I'm about to get into some touchy stuff here, so you'll have to pardon my atypical lack of inappropriate jokes and snarkiness. You may not have heard, but I have a 2 year-old. I was also, aside from a few fertile friends back east, on the vanguard of my cohort's procreation, which means that now I get to watch all of my buddies going through their own pregnancy and new parent experiences. One universal experience, in addition to desperate exhaustion and sore nipples, is the challenge of managing relationships within couples' families of origin while forming their identity with their children as new families of their own. And so, prompted both by recent conversations with my parent friends, whom I asked specifically for their stories, and recent questions from older family members and friends asking for advice on how best to engage with new parents in their lives, I give you this: A humble code of conduct for both new parents and their families of origin. I'm sure I'm missing a lot here, and you're all welcome to add your own advice or stories in the comments. But, after informally interviewing about a dozen friends, I've distilled their stories into a few pithy nuggets, hopefully to the benefit of families both new and established.
1. It's all about communication.
Lots of people I talked to identified boundaries as the most important theme of blending new families with families of origin, but I disagree. Differing notions of boundaries certainly did lead to conflict, but preceding the violation of people’s boundaries was nearly always flawed or nonexistent communication. Most of the conflicts and rifts identified in my friends' stories involved miscommunication and, more commonly, a complete lack of communication between families of origin and new families. People, you’ve got to talk this shit out before it hits the fan, so to speak. New parents, just as you have a birth plan that you share with your delivery team, please form and share a visitation plan with your family. Do you want your mom in the delivery room? If so, then of course you’d ask her in advance. Do you absolutely not want visitors at the hospital? Then you should tell those most likely to visit in advance of the baby’s arrival that you want time alone to recover (if necessary, detail what exactly a fourth-degree tear or cracked nipple is) and bond with your new baby. It’s hard to tell your parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and whatnots not to show up at the hospital with flowers and chocolates when all they want to do is visit your beautiful new baby, but it’s much, much harder to tell them to get the hell out when they’re already there. Also, be clear on family visits’ beginnings and endings, hand-washing rules, and any other guidelines you’d like visitors to follow with your little one. All reasonable people will be comforted by knowing exactly what’s expected of them during visits. And for those who are unreasonable? Well, cowboy- and –girl up, new parents, and stand up for your rights as the new sheriffs in town.
And, families of origin, please don’t think you’re walking away from this topic unscathed here. For the love of all that is holy in both your family and the universe, YOU MUST ASK before you show up anywhere near the new family immediately before, during, or after the new child’s birth. Yes, I know you’re excited about the new arrival, but this is some tender, private, and intensely personal stuff going on here. Please, please respect that. Ask before you show up at the hospital, ask before you show up at the house, and then listen to and obey the answers that you get. You’ll have plenty of time to hold that little baby, and it’s much better to interact with the loving and grateful parents of a newborn than it is to endure the anger or passive-aggression of new parents who feel put-upon or, in one respondent’s word “victimized” by overbearing relatives.
Alternately, if the new parents insist that it’s cool that you all visit and partake of miracle of new life, please don’t repeatedly ask “Are you sure?” Take the new family at their word. It’s exhausting trying to assuage the emotional fears of boundary-leery families of origin during a visit. If you’re not sure of being there, family and friends, then say you’d rather visit later. And on the flip side of that coin, new parents, please don’t force people to hold your newborn. “Are you sure?” is often code for “I don’t wanna!,” and you have to respect others’ boundaries as much as you’d like your own respected.
Finally, because so many people had similar stories, let me make this one its own all-caps sentence. DO NOT SURPRISE ANY
NEW FAMILY WITH AN UNANNOUNCED VISIT. No. Just don’t. I don’t care how delightful you anticipate it being, I promise that everyone loses in this scenario.
So, everybody, let’s agree to be clear, be fair, and be respectful during this time of joyful transition. It’s what we’d do in interactions with casual acquaintances, so let’s afford these basic courtesies to our most beloved family members, too.
