Aside from comments about their postbaby body, I've discovered the worst thing you can say to a new mom is . . .
"Let me know if you need any help."
It's a marvelous sentiment, in theory. And if you've ever said that to a freshly minted mother, you probably thought you were doing the right thing. After all, the Internet seems to think that the No. 1 thing a new mom needs is help, and I'm certainly not disputing that fact. However, it's about as useful as saying, "Let me know if you poop." It's something we both know I do, but I'm certainly not going to tell you about it (unless, of course, you were my discharge nurse at the hospital).
See, I'm never going to ask for help. Sorry, fellow moms who swear by this trick, but without a few solid years of therapy to better understand the root of my control issues, it's just not going to happen. I simply can't do it, no matter how much I want to or need it. Here's why.
- I'm not a good delegator. Offering "any help" covers too much ground, and I don't know where to begin. Are you offering to run my errands? Do my laundry? And if so, by the time I show you how to do it, couldn't I just do it myself?
- I'm afraid you'll think I'm incapable. To the well-wisher who came to my apartment to meet the baby and then marveled at how amazing the place looked and how "you make this look easy!" . . . You ruined me for every other visitor. I got such pleasure out of making it seem like I had it all together (when I actually had no fewer than three panic attacks trying to get it all together before your arrival) that I didn't want to know what it felt like to have someone come by and realize "Damn, this woman needs some assistance."
- I'm afraid you'll say no. I assume every conversation will go like this:
You: "Let me know if you need any help."
Me: "Thanks! You know, now that you mention it, would you be able to . . ."
You: "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm going to stop you right there."
Me: "Um, OK."
You: "I was just saying that as a courtesy."
Me: "I'm sorry."
You: "You should be. I'm never going to speak to you again."
- I think it's so obvious I need help that I shouldn't have to ask for it. It's like when my husband asks me what's wrong. If you don't know, I'm not going to bother explaining it to you.
- I know why you're really here. Most people who drop by, often unannounced, to "offer help" are really just there to cuddle up with the baby. I know beggars can't be choosers, but I don't need help loving my newborn. I got that. Those dirty dishes in the sink, however . . . Those could definitely use some love.
Although I can't stress enough how truly difficult it is for a lot of women to ask for help, I don't want to seem defeatist. I spent most of my first few months as a fledgling parent being a martyr, to no good end. That is, except for the fact that I've learned some work-arounds for offering assistance to new moms too proud to ask for it. Here are some completely self-serving recommendations for the next time you genuinely want to help but aren't sure how:
- Don't make us ask. Just turning that statement into a question does wonders. "What can I do to help?" is a beautiful revision and one I'm slightly more able to answer.
- Come with a plan already in place. Don't wait to be told what to do. Just say, "I'm going to do your laundry. Don't worry, I'll let your sweaters air-dry and I'll use the scent-free detergent on the baby clothes." The key here is force: don't give me an opportunity to refuse you, and if you don't know how I like things done, just ask as you go.
- Send in professionals. I'll always be uncomfortable with having any friend or relative dust my bookshelves or scrub my toilets, but those are some of my most daunting chores of all. Instead of buying another baby blanket she probably already has in overabundance, why not give her the gift of a one-time professional cleaning service?
- If you cook a meal, clean up the mess. I actually enjoy cooking but abhor doing dishes, so when family members offer to make us dinner, they're saving me time, yes, but not only are they taking away a stress-reliever, they're also often leaving me with the part of the process I hate the most.
- Return the baby as you found her. Just as I wouldn't borrow a dress and return it stained, if I'm handing you a happy, dry-diapered bundle of joy, please don't return a bundle of pee, spit-up, and screams.
- Even better, take the screaming baby. This is especially kind to moms of colicky newborns.
- Refuse thank-you cards. I loved when people brought gifts or casseroles, but it also meant tacking another item on my never-ending to-do list. Taking time out to write a coherent note of appreciation, find a stamp, locate an address, and actually mail it is an epic commitment for a sleep-deprived postpartum woman. So, while you are offering your help, how amazing would it be if you also let us off the hook, just this once?