How Best to Support a New Mom
Editor's note: Some of the sources for this article requested their full names not be used.
It's safe to say that becoming a mother is no simple process. While being a new mom can be a magical, joy-filled, blissful time, it can also be impossibly, incredibly hard.
"You and your child are not an exhibition at the zoo," said 33-year-old Lauren, a mom and blogger from Eastbourne, England. "You've been through a lot and you need to rest. It's OK to say no, to visitors, to people wanting to hold your baby, to going out. It's OK to not feel happy and grateful all the time. It's OK to feel tired and overwhelmed."
To start with, it's important to understand the physical difficulties any new mother goes through.
"If you've given birth vaginally, once you've birthed both your baby and the afterbirth, you'll be given any stitches needed for larger tears or cuts," said Sam Wild, M.R.C.G.P., a women's health clinical lead and primary care physician for Bupa UK.
"You'll experience some fairly heavy bleeding from the vagina after you give birth, so you'll need to use and regularly change super-absorbent sanitary towels until this lessens, often in the first week or two," Wild continued. "For mothers who give birth via C-section, you'll experience the same heavy bleeding, along with contractions/cramps."
Becoming a new mom is an intense time for the body, typically fraught with pain and discomfort. But it's also important to understand just how overwhelming motherhood can be in a psychological sense, too, so those new moms need to be supported.
Motherhood: The great unknown
The sheer newness of the experience is often terrifying for new mothers. Change is overwhelming, but becoming a new mom is one of the biggest changes anyone can go through.
"[It's] the unknown," said Daisy Ayim, M.D., a triple-board certified cosmetic surgeon and OB-GYN in Houston. "I mean, you have ideas but you truly don't know what you've walked into. So that alone is what makes it very difficult…You're equipped to go through it, but not knowing makes it hard because you still don't know how to juggle your emotions, how to sleep, what the baby needs or doesn't need."
Ayim said the feeling of being overwhelmed can manifest as fatigue, emotional imbalance and postpartum blues, to name a few symptoms.
"It's common and natural to have fluctuating hormones during the postpartum period. But in a worst-case scenario, it can lead to postpartum depression where you actually need further intervention and management," Ayim explained.
"The sheer amount of both physical and mental changes that happen to a body and brain post-baby is nothing anyone can really prepare for ahead of time regardless of how many books about or exposure to babies one may have," said Bethany Cook, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago.
"The mental changes that many don't think about include the immediate increase in mental load for the mother, [that is,] keeping track of the eating, pooping and sleeping schedule of another human; the changes, positive and negative, in relationships that a baby brings to the spouse but also extended family; and learning how to balance the mother's needs with the baby's," Cook said.
And then there's the all-pervasive pressure—heightened by shiny Instagram feeds depicting new moms with glossy hair, bright smiles and impossibly gleaming kitchens—to be the "perfect mom."
"I see so much pain caused by the perfect mother myth," said Helen Hazell-English, an online counselor for Mum Therapy and a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy in London. "Societally, we all absorb ideas about how we should be as mothers: endlessly loving, giving and serene, delighting in our children, naturally good at mothering, etcetera.
"It includes a mess of contradictory ideas about what good mothering looks like, how we should be, what's best, and we live in an age of information overload," Hazell-English continued. "Nobody can possibly meet all these standards. But if we don't realize this, it's easy to fall into overwhelm, take it personally and struggle with guilt and self-criticism."
Not to mention the all-consuming elephant in the room: lack of sleep. "Sleep deprivation heightens everything," Hazell-English said.
Wild concurred: "When you're tired, your emotions can feel more intense than usual, making you irritable, emotional, low and restless."
If all of this is starting to sound a little overwhelming, think how it must feel for the mother, which is all the more reason support for new moms is hugely important.
Support starts with helpful communication
For starters, communication is essential.
"Many new mothers may feel like they should keep any negative feelings to themselves, as they might feel the pressure to be happy during this time," Wild said. "However, friends and family can encourage a new mother to share how they're feeling by keeping in regular contact."
Cook agreed. "Don't say, 'What can I do?'" she emphasized. "Give the new mom choices. 'Do you want me to bring Italian or Chinese? Can I come do laundry Sunday or Monday? Would you like an in-house massage or go to a spa?'
"Women, and men, are conditioned to think that new mothers should be able to do it all, which is complete and utter bulls--t," Cook continued. "This outdated and male-centric notion stops women and couples from reaching out for help before things get out of control. New moms don't always know what they need or don't feel comfortable asking for help for fear of appearing weak or incapable. So don't ask a generic 'what can I do' type of question."
'Tell her how great she is, what you see her doing well, how much you care about her.'
It's not just about asking, though, it's about telling, too.
"Be honest about your own maternal ambivalence; moments you doubted yourself or even felt like running away. Help her realize it's normal and she's not strange or failing," Hazell-English said. "The more we all speak openly, the more stigma, confusion and shame dissolve.
"Normalize the fact that matresence [becoming a mother] is a complex and very personal life stage, with a storm of hormones, life and identity changes just like adolescence," Hazell-English continued. "It's normal to grieve aspects of life before, feel lost [or] have doubts as your life reorganizes and you grow into your new role. Tell her how great she is, what you see her doing well, how much you care about her."
Rosie is a 30-year-old mom from Windsor, England, who runs the beauty and lifestyle blog LoveRosiee. She said one immensely helpful area of communication when she was a brand-new mom was other people "not commenting in a negative way on my breastfeeding, [that is,] not asking if he was hungry with every cry, not telling me how it was done 'in their day,' not [im]parting wisdom on how formula would help him sleep through the night."
Practical help for the new mom in your life
Then there's the practical side of the situation, too.
"The best way to support a new mom is to ask the mom, what does she have or not have," Ayim said. "You know, the big items are really important. Car seat, stroller, a crib, you know, those big items are very helpful to a new mom."
"Being a postnatal depression survivor, I would definitely say that the best thing friends and family can do in order to support a new mom is to focus on her rather than the baby," said Ivana, 38, a mom from Scotland. "They should help as much as they can; not ask, because a new mom is likely to refuse help. Bring food over, help with chores, watch the baby, etcetera."
Ayim is also emphatic that volunteering your time is one of the best ways you can offer support to the new mom in your life.
"Volunteer your time because, I've found, most new moms are not really going to ask," she said. "Even if it's just helping with cooking, the dishes or the laundry or running errands. Those things are extremely helpful to new moms."
Rosie agreed: "The support that was much needed when my 5-month-old son was brand new was someone coming round to see the baby but also helping with chores like stacking the dishwasher and making tea for other guests [or] allowing me to grab sleep by watching the baby for an hour or so."
There's no shortage of ways you can support a new mom in your life, and no shortage of reasons they likely need it. Celebrate the new baby, by all means, but don't forget that the mother may need your love, celebration and dedicated support just as much—if not more.