2. It’s all about calories.
Everyone I spoke with – everyone – answered my request for advice on things that would most help new parents with a unanimous “Bring food!” I couldn’t agree more. I remember every single meal my family and friends brought to our home after Livy was born, and I’ve never been so grateful for chili, pasta sauce, and bean soup (Mom); Whole Foods haul, meatloaves, yummy chicken dish, and tomato and egg pie (Kirk & Katie); veggie lasagna (Edie & Michael); Pasta & Co. extravaganza (Nathan & Ruby); nummy Indian food (Katie & Jonathan); Israeli couscous & green salad (Morah); sandwiches & salad (Kathy & Omi); and more Cupcake Royale deliveries than I care to admit to (Jeremy & Krissie). There. See how I did that more than 2 years after the fact? That’s because when you’re exhausted and don’t want to cook, injured (Oh, HI, enormous abdominal scar!) and can’t cook, and are nursing and want to eat all the damn time, food matters. So if you go to visit a family with a new baby, you’d do well to bring some chow with you, and you’d do best to see what kind of chow your new friends want or crave. Don’t bring meat to a vegetarian, and don’t bring a 9th pasta dish to a family that’s choking on donated carbs. Call, ask, and deliver. And, no, friends, those calories are not for you. You’re not going to a potluck; you are on a mission of mercy. Go, drop off the food, say how beautiful the baby is, and take off.
Or, if you’re going for a gold star, before taking off ask what chores or errands the new family needs you to do or run. That’s right; an offer to burn some calories for the happy family will be as appreciated as a direct delivery of calories to them, possibly more. Hold the baby while Mom & Dad catch up on sleep or get out of the house for a while, or fold some laundry, do some dishes, take the dog for a walk, or the like. Ask what the new parents need, and then give them what they ask for. And, hey, new parents! When people offer to help, let them! Answer honestly if people ask you what you need help with! The people who love you will be delighted to help you, and, admit it, you need the help.
3. It’s all about support.
One respondent to my informal interview said that a family member visiting her new little family to lend support told her how awful she had looked when she was in the hospital. That’s not supportive. Another friend wrote of how her mother-in-law compared her new grandchild to her other grandchild, the son of my friend’s brother-in-law. That’s not supportive. A family member told me that it was too bad that Livy got my (luminous! glorious!) pale skin. That’s not supportive. A family committed to cloth diapering was told how stupid and wrong it is. A mother working hard to breastfeed on demand was told that she was spoiling her child and should stop. A mother who couldn’t breastfeed was told that she was depriving her child and should start (how exactly we haven’t yet determined). Parents committed to comforting their child on demand are told to let their child cry it out, and parents letting their child cry it out are told to respond to the child on demand. A mother of a colicky baby was given a dismissive lecture on how much harder it will be to raise her son when he’s a teenager. That’s not supportive.
What is supportive is helping new families make the parenting strategies they’ve decided on work for them. Figure out how you can do that, and if you can’t do that then politely and silently remain a shoulder to cry and vent on. Anyone can say “I know this is hard, but it won’t always be so difficult.” Try that. I promise that you’ll do more good that way than by responding to other people’s challenges with criticism. And, as a rule of thumb, every new baby is gorgeous, every new mother is a pillar of strength, and every new father is a natural. If you can’t find anything genuinely complimentary to say, then stick with “What a sweet baby!,” drop off a meal, and leave feeling like the hero the new family thinks you are.
4. It’s all about family.
During times of great change, such as weddings, births, and funerals, it seems that family members either become their best selves or their worst selves. Birth is a joyous crisis of sorts, a happy crucible through which families are permanently changed, and not every individual has the strength to endure this change gracefully. So, people, do the best you can. Resolve to be your best self and show up to be the best you can be to the people who most need it. And, should someone fall short of your expectations, endeavor to forgive. This is a tough time for everyone, but, as anyone can say, it won’t always be this tough. There’s plenty of time to absorb these changes and settle into a new normal that’s so much sweeter for the new little person in it.
(And if you really can’t forgive, feel free to comment anonymously here with your rants for us to enjoy. Win-win!).