In all the excitement around the birth of a new baby, often we forget that a parent is a real person, with real feelings, who has just experienced one of the most life-altering events of their lifetime. We'll chat for days about all the lovely baby-related things, however, rarely do we consider what their raw and honest postpartum experience might be. Having birthed 3 children, I am pretty familiar with “new parent 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 parents 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 parent in your world.
The potentially loaded "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 or who is adjusting to life with a new baby in general. 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 infant feeding! 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! Postpartum 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 partners 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 they say yes, smile and say that’s wonderful. If they say no, either an empathetic “I know, it must be so hard.” I'm here for you." Or asking how you can give them a hand is a great way to be even just a small part of their village at that moment.
The painfully obvious "Is Baby a good sleeper?"
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 8 p.m.? 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 a new parent is getting a wee bit of rest. However, I feel like this question should be avoided for the obvious reason that if they say “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 they are unaware that they only look to be a fraction as tired as they really are because dry shampoo, coffee and concealer are a thing.
Again, this question could do more harm than good on an emotional level for a new parent and they may not answer honestly. Instead, take the opportunity to affirm them by saying something like “Look how content and happy your baby looks. They feel so safe with you.” or simply "You're a wonderful parent." That’s right, don’t even ask about sleep or comment on their appearance. Unless your plan is to offer to fold laundry, do dishes and cook a meal or three while they take a nap, just smile and tell them that you see them doing their best, lifting their spirit and hopefully helping them to hold their head high like the kick-ass parent they are.
The not-really-your-business "Are you going to try for a girl/boy?" or "Will you have more?"
I totally believe these questions are asked out of pure curiosity about the hopes and dreams of another parent for their family. However, it could also unearth some “gender disappointment” for them which is incredibly difficult and heartbreaking for her to have to shoulder. Also, they 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 them and their family on this subject, by all means, let them know that you are open to hearing their truth about this! If not, instead of asking them to think about trying to control something they can’t, even if they can/want to have more children, ask about their little one's personality or what they look forward to the most in the near future might be better. New parents love to talk about their little one's quirks and isms and these questions are likely to remind them of all the wonderful things they love about THIS baby, avoiding the uncomfortable feelings of maybe not being “complete” as a family.
The nonchalant "Let me know if you need anything!"
This is obviously a comment, not a question and I believe is always said with the right intentions. However, 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 parent 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 parent 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 they don’t feel like they're inconveniencing you or asking you to do something you would rather not.
The best way to love, encourage and help a newly postpartum parent!
On your next coffee date with the person in your world who has just crossed the threshold of parenthood, remember this list and do your best to help them feel empowered and loved in their vulnerable state. If you forget some of these things, your friend will not fault you for it. Just be mindful that they have just undergone one of the most amazing and challenging changes of their life and likely already feel inadequate, tired, afraid and like they have none of the answers. They may even be struggling with PPD, PPA or just not feeling very happy about being a parent in general right now.
If you are a close friend, try to convey your genuine desire to hear how they're REALLY doing and be open to whatever their 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 they may feel crazy and possibly unfit for this parenthood gig, even if they've had a couple of kids already.
Above all, hold space!
Holding space for the, sometimes hard, realities of being a new 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 parents who could then go out and be the village for others. What kind of ripple effect could that have?
xo - Rebekkah