Supporting people with a new baby

Babies! People have them! And all of my friends seem to be having them, which has led me down a rabbit hole of ‘ack how do you help the people with the new baby without becoming a burden with your helpfulness?!’ Since my piece on supporting people with sick family members is quite popular, I suspected that a Baby Edition might not be amiss — and this includes not just new babies that came out of the people who are parenting them, but new babies that arrived in the lives of the people who are parenting them via surrogacy, adoption, or other means. A baby is a baby is a baby, capiche?

So I had a chat with some of my baby having friends (not right away, but after things were back on an even keel) to get a sense of what they might need and found helpful. The following advice should be taken with a grain of salt: Not all new parents are the same, something that’s helpful for one person isn’t for another, everyone has different needs. I can tell you as a general rule that one thing people kept telling me over and over is that it’s not helpful for people to provide them with detailed lectures on How To Baby. Don’t do that. Okay?

So. People with a new baby are dealing with a lot of things, and not just the baby. Usually they’re tired, they’re dealing with work-related stress, their lives are topsy-turvy, their pets are feeling ignored, if they have older children their other kids might be pretty overwhelmed, and everything feels like a huge emotional and literal mess. I mean, yay, baby, but it’s intense even if you’re prepared. If you are not prepared, as for example if your baby came early, or a baby was born with an unexpected disability, or, rarely thanks to prenatal care, you get a bonus baby that you were not expecting, woah nelly.

As with supporting people who have sick family members, don’t offer to help unless you mean it. And don’t offer to help in a vague kind of way (‘let me know if there’s anything I can do’). Offer something concrete with an escape clause (‘I could come over and do laundry or clean or something else if you need it’). Be prepared for people to say ‘no, thank you’ or ‘we’re honestly a little overwhelmed right now.’ This is not about you: This is about them. Energy levels and sociability can vary widely from what people plan or predict, so the people who said ‘oh yeah come over any time!’ pre-baby might be giving everyone the stinkeye now, or vice versa. Be adaptable.

What is helpful, I asked my friends, for people with new babies?

  • Always check before you come over, unless you have been explicitly invited to drop by anytime and you know they actually mean that. Make it less about inviting yourself and asking if they need someone. (‘Would it be okay if I brought some lunch by around 12?’ versus ‘I’m coming over at noon.’) Whenever you come, try to always bring something they need, and always do at least one chore, if not more — empty the dishwasher, take out the trash, water the tomatoes, whatever.
  • This should go without saying, but just in case: Do not make assumptions, judgments, or comments about the arrangement of the baby’s family or where the baby came from, no matter how many parents and coparents are involved, the status of a surrogate or open adoption, or anything else. If something isn’t immediately obvious to you, you’ll just have to stay in the dark for now. Also don’t take it personally if some people are allowed more access than you — it’s really not about you, but about the comfort levels and needs of the new parents. This isn’t a competition.
  • Bring food over, in a coordinated schedule. Please do not ask the new parents to coordinate the schedule. Coordinate it amongst yourselves. Google Docs exists. Make sure you know everyone’s allergies and food preferences. Make the food easy to heat/reheat/freeze. Tell them not to worry about dishes, because the next person in the rota for food delivery will handle it. That will sometimes be you. Embrace the sponge, my friend. Print out the rota and stick it on the fridge so everyone knows who to expect, when, and with what.
  • Bring supplies over, also in a coordinated schedule. You will need to consult the new parents to get a sense of things they need, including snacks (fruit, cereal, whatever is common in the household), and baby-specific supplies (diapers (more on this in a minute), wipes, blankies, hats, etc). Also, this is your one excuse to reasonably snoop: Are they out of soap/dish soap/laundry detergent? Sponges? Shaving cream? Shampoo? Toothpaste? Are their toothbrushes hella ratty and gross? Is there any cat food? Find those things. Get those things. Discreetly stock those things in the appropriate locations.
  • Laundry. HOLY CRAP BABIES ARE DISGUSTING YOU GUYS. Offering to help with laundry can be a big help, especially if they don’t have laundry at home. You can offer to do laundromat runs or pay for a laundry service (a subscription among friends can make this more affordable). If your friends feel weird about having people pay for something for them, stress that this is a gift and it’s important to you for them to be able to spend time with the new baby without having to worry about this stuff. New babies only come once: Laundry never ends.
  • Diapers. I mentioned these above. For parents who choose to diaper their kids (which is most), diapers can be an expensive pain in the patootie, whether they are going cloth/reusable or disposable. One: Don’t judge people for their diapering decisions. Two: If they’re using disposables, try to make sure their supply remains consistent (along with wipes/ointment/other auxiliary supplies). Three: If they’re using cloth diapers, be a laundry hero and offer to take care of that situation, or gather up a subscription to a diaper service for a few months so someone else can take care of that situation.
  • Walking dogs/milking goats/other pet and livestock care. Having a new baby can eat up way more time than you think it will, apparently? A trusted friend your animals are comfortable with can be a big help, whether they’re coming over to walk the dog(s) or cat(s), milking goats, exercising the horses, taking care of chickens, cleaning the fish tank, whatever. Set up a rota for this. Put that rota on the fridge too. That’s what fridges are for.
  • Kid care. Integrating a new baby into a home with existing kids can be an adventure, and sometimes, it’s really nice to have someone handle childcare for a few hours to bring the chaos in the house to a dull roar, and to give them some focused attention so they don’t feel eclipsed by the baby.
  • Cleaning. Cleaning your house is not really your tooooop priority when you have a new baby, but having a messy or cluttered home can make it hard to get stuff done, and can also be depressing. Having friends or a cleaner come over to pick things up, get the floors tidy, and that sort of thing can make a big quality of life difference. Approach this one with care, depending on how well you know your friends. An offer to clean or hire a cleaner can be taken as judgmental even when you’re trying to be friendly and helpful. Consider ‘you must be way too busy to think about cleaning’ as opposed to ‘I can come over and clean.’
  • Offer your services as gofer/errand runner to pick up things from the library, pharmacy, or wherever else.
  • Don’t expect to hang out with your friends, even when you’re over at the house doing things for them. Maybe they will be totally excited about having company, but maybe they’re exhausted and just want to pass out for an hour (they finally got the baby to sleep!). Let them know that you don’t have expectations and don’t want them to feel pressured — if they want to come out and eat dinner with you when you drop off food, great. If not, no worries! You’ll catch them next time, and they shouldn’t feel awkward if they hide in their bedroom the whole time you’re there.
  • What about unexpected baby issues, like babies born early, or medical complications? If you’re on the inner circle of friends, it may be helpful for you to offer your services, in which case, one of the most helpful things you can do is be a point of contact. The new parents, close family, and intimate friends want to focus on the baby and everyone’s needs. Having a single person to field questions/requests/offers of help/whatever can be super helpful, because it frees them up to concentrate on what matters. As social secretary, as it were, you can answer a lot of questions, offer info about what people need, and determine when someone really actually does need to talk to the new parents.

Finally, be aware that some new parents really prefer to have time to themselves after the arrival of a new baby. Don’t take it personally, and don’t keep calling/writing/texting/semaphoring with earnest offers of help. If your friends indicate that they kind of want to chill with their baby for a while, pull together a spreadsheet with contact information and what people have volunteered to do, and put it into the hands of a family member/intimate friend who is interacting with them, so they have that information ready to hand when they need it.

Image: Baby, Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr