for you to fret about the baby’s weight gain, and don’t give her the idea that she has to hide away out of sight while she’s nursing (but do give her privacy if she wants it). Instead, bring her a glass of water while she’s nursing. She is always, always thirsty. If she decides to stop breastfeeding and move to formula acknowledge that she knows what is best for her family. Don’t lecture, or inquire why she stopped. Let her be, and thank heavens there are safe, nutritious formulas. Call or text her from the grocery store, drugstore, or Target. “I’m out at ________. Can I pick up anything for you while I’m here?” Small to you, huge to her. Take the big kids. If she’s just had her second or third child or beyond, offer to drive the older ones to preschool or soccer. Invite them over to play with your kids. If you’re close, see if the new parents would like you to pick up the big kids for an overnight visit. Listen, and don’t assume she is loving new motherhood. If she shows signs of postpartum depression, help her feel okay about asking her OB/Gyn or midwife for additional care.
She may not know if what she is feeling is a normal bout of blues, or something that could use a little extra attention from her medical provider. If you struggled yourself, please talk about it, so new mothers who aren’t joyfully in love with their babies don’t feel so lost and alone, and know when to ask for help. Support maternal leave and postpartum care in the United States.
By now most of us have heard the statistic: the United States is one of just three countries in the world that do not provide guaranteed paid maternity leave. (Papua New Guinea and Suriname are the other two.) What does that mean, really, for American mothers? Most women I know, women in professional jobs like teaching and business, cobble together some mix of vacation days, paid disability leave, and unpaid time off. (Like 87 percent of Americans, their jobs offer no paid parental leave.) Let’s hope she doesn’t get sick after her leave, nor her baby, because she now has nothing left. And what about those who aren’t even this “lucky?” Consider this: many, almost one-quarter in one recently reported study, American mothers return to work within one or two weeks of birth. Shocking.
No matter when she has to return to work, or return to her regular duties at home, she needs the support of the rest of us. This is not because she can’t do it herself, because she will, if I know anything about the tenacity of mothers. But she deserves better than just getting by – she deserves acknowledgement and care for what she and her body have been through, and continue to go through, in the postpartum days. The cute nursery doesn’t make the baby sleep through the night, the newborn photos are nothing but adorable staged fantasies, and the mother doesn’t need another rattle or stuffed animal or outfit. She needs love, support, time to rest and recover, and practical help. Especially food. Always bring food. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.