Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to be Gentle to a Postpartum Mother

A few years ago, our darling sister, Ariel, wrote a wonderful post about how to speak to a pregnant woman. I loved it, and thought I might write a post about how to speak to a postpartum woman. To preface this conversation, I should mention that this may seem like, "Wow, I've had a lot of really crummy conversation right after I've had each of my children. I want to tell you about each of them. In great detail." I haven't, for each of these unfortunate experiences, I've had probably a thousand good ones. But there has been a lingering bite to some of these, and I think it is something we would all, myself included, do well to consider for the future.

1. Don't assume a mother wants, or doesn't want company. Just ask.
Giving birth is such a personal thing, and affects every mother differently. For me, each postpartum experience has been vastly different. Sometimes I have craved company, others I have relished time alone. There is no shame in asking how the mother is feeling, and if she would like company. Postpartum is a terrible time to be burdened with company you don't have the energy for. Which leads me to my next point...

2. If you visit, don't overstay your welcome.
The day my second son was born, I was in the restroom when I heard a knock at the front door. It was a lovely neighbor bringing us a meal. It was beyond thoughtful! She then sat and chatted. And chatted. And chatted... I was hiding in the bathroom, because I had just birthed a 10 lb. bowling ball after a 9 hour labor, and didn't have the energy for guests. I finally came out and sat on the couch, and my neighbor continued to chat... I honestly don't remember the resolution to that visit, (did I mention I was tired?) all I know is that it made me cry. That is a rather grandiose example, though. There was that other time visited my friend whose baby was a month old, and time got away from me because our sons were playing so nicely together. And then my friend suddenly stood up inexplicably... oh wait, no. She was just trying to get the message to me that we should have left a while ago. (We had been there an hour.) Let's just all remember to make visits short, or again, find some way of asking what the mother needs.

3. Don't make commentary on the size of family she ought to have. Also, don't assume she is planning on a large, or small family
Does this make anyone immediately awkward? It does me. After my second son was born, a lovely lady brought us dinner. I mentioned it being busy taking care of a new baby, and his not-yet-two-year-old older brother. She said, "Well, but then once you have your sixth or seventh, you'll see it gets easier, because the older kids will help with the younger while you are with the newest..." And she just beamed at me! Honestly, this woman can't get sweeter. She is a very good woman. But I had just had my second child days before, and was not in a hurry to jump into another pregnancy. To be blunt I didn't want more than two. And being extremely tired, and having just had a baby, I cried after she left. I honestly felt like a bad person for the literal revulsion I felt over the thought of being the mother of that many children. I've come to terms with it. Have you? Let's all remember it is none of our business how many children other people have. Assume the best, they are in close contact with God about it. He is just fine with people having large families, he is equally just fine with people having small families. The end.

4. If she confides in you about a difficulty that stemmed from giving birth, the proper response is ALWAYS, "That must be so difficult. I'm so sorry!"
I feel like this should be self-explanatory, but just incase someone missed this life lesson, if a mother tells you she has been suffering from depression since her baby was born, just hug her for crying out loud! Or, if she had a bad birth experience, don't tell her how things could have been worse. By all means, please don't tell her it could have been better if she had chosen to birth in different way. Ugh. I may have been guilty of this one, being a natural birth junky. Dear Universe, I am so very sorry for being inadvertently rude...

5Don't make a commitment to help the postpartum mother, unless you know you can keep it.
These stories are shared with the permission of those involved. When I was expecting my third child, I made arrangements for my sister to come stay with me for the first week when my husband went back to work. (Seriously, am I the only person for whom that first week of being alone with all of the children, new and old, is terrifying?? It always turns out fine, but there is no masking that it is just a difficult time.) Well, plans didn't turn out as smoothly as we had thought, and I spent the first two days without any help at all. As I said, it turned out fine, but for a woman who had been expecting help, to suddenly not have it... I felt like I was drowning in babies. It was actually really harrowing. One more example to drive this one home: I have a friend who had just had her third baby, and her mom called saying she wanted to come get her older children the next morning. My friend said she could almost taste the sleep. The time for her mom to pick up the kiddies came and went, but she finally called to say she was running late. Then an hour later she called again and said she was still running late. Three hours later than when she said she would be there, she called and said she would try again the next day. (I'm not making this up.) Please, please, please, please, don't try to be helpful by promising something you cannot deliver. We all understand life is busy -- boy is it ever! It is far less offensive, though, to have someone not offer help, then to offer it at such a crucial juncture, and not fulfill.

6. For heaven's sake (literally), please stop judging. Just stop. Really.
So there was this one time a group of my friends were talking about how sometimes women use having a baby to get out of their church callings, or not go to church for a month or more at a time. I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Been there. Done that." Like that time I was a brand new mother to my first son, and was given a time intensive calling in our the primary presidency (the children's organization of our church). I got bronchitis a week later, and was struggling with nursing because my milk supply was low from the fever and being sick -- I could not drag myself to make it to the presidency meeting that week, and so the wonderful women I was in the presidency with (one who didn't have children at the time, and another who was very honest about the fact that she had never wanted any), had taken off from work, but then there wasn't a meeting to go to because I wasn't there. And then every Sunday I would be performing some function where I couldn't be feeding my new baby, (sometimes babies want to nurse at inconvenient moments, let's be honest. I won't apologize for wanting to feed my month old baby.) and so someone else would be holding him in the hallway, and he would be crying. And so he would fall asleep crying in the hallway on Sunday's. Call me a baby, but it was too much for me. I asked to be released. And then there was that time when I had had my third baby, (whose pregnancy was a surprise, by the way), and I was slammed by postpartum depression, and I felt like I was drowning, so I asked to be released as a visiting teacher, because I wasn't making it to appointments anyway.... I'm not depressed anymore, but being a mom to three kids in three years is just really intense. I still haven't asked to be reinstated as a VT, yet. Taking care of my best time investments ever positively fills my plate, to be honest. And God has told me repeatedly that he is OK with this arrangement. Let's just not go there, friends. We don't know how that new mother is feeling. It does not matter if it her first, fifth, or tenth, just call her blessed, and then make room for her and her family's needs.

