I am so excited to write this week’s blog post. New Mama Project just concluded our first ever Online Postpartum Retreat and we were so grateful to have a thoughtful group of mamas join us for the past two weeks. Our next retreat begins March 6 and you can learn more here. Aside from building an online community of support for our retreat mamas we got to hear from them about their successes and challenges. This gave Taylor and I some great ideas for continuing our work and connecting with as many folks as we can. This week’s blog post was born out of some of our online chats during the retreat.
A theme that is central to becoming a parent is how to negotiate your relationship with your own parents. Especially in the early weeks after a baby is born it is often the grandparents who are providing the most support to the new parents. New parents need this support. It is so challenging to care for a newborn, recover from birth, and adjust to life as a parent. Grandparents can ease the transition immensely. It can also be stressful sharing such an intimate vulnerable experience with family members or in-laws. There are so many relationship dynamics at play that what is meant to be a supportive experience can sometimes become stressful.
My parents were life-savers for the first couple weeks postpartum. They came up the day after my daughter was born and immediately took on the roles of live-in housekeepers. We could not have survived this intense transition without them. (OK, we definitely could have survived, but it would have been a lot uglier). I felt so grateful for their support during that time, but I do remember that it was sometimes hard to navigate conversations about newborn care and parenting styles. I decided to talk to my mom to hear her perspective and see if we could come up with some ideas that would enable new parents to get the help they need. A few themes emerged from our conversation that could be useful to other families during the pospartum period.
First of all, my mom said over and over again that as the grandparent of a new baby all she wanted to do was help. She was seeing me in distress trying to physically recover from birth, learn how to breastfeed, and adjust emotionally to my new role. She reminded me that it is really hard to see your child suffering or struggling. She wanted to do anything she could to help ease that distress.
Sometimes she felt like she didn’t have much to offer and it was hard to know what kind of help was needed. It was clear we needed help cooking and cleaning, but that only seemed to scratch the surface. At times my mom said she wasn’t sure how much to offer ideas or share her experience. When my parents showed up to help, they really weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into. Things were a little more intense than any of us anticipated. My mom said that it was quickly clear that I had some strong ideas about how I wanted to parent and what was best for the new baby. She tried hard to respect those ideas and keep her mouth shut about her opinions, but the line wasn’t always clear. Even though I had some general ideas, there were a lot of unknown details. Talking with her now, I wasn’t surprised to hear that my mom was doing her own work to manage thoughts and feeling during my postpartum period, but I was pretty oblivious at the time.
Talking with my mom really crystallized one point for me. She remarked that our generation has access to so much more information about parenting. When she was having babies, most of what she learned about parenting was handed down from one generation to the next. For our generation, though, we can read countless books, magazines, and websites with loads of information about parenting. My mom described this influx of information as staggering and overwhelming (to her and me). She said that she felt like I was on my phone all the time researching different things and trying to find answers (I was). She worried that I was getting overwhelmed and frustrated (I was). She wanted to tell me to put my phone down, but she didn’t (I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway). Reflecting on this made us both realize that my quest for information and answers was a bit of a red flag that 1) I was missing information and support that I needed to feel confident in those early days and 2) I was worried about something that didn’t seem to be resolved. Having so much information at new parents’ finger tips can be a blessing – it can help assure us that things are normal. All this information, though, can be a lot of noise that is difficult to filter out in an already highly anxious time.
Given these themes of a deep desire to help, uncertainty about exactly how to help, and awareness of an overabundance of information, I wanted to know if my mom had any advice for grandparents who are helping out new parents. Here’s what she came up with:
Keep your mouth shut – bite your tongue. Anyone who knows my mom will not be shocked by this slightly cynical advice, but it comes from a place of deep love and connection. My mom said that I made it very clear that we (as in our generation) don’t parent the same way her generation did. She was thinking I would be looking to her for advice, but I made it clear I had my own ideas about parenting. Once she figured out that she needed to let me parent the way I wanted she was able to help in other ways – like buying me Ben and Jerry’s and empathizing with my uncontrollable emotions.
These are other suggestions that came out of our conversation:
Remember that your parenting style worked for you – that’s why you used that approach. I was always worried my mom would feel judged by my choices to parent differently than her. I didn’t want her to think that me choosing to do things differently was criticism of her choices. My mom said she didn’t see it that way. She said she made the choices she did as a parent because that was what worked for her and she knew I would do the same.
Notice if your new parents are searching for more information or support and help them get connected to the resources they need. My daughter was on the small side and breastfeeding was challenging at first. I had a sense that things weren’t quite right, but all of the healthcare professionals dismissed me and told me not to worry. As a result I was searching the internet feverishly trying to find the answers I needed to put my mind at ease. My mom and I agreed that this is a red flag that something’s not right. In retrospect we can both see that I should have followed my instincts and connected with a healthcare provider that gave me the support I needed. Grandparents can help new parents by connecting them to visiting nurses, postpartum doulas, lactation consultants and pediatricians. Most importantly grandparents can tune into new parents needs and help them find their voice to advocate for what they need.
Talk about your thoughts and feelings openly and respectfully. Having this conversation with my mom was really meaningful and I think we both felt a deeper understanding of each other’s perspective. We also felt very connected. Often we shy away from these awkward conversations where someone might get their feelings hurt. New parents are using a lot of their emotional energy to just get through the day, they do not need to be solving major family conflict on top of that. If families can have conversations about their expectations before baby comes that may clear the air for a more peaceful and supportive situation once baby arrives.
Know that you won’t always see eye to eye. My mom remembered checking in with me to make sure that it was ok that she shares her opinion sometimes, knowing that I could agree or disagree. Both sides have to find a way to hear the other person out and also not be offended if their idea is rejected.
When in doubt cook or clean. My mom said she felt like the only thing she could do was cook or clean. As I remember, this was HUGE! Not having to worry about making food, cleaning, or doing laundry was such a relief. The fact that my parents just took this on without me having to ask was also invaluable. It can be hard to ask someone to do the nasty job of cleaning your bathroom. So having helpers that just came in and maintained my home was awesome. Even if my mom didn’t feel like she was doing much, it meant so much to me.
I am so grateful for the helpful grandparents in my life. They all did their part to love and nurture both my daughter and her parents into their new lives. I know there are many new mamas out there right now negotiating their relationships with their parents and their partner’s parents. This isn’t always easy. Every family situation is different. If the new parents remember that grandparents just want to help and the grandparents remember that the new parents are doing what they think is best for their baby we can all get along and new parents can get the help they need.
Do you remember what it was like getting help from family and friends? We’d love to hear from you about how you navigated your postpartum days. Please share your story with us.