You’ve stocked the nursery, filled your freezer with casseroles and programmed the breastfeeding clinic’s number into your phone. Weeks of nesting have you feeling totally prepared for motherhood. You won’t need much help after the baby arrives, right? Not so fast, Supermama!
All that prep is a great head start, but many rookie parents don’t realize how physically and emotionally overwhelming the first weeks of parenthood can be. Mastering new skills—breastfeeding, changing diapers, soothing a fussy baby—takes practice, and is extra challenging when you’re dealing with plummeting hormones, exhaustion and the physical recovery from birth.
Having some extra hands on deck during your crash course in Baby 101 will feel like a life preserver in high tide. But lots of people don’t know how to ask for help—or don’t think they should need it. Take it from us: Everyone needs it, and you won’t lose any mommy points for putting out an SOS.
But how do you get the kind of help you really need?
1. Give up the guilt
Many first-time parents, especially moms, find it difficult to reach out for help because “they assume they should be able to do it all and do it all well,” explains Debra Woods, a postpartum doula and owner of Dakini Doula in Vancouver. Unrealistic expectations and taking on too much not only cause stress, but hinder your body’s ability to heal after birth. Woods advises new moms to figure out what really matters in those early days (breastfeeding, bonding and getting some sleep), while letting other things slide. She reminds parents-to-be that during the first few weeks, just getting through the day is an accomplishment, and the best thing they can do to ease into parenthood is go easy on themselves, plus line up support for those early weeks.
2. Ask for help
If you’re lucky enough to live near parents, siblings and friends, and have good relationships with them, ask if they’d be willing to help out. Try to spread help out over the first few weeks so everyone isn’t there at once, and you’ll have an extra pair of hands if your partner is going back to work. You’ll find that many helpers just want to hold the baby, which is fine if you need a break from mama duty. But most of the time, you’ll probably want other kinds of help so you can bond with your baby. Woods suggests that you be specific about what people can do (making meals, running errands, doing laundry), so you and your little one can get to know each other. But choose your helpers wisely: At a time like this, you don’t want to deal with people who will cause stress or drama, or be offended when you don’t take their advice. Consider whom you get along with, and who will take initiative around the house and encourage you to rest. Be honest about your feelings with your partner too, so you’re both on the same page about who and what is most useful to you right now.
3. Share the load
Encourage your partner to take an active role in baby care, and let him do things his own way so he can learn the skills and gain confidence. Anthony Lumb of Burlington, Ont., was hands-on with his son, Ethan, right from the start. “I got pretty comfortable with holding, swaddling and burping Ethan,” he says. “I ended up splitting shifts with my wife so we each got uninterrupted sleep, even during the first week at home. We both functioned and communicated better that way, and had more patience for each other while we figured out how to take care of Ethan.” Woods suggests that your partner can also play the role of gatekeeper, limiting visitors during the early days to give you some quiet time. (Let’s face it, sometimes it’s easier for dad to politely reschedule or end visits by pointing out that mom and baby are tired.)
4. Just say no
Not everyone will benefit from the same kind of help. If Nancy Sajid of Milton, Ont., could have done one thing differently after the birth of her daughter, Zaynah, it would be to shorten her mother’s stay. “It became too much for me,” she says. “I was irritable, and having my mom hovering over me while I figured out how to comfort Zaynah added to my frustration.” If you know you’ll get flustered having house guests, inject a bit of humour to let them know you’d prefer daytime visits (“I’d love you to come over in the morning instead of staying over—you’ll catch me in a better mood!”). If they need to crash at your place, try to delay the visit until you feel ready to handle the baggage that comes with it.
5. Just say yes
When people say, “Let me know if you need anything,” they mean it! We seem programmed to decline help even if we could use it. As self-conscious as you may feel asking people to take your dog for a walk or pick something up at the grocery store, accept that they’re happy to do something that will make your day easier. If your positions were reversed, would you mind? Of course not. Post a chore list on your fridge so people don’t have to wonder what needs to be done.
6. When help is not readily available
What if you don’t have family nearby, or you’re having a baby on your own? While some of these ideas may take more planning initially, and may cost you, they will help you through the hectic first weeks:
- Ask neighbours for help (“Would you mind cutting our lawn once or twice while we get settled?”).
- Enlist the help of students willing to do chores and odd jobs, or watch the baby while you get some rest.
- Pay for a temporary maid service.
- Arrange for weekly grocery delivery.
- Cook and freeze meals in advance.
- Hire a postpartum doula, who provides support for new parents, assists with newborn care, and looks after older siblings, meal preparation and light housework.
7. Thanks, but no thanks
What if your “helper” is driving you crazy? Unfortunately, some people will end up being more work than help to you, or may need a not-so-subtle nudge. It’s tricky to decline help, but with a little tact and gratitude, you can steer things in the right direction without causing bad feelings. Here are some common scenarios:
Problem: Helper only wants to hold the baby while you cook, clean—and get more tired.
Try this: “I’m loving my little snugglebug today. Would you mind taking lunch duty?”
Problem: Helper criticizes how you’re feeding the baby, or bathing, or carrying…
Try this: “Thanks for your ideas, but I’d like to try it this way. I’ll let you know if I need help.”
Problem: Helper shows up unannounced—again.
Try this: “Maybe we could plan our visits ahead of time, so you won’t catch us on our way out or trying to nap.”
Problem: Helper seems oblivious to the Mount Everest of laundry or dishes in the sink.
Try this: “We put a chore list on the fridge because we’re getting so behind these days. This way, if someone wants to help, they can just check the list.”
A version of this article appeared in our Spring 2012 Today’s Parent Pregnancy special issue, with the headline “Help Wanted” (p. 53).
For more newborn info check out this video: