How To Talk To New Parents

9 Oct

Social media can be an amazing tool for first-time parents. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and their ilk give housebound caregivers the chance to connect with other people without having to leave their bedroom. They make it easier to find others who are currently in or have been in similar situations. They provide a platform where people can ask for advice, pose specific questions (often of the is-this-normal variety), share milestones and pictures and funny anecdotes, or just flat-out vent about how hard parenting is. Because let’s be real: parenting is fucking hard.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in how some people reply to these social media posts, though – some people (most often people WHO ARE PARENTS) are condescending, dismissive and even sometimes unintentionally (I hope) hurtful in their responses. I’ve experienced this myself, and lately I’ve been noticing that a few of my friends with new babies have been enduring this same unfortunate phenomenon. What I’ve noticed the most is people saying things like, “Oh, you think it’s bad now? Wait until she’s a toddler!” or “Wait until you have two!” or “It’s fine if you can’t breastfeed, you can just give formula!” or worst of all, “Just relax, this is supposed to be a happy time!”

First of all: telling someone to relax very often results in THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT HAPPENING. Also? If a parent thinks that what they’re going through is bad? It’s probably bad! And how is it at all a good idea to respond to someone talking about how difficult things and how much they are struggling with the assurance that things will only get worse? WHY WOULD YOU EVEN SAY THAT? Is that intended to be some kind of warning, like, get out now while you still can? Finally, things like breastfeeding or co-sleeping or having a natural childbirth may not feel like a big deal to some people, but to others they can matter a whole fuck of a lot. I know that when Theo was a baby, breastfeeding him was literally the only thing I felt like I was doing right as a parent. If I’d had to stop, or had been unable to do it, I would have been devastated, and hearing someone downplay or otherwise invalidate how I felt would have made me feel even worse.

So with all of that in mind, I thought that it might be smart to put together a handy-dandy guide for talking to new parents. So let’s get started!

A few things to keep in mind with regards to new babies:

1. Remember that the transition from non-parenthood to parenthood is one of the scariest, most stressful, and most physically gruelling things a person can go through. If you’re a woman who has recently experienced pregnancy, your body is suddenly totally unfamiliar and your hormones are all fucking over the place. If you’re breastfeeding, you suddenly have a baby attached to your nipple every few hours, which, let me tell you, is not a sensation that’s necessarily easy to get used to. Even if you haven’t given birth and are not breastfeeding, just the very fact of having a new baby is physically draining. Like, there’s a reason that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, you know? On top of all that, your entire way of living has completely changed. Everything suddenly revolves around this tiny, helpless little being, and all of the familiar road-markers of your old life have suddenly disappeared. Worst of all, you’re often expected to map out your new life on your own, without much in the way of practical help. There is no real way to prepare for the type of culture shock you will experience when becoming a new parent.

2. Keep in mind that newborns are often terrible. Terrible! Not on purpose, of course, and this doesn’t apply to all babies, but the fact remains that infants are frequently some of the most unpleasant people. First of all, they seem to hate you. They scream all the time, and when they’re not screaming, they’re staring at you balefully. They never smile – not even when you are devoting all of your time and energy to taking care of them. They just take and take and take from you and never, ever give back. If they were a grownup friend, you would dump them in a hot second. You can’t dump your kid, though – I mean, you can, but it’s generally frowned upon. And of course you love your baby and you rationally recognize that soon the baby will start smiling and gurgling and generally being much more pleasant, but neither of those facts mitigate how terrible it feels to be screamed for ten consecutive hours a day. And when you add on the fact that new parents often struggle with things like feeding and getting their child to sleep and whatnot, it becomes pretty clear that the early days of parenthood are not always the magical snuggly bonding time that we tend to get all starry-eyed and wistful over.

3. Remind yourself that all kids are different. Just because your newborn was an angel who slept twenty three hours a day and was a champion breastfeeder does not mean that every baby will be like that. Just because your child was more difficult as a toddler than as an infant does not mean that that will hold true for everyone. For example, I find Theo much easier and more fun as a toddler than he was as an infant. Like, when he is upset, he can now actually tell me what’s wrong! We’ve also been lucky in the fact that Theo is quite verbal, which helps cut down on tantrums and meltdowns. An added bonus of his verbal skills is that we can now have real conversations about real things instead of my having to produce an endless monologue that goes something like, “Do you see the sky? The sky is blue. Blue is such a pretty colour! Your eyes are blue! My eyes are brown! Do you see the doggie over there? The doggie says woof woof! What a nice doggie! I like doggies! Do you like doggies?”

But not every kid is like Theo. Not every kid is this verbal at the age of two and a half, and lots of other children his age are much more prone to tantrums. This is a (relatively easier) age for us, but it isn’t for everyone. All kids are different.

A few DOs and DON’Ts for how to talk to the new parents in your life:

1. DO offer advice, especially if the parent asks for it. Bonus points if this advice is based on your own personal experience

2. DON’T expect that parent to follow your advice. They might, they might not. You are offering that advice because you are friends with that person and care for them, and the future of your relationship should not hinge on whether or not they do what you advised.