We all have our stories. Let's all learn together so we can be better sisters to those around us. Do you have any experiences you'd like to share? Please feel free, you are in a safe place here.


  1. I love your insights. My postpartum self just wants to sleep. And sleep. And sleep. So the paragraph on not overstaying your visit hits home with me. If the visit interrupts a possible nap I feel angry rather than grateful. I actually don't even want a visit for a month or two. Meals are very much appreciated. But my favorite is a text letting me know it has been left on the doorstep! Then I don't even have to get dressed. Ha! Each woman is different, so asking is important! Thanks for the post!

  2. Such an important post, Melissa! I'm sure I have made many of these mistakes --- and of course the people who make them are never malicious, just unaware. So thanks for raising awareness!

    As a birth and postpartum doula, I've learned that the most important message is NOT "treat others how you would like to be treated," but "treat others how THEY would like to be treated." Different moms, different personality-styles, different needs. Some moms NEED people around them ALL the time after giving birth. Some moms just want to be alone, and to know they can call you if they need help.

    I'm sorry for your lonely experience after Charlie's birth. I feel accountable for that, especially because I don't remember much of what happened in the days that followed. I have learned a lot since then. You're right that the key is never to assume you know what a mom needs or doesn't need, but to ask and be available. I wish I could go back in time.

    As for me, for at least the first week of Peter's life I felt strong anxiety around anyone except Cameron, Mom, and Nonie. It was such a difficult recovery, that any extra people --- people who weren't there to aid me in breastfeeding or to cook me food --- were such a burden that I remember physically just curling up around my baby until everyone went away. That's another good message: don't take it personally! I loved every person who came. But I still needed them to go away.

    1. Oh, Meredith, please don't feel guilty! Things were busy with everyone around for Christmas. Mom and I tried to coordinate things on one occasion, but the only time they could get the boys was right at nap time, and then Joe would be home after they got up. It was what it was, and I have learned something valuable, even though it felt really awful at the time. I feel more serious about making commitments these days. Not that I was a flake before. I just made it my policy to be very straight forward after that experience, even though sometimes I feel guilty for not "making time to help others". I do serve people, but I put my family first always, and so I try not to lose too much sleep about it at this time. I can still bring a meal, but I don't offer to babysit at this hour of life. I can serve others once again at a later date. God and I both know I will.

      I'm sorry for your experience having Peter. Being a mother is not for the faint of heart! Nor is being the husband to a mother. I'm so glad you were surrounded by the hands you needed. Sweet Peter is such a prize after the work you did at the time!

  3. Thank you, Melissa. I can't tell you how happy I was to see that you'd posted. :) :)

    I found myself nodding to each point you made. I had the same experience as you the day my second son was born. My sweet landlady (who lived in the front house) came back with her daughter to see the baby, and feeling like I had to be someone I wasn't at the time was trying for me. After they had gone, my mom could tell how worn out I was, and expressed regret that she hadn't helped guide them to the door sooner. I cried, too! I had actually been completely happy that day. I almost didn't realize how much I didn't want a visitor...

    Which makes me want to emphasize that the people who are guardians of the mama (if they exist) should do all they can to be aware of her needs and communicate them to others wherever possible. My midwives for James's birth were the best. They taped a letter to the door announcing that there was a new baby in the home, that privacy should be respected, and that if visitors were admitted, they should be brief, and find some way to help in the home (with kids, cleaning, food, etc.). They also called me (in one case visited) every day for a week to keep tabs on me. Mostly I didn't feel like answering, but I really appreciated their calls.

    I always feel it's such a privilege to be admitted to the home of a mother fresh from birth. It's a sacred time. Sometimes I don't want to intrude because of that, but I think it's more important to make sure that the mother is doing okay and feels supported, whatever that means for her. Even one, two, and three months after birth.

    Thank you for raising awareness on this issue. I consider you a master empathizer. Sure love you!

    1. That is an excellent idea by your midwives! We have often covered our doorbell during that time, as well, as an added reminder for people.

  4. Thanks for posting, Melissa, and for raising awareness on this issue.

    I'm feeling bad--I just barely did this to a new mother--I offered to bring her a meal, and in my way to deliver it I remembered she had some allergies. I checked and I had used the forbidden ingredients (which I never before had put into this particular dish). She was graceful, and we rescheduled. I felt pretty terrible, though!

    When I was studying abroad in Spain, some of my friends and I took advantage of the situation and traveled to four neighboring countries. It seemed like wherever we went, we saw Mormon missionaries. One friend would never stop them even just to say "hello," unless he had food to offer, or a referral, and he'd not stay to chat after having given them one of those two things. It seems like a good rule of thumb for new mothers--don't stop by unless you're cleaning her house or bringing food, and be quick about it! Babies change so much in those first weeks, don't rob any of that tide from the mother!

    1. Ariel, don't feel bad! Having a child who reacts to certain foods, I feel that situation is an emergency. I would not have been offended over that. I'd have thought, "Yay! A legitimate excuse to get that pizza I've been craving!!"