When Your Friend Has a Newborn

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Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

I learned a lot of things when I had a baby, and one of them was how useless I had been to my new-parent friends in years past. And I’d thought I was helpful! I showed up at their homes with wine and flowers. I sent cute baby clothes. I held and cooed over their bald, gnomish newborns.

Countless people did the same for me after I had my son about a year and a half ago. Their support was profoundly generous and moving, and I have never felt so loved or lucky. When one friend came to my door with a hot pizza, I almost cried with gratitude. Neighbors came out of the woodwork with lasagnas, teeny little baby socks, and other kindnesses that I will remember forever.

But this outpouring was also stressful and overwhelming at times. Our apartment was a mess of boxes, and I didn’t have time to shower or even put on a shirt; I craved company but was sometimes embarrassed when people came over. I felt guilty for groaning every time we got another delivery of flowers — they were beautiful but also another thing to unwrap, find space for, and eventually throw away. One person sent me a card with glitter in it, and I freaked out when it scattered everywhere; I was terrified that the tiny sparkles would somehow get into my baby’s eyes or nose, causing him harm. I dreaded all the thank-you notes I’d have to write, and I felt bad about that, too. Everyone meant so well, but I was so tired.

“We live in a society that doesn’t have many open conversations around what it means to support new parents in affirming ways,” says Chanel Porchia-Albert, the founder of Ancient Song, a New York–based organization that offers doula services, training, and advocacy for new parents in Black and Latinx communities. “A lot of people don’t know what to do, so they either show up in ways that aren’t helpful or they don’t show up at all. And it’s not their fault per se — we just haven’t been taught how to care for each other, especially during life-changing events.”

So how can we do better? I spoke to several experts about what they wished more people knew about supporting new parents, especially in the earliest, most vulnerable days.

Ask the new parent what they want.

“A simple question that can help a lot is ‘What does support look like for you right now?’” says Porchia-Albert. Recognize that the answer may change from day to day or even hour to hour, so don’t ask just once, she adds. “Better yet, start asking it when the parents are expecting and continue after the baby is born.”

Also, listen to what they say. When I was a few weeks postpartum, one of my friends texted me to ask what she could send. Did I need anything? “Honestly, no,” I wrote back. “We’re so overwhelmed with stuff that the best thing anyone could do is not send another box to this apartment.” I worried that I sounded bratty, but she was gracious. Best of all, she did what I asked and sent me photos of her cat instead.

Offer specific services.

Sometimes people don’t know how to ask for what they need, especially when they’re already fatigued by countless new decisions. Meema Spadola, who has worked as a postpartum doula and lactation counselor for 17 years, suggests offering something concrete. “For instance, you could walk their dog if they have one or organize a meal train for them with other friends,” she says. “You could also offer options like ‘I’d love to bring by a meal — would you prefer X or Y?’ Most people don’t need another plant or a onesie — they need to be nourished and cared for.”

If the parents have older children, pay attention to those kids, too. “Everyone wants to see the new baby, but sometimes the best thing you can do for parents of a newborn is take their other kids out for a few hours,” says Porchia-Albert. “Even just swinging by and taking their 5-year-old out for ice cream can be a huge help.”

Other ideas: Give a Seamless gift card or offer to send a cleaning service. A couple of friends and I did this for someone after she had an unexpected early C-section, and she still says it was the best thing anyone did for her.

If you do visit, be mindful — new parents are going through a lot.

Ask when you should come, and don’t be late. Do your friends the courtesy of being reliable when nothing else is.

Upon arrival, remember your baby etiquette. “Don’t wear heavy scents because newborns can be very sensitive to them,” says Porchia-Albert. “Take off your shoes. Wash your hands. Offer to wear a mask, especially around the baby. Keep your voice low.” If you see dirty dishes, do them. Wipe down the countertops. Ask if you can help with laundry. And don’t stay longer than an hour unless they specifically ask you to.

Also, be respectful if the parents are nervous about letting you hold the baby. I never thought I’d be that person, but especially when my son was very young, I was terrified of his catching germs. Still, I felt awkward saying “no” when someone held out their arms in the universal “Let me hold your baby!” sign. The best solution if you’re visiting? Wait until the parent offers the baby to you.

Leave your judgments at the door.

“Remember how vulnerable and tender new parents feel, and treat them with the utmost gentleness,” says Spadola. “If they want to talk about how the labor and the birth went, use all your best listening skills and affirm, affirm, affirm. It is not the time to say ‘Oh, did you try this thing?’ Or ‘The only thing that matters is that you and the baby are healthy.’” Birth trauma is real, she adds, and it looks different for different people. “Be prepared to nod and say ‘I’m so sorry, that sounds really hard.’”

The same goes for those having trouble with breastfeeding. If they want to talk about it, listen; if they don’t, it’s best not to pry. And definitely don’t judge anyone for using formula.

Offer emotional support and additional resources.

When I was about two months postpartum, I took a long walk with my baby in his stroller and bumped into an acquaintance. For reasons unknown, I was suddenly so overwhelmed with emotion that I burst into tears when I saw her. She was incredibly nice about it, but I still felt embarrassed; to make matters worse, I proceeded to cry for the remainder of the walk. Finally, as I was about to get home, I called a friend. “I’m having a really hard time,” I sniffled. “I feel like I’m losing it.” She listened to me and validated my rambling. She helped me see that I wasn’t going crazy after all. After talking to her for 20 minutes, I felt much better.

That kind of thing is normal. But if a new parent seems to be going through something more serious, you might encourage them to talk to a doctor or help them get access to a postpartum doula. “You don’t want to force anything on them, but you could explain that these resources are available and that they can be a lot more affordable than people think,” says Spadola. “A lot of people think postpartum support is a luxury service for the very wealthy, but luckily that is changing.” In certain areas, including New York City, there are ways to receive no-cost doula services through the Citywide Doula Initiative; Porchia-Albert also recommends JustBirth Space, which offers virtual support.

Keep showing up.

“Try very hard not to take it personally if a new parent is a crappy friend for the first months postpartum,” says Spadola. “It’s hard to return texts and phone calls and focus on other people when you’re learning to take care of a whole new person. They’ve gone through a profound, earthshaking, mind-blowing, body-warping event. So they might not relate to you in quite the same way for at least a little while.”

In the meantime, keep checking in. “Most parents get a lot of attention in the first couple weeks, and then it tapers off,” Spadola adds. “People are like, ‘Oh, it’s been a month. You’re good now, right?’” It’s true that the parents might be doing great, but they also might not. And following up after the initial glow of newborn-baby attention and adrenaline has worn off can go a long way. When my baby was about 6 weeks old, a friend sent us a dozen bagels and coffee one morning out of the blue. Her note said, “This is the time when a lot of people assume you’re fine and stop checking in. I figured you might need these!” She was right, and the bagels were delicious.

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