I was talking with a friend recently about baby-holders: the people who show up after you give birth and want to do nothing but hold your baby. Oh, did we have a good and bitter laugh about them! She had gotten into an online discussion, voicing her opinion that it was perfectly acceptable for new parents to put a sign on their front door that said, essentially, “Our baby is sleeping and we are resting. Feel free to leave food and we’ll call when we’re ready to see you.”
Apparently some people were having a fit about this, because they considered this sign and this behavior “rude.” And it brought back a LOT of memories for me.
When I had my first son, we had so. Many. Visitors. It was a nonstop stream of people for a solid four or five months. My oldest was not an easy baby. He screamed a lot. Like all night long, unless he was walked in a loop through our kitchen, living room and sun room; walking in that loop was the only thing that soothed him. I tried to nurse him and couldn’t because it was horribly painful–I didn’t find out until he was four that he was tongue-tied and lip-tied, which could have been fixed–so I had to pump all day and night. And sterilize pump parts and make bottles. In the meantime, I was learning how to be a mother and allowing my old, free self to shrivel up and blow away. I have never undergone a transformation like this in my life and I am certain I never will again. It was a hard and scary time.
Enter the visitors.
They came in droves. More or less well-meaning, but mostly, I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to let my body heal, and let my mind adjust to this new reality, and allow my marriage to shift to include this third whole person that we now were entirely focused on. I wanted rest whenever I could get it, which was very little. What I did not want was to chat with people and be social while my boobs leaked and while I could barely keep my head up because I was so tired (“tired” doesn’t really encompass it. No one knows tired–true exhaustion–until they have children. Period).
Everyone wanted to hold the baby, but this stressed me out for multiple reasons. First, new mothers generally don’t want people holding their babies (this is not neurosis; this is biology), and babies don’t want to be passed around like a football. They are not toys. They want their mothers and their mothers want them. One woman told me I “could get a little break” while I helplessly watched as my baby squalled in her arms and she got to play at mothering again. My distress at watching him cry and not comforting him was physical, visceral on a level I had never experienced. I will never forget that horrible feeling, because, as a female, I had also been trained not to be rude; I had been conditioned to be “nice,” to always say yes and be compliant, and I didn’t even have the words to say, in a polite way, “Time’s up. Hand him over.” I did not yet know that I could take care of him and take care of myself, and not give a damn about what other people thought.
Second, mothers with new babies don’t need or want people holding their babies (see above), they want HELP. They want and need and deserve someone to feed them, clean their bathrooms and do their laundry. They do not want people who turn into barnacles after they set foot in the house.
We had visitors who stayed for an entire week–a week, people–when the baby was 4 weeks old, all the while complaining that I wouldn’t let them hold the baby. They sat on my couch and made giant messes in my kitchen making huge meals. They watched TV all day long and acted put upon when they had to be quiet because my son was finally (finally!) napping in his swing in the living room.
Fast forward to the second baby’s birth. Almost 18 months ago, I delivered my second baby at home (on purpose). From the start, from pregnancy to delivery to postpartum, I did exactly what I needed and wanted for my body and my baby. I ignored all the hysterical people who worried that I was going to die when my body did what it was designed to do (give birth) at home. I sent out a text to family and friends right after the baby was born and said, “We love you and want to see you, but we will let you know when we’re ready for you to meet our baby. In the meantime, please send food. And lots of it.”
And you know what? They did. The people who loved us, who truly understood the excitement and exhaustion and upheaval of a new child in a home, delivered. Literally. My friends dropped off meals on the porch and texted me only after they’d already left (I still remember exactly how Kim’s stew tasted, and exactly how Autumn’s dal smelled as the aroma filled the house. There is no meal so delicious as one prepared with love by someone else and eaten in the few days after you’ve given birth). My dad and stepmom sent us an enormous shipment of frozen meals. My sister visited when I told her she could come and filled up my freezer with her amazing, home cooked food that she had stockpiled for me. None of these people demanded to hold my baby or hold us hostage to a social call.
And the baby-holders? Well, they got shooed away this time. I let a few people hold the baby, but only when I felt ready and I was sure he was okay. And when he made the slightest peep, I asked for him back. One person tried walking away from me with him in her arms when I said he needed to nurse, and I walked right in front of her and took him away. (Do not mess with Mama Bear. Especially a Mama Bear who’s not new to the block any more)
So if you know someone who’s expecting, the best gift you can give her is this: leave her alone until she tells you she’s ready to spend some time with you, whether that’s three days or three months. And while you’re waiting, cook something tasty for her and her family. When she does ask you to come, be helpful; do something that is physically hard for her (and everything is physically hard after giving birth. Everything). Unload her dishwasher or drop off groceries or fold the laundry. These are the best kindnesses you can show her, and the best way to be a good friend or family member. You’ll have a whole lifetime to get to know that little baby. I promise.