Having a baby is an overwhelming, emotional experience. The realization that this tiny and fragile being is completely dependent on you—paired with the physical exhaustion and recovery of delivery, rapid hormonal changes, and sleep deprivation—can be a challenge for any new mother. In recognition of these challenges, many cultures have adapted traditions and rituals for a mother to rest and recuperate and focus solely on bonding with her new baby.
In Hispanic cultures, la cuarentena, a period of approximately 40-days where the new mom abstains from sex, eats only approved foods and is mandated to rest in order to focus on nursing, taking care of her baby and herself. During this time, other members of the family pitch in to cook, clean and take care of older children, if there are any. In China, there is a 30-day period of confinement or “the sitting month” after a child is born. During this time, a new mother does not leave the house in order to recover from childbirth. The period usually includes traditional health beliefs, rituals, and practices, including eating bland foods and avoiding cold water to restore the body’s balance. In Korean tradition, samchilil, which means 21-days, is a time for a new mother to rest and be cared for by her mother or mother-in-law for at least 21-days. It is believed that the new mother must be cared for in order to ensure a quick recovery from birth and sufficient time to bond and adjust to motherhood. There is no housework, errands, cooking or responsibilities.
In our culture, we perpetuate the notion that women should experience a smooth and euphoric transition into motherhood. However, practices in the United States do very little to promote this. Hospital stays usually vary from 2-3 days. New mothers are not encouraged to rest or take a hiatus from household responsibilities. In fact, most are expected to resume normal activities as soon as possible, neglecting the seriousness of a woman’s physical and emotional condition after birth. A new baby brings a lot of excitement and happiness to a home, but can also bring a lot of exhaustion. How can we better take care of our mothers?
It is important to “mother our mothers”—to nurture them, to anticipate their needs, to provide unconditional empathy and support—similar to the way a new mother cares for her baby. Here are 11 things you can do for the new mothers in your life.
1. Check with the new mom before visiting
Call, or even better text a mom before coming over. Ask if she needs anything that you can pick up on your way over or offer to run a quick errand. Ask if you should ring the doorbell or call when you arrive in case the baby is napping. Plan your visit around mom and baby’s schedule and never drop by unannounced.
2. Don’t walk into a new mom’s house empty-handed
Bring food, supplies, and treats for mom and her family. Even if she insists that she doesn’t need anything, bring something. Home cooked meals that can be frozen and easily reheated are a great idea. Or try to schedule your visit around lunchtime, offering to bring a meal for both you and the new mom. If you bring lunch, come with all the essentials—bring napkins and utensils, even paper plates to minimize cleanup. If you drop off dinner, bring some items for breakfast the next day.
3. Wash your hands when you arrive
If a newborn gets sick, this can be a medical emergency. The best way to avoid illness is to practice good hygiene and hand washing. This should be the first thing that you do when you walk into the home of a new baby. Drop your things, put the food in the fridge and then wash your hands. Let the new mom know that you just sanitized, especially before asking to hold the baby.
Don’t bring illness with you. If you feel like you are coming down with something or your kid at home is sick, reschedule your visit for another time. The mom will not only understand but also be very appreciative of your consideration.
4. Offer to help with her to-do list
Do something around the house. If you’re close with the mom, do things without having to be asked, such as cleaning the dishes, folding the laundry or taking out the garbage. If you don’t know the mom well, offer to do a specific chore around the house, such as grabbing the mail, walking or feeding a pet, or checking something off of her to do list. This is better than asking if there’s anything you can do because out of politeness, she’ll likely say no. Every mom has a long to-do list and probably has very little time to get everything done. If a mom can’t think of anything offer to look at her to-do list and then check something off.
For New Moms: Put a to-do list on the fridge. It’s a great way for you to remember what you need, but also for visitors to help check things off your list.
5. Get it yourself
If you’re visiting a new mom and she offers you something to drink, get it yourself. Sometimes on very few hours of sleep, manners aren’t at the forefront of a new mom’s mind. So, if she doesn’t offer you something and you would like something to drink, ask if you can get it yourself and offer something to her while you’re up. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this as a guest in someone’s home, come prepared with water or other essentials you may need during your visit.
