Today you gave birth.
You’re on a new adventure!
Your hips a wider girth!
Baby brain’s in your head.
Baby books in your hand.
You now find yourself
In a sleep-deprived land.
You’re a new mother. And you know what you know.
Which is next to nothing, or so you are told…
My breath creates clouds in the chilly air as I walk the neighborhood with my newborn on our first postpartum outing. I’ve spent the entire morning Google’ing, “how to dress an infant for the elements.” Now I’m pushing him so close to the inner part of the sidewalk that I keep bumping into snow banks. I’m taking in the wintery wonderland, while adjusting baby’s blankets every thirty seconds or so, when up walks up two of my neighbors, an older couple I’ve always liked.
“He’s precious!” the woman gushes. “What a doll face!”
“Aww, thanks!” I reply, as I mentally high-five myself, like, Yes! I knew I wasn’t biased!
“Such a cutie,” the man says. “But he looks a little cold.”
“Yes, brrrrr!” the woman agrees, shaking her shoulders. “I think he could use a bigger hat!”
Then they’re on her merry way, whistling as they go, while I remain frozen – no pun intended – neck cocked to one side, eyes going crossed as I try to process what just happened.
Were they… judging me? Implying that I am an irresponsible mother?
I powerwalk us home, before anyone else sees me and calls CPS about the fact that I’m “freezing” my child. It takes three days and two encounters with other neighbors who claim they never liked that couple anyway, to recover from the ordeal, just in time for baby’s first supermarket trip.
Weaving through fluorescent-lit aisles, wearing my son as I maneuver the cart, I reinsert his pacifier every two seconds and hold my breath because he’s being so good. At last, I’m loading my items onto the belt, taking pleasure in the admiring stares at my son from patrons in line, when his pacifier suddenly detaches from its clip and flies through the air, landing – silicone side up – on the dirty linoleum floor.
Digging through my diaper bag, I discover with horror that I didn’t bring a backup, as my son lets me know that he prefers to be in motion, that the standstill of this transaction is rubbing him the wrong way. He starts to fuss, then whimper, then wail, and in the blink of an eye I am one of those parents to whom I used to give the side eye.
Half moons of sweat are pooling under my armpits and breast milk is soaking my shirt, but at least I’m almost done now, swiping my credit card spastically.
“Poor baby,” laments the grocery store clerk. “Sounds like he is starving! Did you know that babies have all kinds of cries? I do believe this one is hunger. Is he getting enough milk?”
This time, I skip right over the shock and run full speed toward the fury.
C’mon now, Nosy Nancy, do you see this baby’s thigh rolls?!
Next time I need groceries, I make my husband go, so I can stay in the comfort of our home, where no one will question my parenting skills, or try to test my knowledge.
Except when my dad comes over and suggests that the baby needs more baths. And when my friend tells me over the phone that I really must Ferberize.
“The baby needs more solids,” my grandmother insists.
“He can’t possibly chew that!” she exclaims.
It seems that everywhere I go and everything I do with my sweet and squishy newborn is subject to someone’s scrutiny, especially those have been there, done that and clearly know more than I do.
But do they? How much does their wisdom matter when it comes to my unique baby, who – despite my inexperience – I know like the back of my hand? Doesn’t mom know best?
Yes, I come to learn, though it takes a few mistakes. Like trying to sleep train when we weren’t ready and buying some very oversized hats. (My son probably could have used more baths, though it’s not easy to admit this).
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t know it all and I can’t do it alone; it takes a village to raise a child. I appreciate and benefit from feedback when I solicit it, which I often do.
But being on the receiving end of unwanted advice or insensitive comments is different, and difficult. Even when you believe that you’re doing the right thing – you’re reading the research and following your instincts, uncalled-for feedback can plant seeds of doubt and cause much confusion.
So how do we, as vulnerable, first-time parents, deal with misguided guidance or condescending comments?
We can smile and say thank you, letting feelings of frustration and phoniness fester inside us until we erupt.
Or… we can let it all out from the get-go and give the bossypants’ of our lives a piece of our hormonal minds: “He’s got the rest of his life to eat solids! My breast milk is MAGICAL! YOU ONLY WISH THAT YOU COULD HAVE SOME!”
It’s probably best to strike a balance.
The course that has worked well for me is attempting to understand where these friends, family members, acquaintances, and random strangers are coming from.
I’m trained as a mental health counselor, and one of the things that differentiates my professional role from that of a compassionate, good-listening friend, is that I don’t dispense advice. Effective therapy empowers people to reflect deeply in order to come to their own insights and understandings, which is a whole lot more meaningful than just telling them what to do or laying out for them what is wrong.
In our personal lives, though, we want to “fix.” We try to help those we care for by offering ideas, weighing in with an opinion. We don’t think that we can empathize without sharing our own experiences and talking about ourselves. In a genuine attempt to connect, we try to prove that we “get it,” we know what they’re going through.
“I remember being that tired… you know what you should do that worked like a charm for us?”
And this anecdotal advice, those personal recommendations can be great to hear, when delivered with thought and with tact.
But the most valuable thing of all that anyone told me those first few months was, “You’re doing a wonderful job.”
The most helpful thing anyone did for me was holding the baby while I slept, and listening to my woes – “I feel like a zombie and my nipples are bleeding! – without saying a word, except about how much that sucks and how perfect my baby was.
As new parents, I think it’s important to realize that everyone’s got an opinion, but many people mean well. People want to connect; they want to relate and to feel useful, and sometimes giving advice is their way, whether we asked for it or not.
So take what is helpful and leave the rest (which you can also do with this article!).
When others confuse new parenthood for utter cluelessness, try to shake it off and laugh it out. Pat yourself on the back and consider this a rite of passage. If all else fails, come up with a few good comebacks.
You think my baby’s cold? Oh, I’ll show you COLD. Here’s my ice-cold shoulder…
Or maybe don’t say that. Ever. In any context.