Having a baby is a little bit like living with a tiny little Timothée Chalamet. In public, strangers smile knowingly, offer unsolicited but well-intentioned compliments, and sometimes try to get a little too close. Friends want to know what the little celeb is like in person (the truth is, unlike the young squire Chalamet, my baby is not what anybody would describe as "talented" or "professional"). Family members will demand photos and anecdotes about what my 8lb A-Lister is up to. Everybody's angling to visit you on set. Everybody's in the fan club. Nobody can wait for Dune 2.
But as exciting as young talent is, there's a case to be made for reining in newborn baby zeal and waiting to visit until the baby is at least a few months old, unless the parents specifically need or want your help. Let me explain, from the perspective of a new parent who, prior to this, had a long career as a baby enthusiast .
We are lucky that we haven't had any run-ins with over-eager obscure relatives who show up unannounced and demand to be waited on, or in-laws who undermine and criticize our parenting. But in talking to friends and loved ones who have had babies, I know these things aren't uncommon. Many new mothers have had their own health and needs subjugated to the feelings and wants of others, like they're a tedious subplot in a movie starring the baby.
Online parenting forums are riddled with stories from women who will never forgive friends and family for mistreating them during the delicate postpartum days and weeks. The stories women share are wild-- unwanted relatives barging into the delivery room, grandparents snatching the baby away from parents, entitled visitors who overstay their welcome, "baby rabies," and horny, cartoonishly useless husbands.
Most postpartum faux pas aren't as dramatic as the horror stories of the corner of the internet reserved for people who want to anonymously complain about their families to a bunch of strangers. But there's still a lot of widespread behavior around new babies that I'm realizing now, through the lens of empathy granted by experience, is unhelpful.
First, I have learned that there's a difference between postpartum period "visiting" and "helping."
"Visiting" a new baby involves the implied need for the parents to straighten up their burp cloth-strewn home and provide some form of hospitality, or for a new mother to brush her hair. "Visiting" requires sleep-deprived parents to engage socially in a meaningful way. "Visiting" occurs with the aim of seeing the baby. Visiting requires work from the already-depleted parents and makes their lives harder; helping requires work on the part of the guests, which provides the parents relief.
"Oh, you don't need to straighten up for me!" would-be visitors might say. But the thing is, in almost all cases: yes, we do. My husband took a month off work and has been an absolute legend about keeping the house clean while I keep the baby fed, but even we fell behind to the point that we wouldn't have wanted anybody to see the place in the state it was in, no matter what would-be visitors may have claimed. Most couples in the US do not do the type of work where both parents are able to stay home for a month after the birth of a child (we're freelancers, so theoretically our leave is unlimited. Mostly unpaid, but unlimited!), and are likely in a rougher place than we are. A visitor saying they don't care how the house looks does not erase the fact that the parents care.
"I don't care how you look!" would-be visitors might say. To that I say: I could wear a muumuu and mascara and sort of disguise how bad I looked. But most people underestimate the degree to which postpartum mothers feel awful. After giving birth, for weeks, I felt physically and spiritually like a melting city snowbank in March, a misshapen slush wad riddled with a winter's worth of cigarette butts, chicken bones, and dog piss. My birth was uncomplicated and non-surgical, but during those first weeks, normal activities like walking, sitting, standing, and using the bathroom were uncomfortable to downright painful. I was wearing adult-sized diapers while changing a newborn's diapers (The circle of life). Physically post-birth is going to look different depending a multitude of factors; for most women, it involves giant disposable mesh underwear, sleep deprivation, and what feels like 9 months' worth of missed periods teaming up for one Super Period, the Avengers: Endgame of periods.
I did not want visitors when I felt like that, no matter how little they said they cared.
As for the people who want to "meet" the baby: newborns do not care about meeting people nearly as much as visitors care about meeting the baby. It's a one-sided interaction. All new babies do is eat, sleep, poop, and cry. Some newborns are chill, but most newborns are not chill, and the act of being passed around between visitors and can be overstimulating, which can mess with the baby's ability to sleep, which messes with the parents' ability to sleep, and then nobody's happy.
Most people's idea of what a "baby" is like is based off memories of being around babies that are at least a few months old and are capable of things like "supporting their own heads" and "smiling." Newborns are like another species, and it seems like even people who raised children years ago have forgotten how they are. They don't want toys waved in their faces, or to be tickled, or to have raspberries blown on their stomachs. They have no idea what's going on beyond their own immediate needs. (Also, new babies have essentially no immune system and don't receive their first round of vaccines until they're two months old, so visitors putting their mouths teeming with adult germs on newborn baby faces and bellies is a dumb idea.) They're only awake for short amounts of time, and they spend most of that time eating. Juniper is five weeks old and only just now started smiling and sort of engaging with us (sometimes, when she feels like it).
While "visiting" is something new parents may grit their teeth and endure, "help" (with notice) is usually welcome.
"Helping" involves providing assistance with a job that has fallen by the wayside during the haze of new parenting. Bringing food over is "helping," as is offering to do a load or two of laundry. (Since Juniper made her debut, we've had an astonishing amount of laundry. She is tiny. How?) Taking the dog out for a walk, sweeping the floors, putting dishes away-- that's helping. When my parents were in town a week after Juniper was born, they helped us pack up a bunch of our nice dishes for an upcoming move; my in-laws brought everybody a delicious catered Thanksgiving meal from a local grocery store. That was helpful.
This might be sound Grinchy and every new parent is different, but: in the weeks after I had Juniper, I did not need help holding my baby, and I did not want or need a babysitter. After giving birth, holding my baby was one of the only things I actually enjoyed doing, and leaving the house was miserable. I did things like shower and brush my teeth while she slept, which was often. An offer to "help" by holding the baby isn't really an offer to help. It's an offer to "visit" disguised as an offer to help.
Would-be guests of new parents have nothing to lose by prioritizing the needs of the parents over their immediate wants as enthusiastic fans of the new baby, of being a "helper" and not simply a "visitor." Parents always remember how they were treated during the weeks immediately postpartum, and many a friend has confided in me that bad visitor behavior during that time has permanently damaged their relationships with friends or relatives (usually relatives).
Having babies is so common that it's bizarre to me that we, culturally, are still so bad at displaying empathy and care for postpartum mothers (and all new parents, but mostly mothers). Is it because the physical and emotional trauma inherent to pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood subside with time? Is the same memory erasure mechanism necessary for the continuation of the species also responsible for insensitivity toward new parents by people who should know better (namely, other parents)?
I look forward to forgetting exactly how it feels to attempt to write on two hours of sleep interrupted by intermittent screaming (Here's an example: I tried to spell it "screeming" and it took a few seconds to realize what my mistake was.) But, for now, I'm writing this down because I do not want to lose the empathetic knowledge I have gained during this weird, loud time-- at the very least it will save me from accidentally making enemies of new parents in the future.