6. Start a meal delivery train
Newborns eat every few hours, which leaves moms very little time for her own meal planning. By organizing a meal delivery train for a new mom and her family, she doesn’t have to ask her friends and family to prepare meals for her, and a meal train will ensure that meals are spread out over a few weeks. There are tons of services and online sign-ups to bring meals to new moms. Check out MealBaby, which is an online service that allows people to plan and organize all the details of a meal registry.
7. Ensure that visits are appreciated
You want your visit with a new mom to be appreciated so keep in mind these tips. Be respectful during your visit. Don’t stare at her breasts if she is breastfeeding in front of you. Pretend you don’t notice her child’s baby acne. Don’t ask questions about her labor—such as if she tore during labor, pooped during delivery or other inappropriate questions that will make her self-conscious (and that you wouldn’t want to be asked of you either). Offer to watch a movie or TV show together, sometimes just talking and entertaining can feel tiring for a new mom. Let her nap or shower while the baby is sleeping. Volunteer to take the baby for a walk in the stroller if she wants to be alone for a bit. Ask about the baby, but also make sure to ask about how mom is doing. When she answers to make sure that you are really listening, without judgment. Don’t offer any advice unless she directly asks. Keep visits brief and do not overstay your welcome.
8. Continue to extend the invitation
Invite her to social events, even though she likely can’t come. This will make her feel normal and connected to the people in her life, prior to having a baby. There may be a chance that she can find childcare and participate.
If she wants people to visit but doesn’t feel up for hosting, offer to be substitute host. Come over early and bring snacks and food. Clean up the house for company. Then usher visitors out when it is time to leave to ensure that no one overstays their visit.
9. Remember that she’s still her old self
Yes, having a baby and becoming a mother is a huge life change. But she still is the same person you knew before. Find the balance in identifying her new role as a mother and also her former self. Don’t just talk about the baby. Acknowledge other things going on in her life and your life.
10. If she needs help, help her find it
New mothers do not want to go to therapy. They are exhausted, distracted and overwhelmed with worry already. The thought of going to therapy feels impossibly difficult. When a new mom experiences depression or anxiety in the postpartum period, in addition to the exhaustion, distraction, and overwhelming feelings, life with a new baby can feel unimaginably difficult. It is usually when moms feel like they are drowning in their own misery that they reach out for help, in the hope that they can be better for their new baby and family. Experts in the field are attuned to the unique needs of the perinatal woman.
Good therapy creates a holding environment for the postpartum woman in distress. The therapist acts as a functional caregiver. This approach is grounded in intuition but also supported by theory. Similar to when a mother is comforting a crying newborn, the therapist imparts the message to the mother that the mother is safe and that the therapist is in a position to meet and comfort her needs. Her needs are identified and alleviated through the creation of a holding environment.
In practice, this looks like a distressed mother coming in for therapy and leaving the office feeling relieved and cared for. Of course, there is more work that goes into this technique, but the foundation comes from the idea that mothers need to be mothered too.
11. The better Better App
Therapy is costly. With changes in insurance, many therapists are not accepting insurance plans and instead providing reimbursements for clients to submit on their own.
Dealing with the health insurance can be a headache. Often times, health insurance systems are too complicated. Better is an app that makes it simple for anyone to get back the money that their health insurance owes them. With the mission to make health insurance simple, Better believes that people also deserve to have someone on their side.
When we think about mothering mothers, having someone (or a provider) do something for you feels very nurturing. The convenience of having access to these services right on your phone is also helpful for busy moms. When we think of providing health care for new moms, we also need to think of creative ways to partner and remove barriers for them. Better is an innovative way to do this and only the beginning of what can be done creatively.
Our society does not have a standard set of practices to take care of our mothers. These tips can help the mothers in your life feel taken care of and mother. For tips for you the new mom, see Part II (coming next week), on accepting help as a new mom.
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About the Contributor:
Jamie Kreiter is a licensed clinical therapist certified in perinatal mental health, as well as the founder of Nurture Therapy. She offers therapy services to adults, both individuals and couples in the Chicago-area and online therapy services to individuals in New York. She received her master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has extensive training in cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal and supportive therapies in both outpatient and inpatient clinical settings.