3. DO try to be helpful if/when you visit your friend – bring food, offer to clean or tidy, ask if the parents would like you to take the baby out for a walk so that they can shower/eat/have some time together. Feel free to offer specific services or else just plain ask the parents what would be the most helpful for them. Remember that these visits should be more about making things easier for the new parents rather than giving you the chance to cuddle a tiny baby.

4. DON’T tell horror stories, either about your own early parenting days or those of people you know. These types of stories usually aren’t helpful, and can actually be pretty scary.

5. DO listen and make sympathetic noises.

6. DON’T invalidate their feelings. Seriously. Don’t tell them that they’re overreacting or being silly. Don’t make remarks about how the human race could never have survived if every parent was this hung up on the small stuff. Just don’t.

7. That being said, DO remind them that babies grow and change very quickly, that this stage will soon be over and that things will get better.

8. DON’T tell them that you understand their struggle because you have a new puppy and puppies are actually more difficult and time-consuming than babies. Seriously. I wish that this point wasn’t based on a true story, but alas.

9. DO keep an eye out for symptoms of postpartum depression.

10. DON’T tell the parents that they should be enjoying themselves more than they are, or that this is supposed to be the “happiest time in their lives.” Probably it is a super happy time for them, but it’s likely also incredibly stressful and worrisome.

A final note:

Remember that your friends’ experiences as new parents are not about you. This is not your chance to re-hash everything about your own parenting. This is not your chance to show off your knowledge and expertise. What you should be doing now is supporting your friends as much as possible, in the same way that others hopefully supported (or will support) you as a new parent. Your words and behaviour towards your friends should be with their welfare in mind, rather than how you can make yourself look better or smarter. In short, be the kind of person that you would want to have around when things get tough.

And maybe you could even offer to change a diaper or two. Maybe.


29 Responses to “How To Talk To New Parents”

  1. Writer / Mummy October 9, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    I think it’s always worth the reminder – even though my youngest is only three it’s hard to really remember how awful those early days can be as the sleep deprivation blurs it! Also it has just got harder and harder for me so it’s tough not to say the ‘you wait’ stuff! Even though I recall how much I hated hearing that! The best thing you can ever say is ‘this too will pass’. I’ve read some awful comments on blogs and social media updates that makes me wonder how people can be so mean.

  2. Dawn Frazier October 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this well written post. I wish I had read this when I had my son. I think half of the battle for surviving the early days after your first baby is realising that just because your baby is crying for what seems like hours, it’s just what babies do and not because you’re doing something wrong, and yes it really does get easier in time 🙂

  3. Juniper October 9, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    As someone who is not a fan of babies/kids and is not sure that I ever want them, this post was helpful for me. I never really know what to say when someone tells me their pregnant. “Congratulations!” I say, while inside I’m thinking, ‘Gross. Thank God it’s not me.’ When someone I know has a baby and I meet it the first time, I say, “Oh, it’s so cute!” because I think that’s what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to be excited when you meet a baby for the first time, right? So I smile at it. But really I want to say, ‘it looks like every other baby! It’s all tiny and whiny and doughy and please don’t make me hold it.’

    I feel like a bad person when I have these conflicting feelings. I feel like a liar and a fake, but I just really hate babies. I guess I could say, “I’m so happy for you!” but even then I’m thinking, ‘oh God that looks terrifying.’

    So the idea of trying to be helpful and offering a sympathetic ear is really useful for me to read. Otherwise I just end up standing there rather dumbly, because I don’t know what to say around new parents, because their happiness and their exhaustion just radiates from them and it paralyzes me, being faced with such raw excitement and change. And it terrifies me, being presented with a newborn, with their grabby little fingers and their dependence on others to survive. I’m afraid it will latch onto me and never let go. I just want to run away from it.

    So, yeah. Wow. I just meant to say thank you for sharing this, but I think I ended revealing some of my own issues. So, uh, sorry for that. Carry on.

  4. sarahdaigen October 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    I love your point particularly about how all kids (and parents I might add!) are different. You speak to your experience with Theo; meanwhile Ari and I are the reverse, where we had absolutely no problems with newborns even if it meant nights of less-than-full sleep because ours were fairly good-natured, didn’t fuss much, were easy to cart around wherever we wanted to go etc. We were told, and knew, how lucky we were to have such easy babies. Then they hit 2-3 lol, which we found such harder ages, where they were big enough they couldn’t just be carried around anymore, but not quite verbal enough yet to really have the give and take you describe with Theo. Some parents would think this would mean one of us was doing something wrong and the other right; the truth is, it’s all about what the kids put out there and what the parents’ strengths/weaknesses/etc. are as well. I think it’s a major flaw in humans generally that we aren’t always great at understanding our experiences aren’t universal; that’s like, doubly or triple-y so when it comes to parenting experiences.

  5. katyandtheword October 9, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

    My parents always said, don’t trust parents who don’t have children around 2years in age with your children, because they don’t get it. They forget, they move on, they are focussed on other (more relevant) problems in their lives…..Keep Calm and Parent on!

  6. triciachatter October 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Great post- very helpful. I know a lot of new mommies right now that need to read this!

  7. lauralord October 9, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    It is amazing how being a mother makes a person feel like they are THE mother. Their not. I’m not. I’m good with my kids…someone else’s kids, not so much probably. This was a wonderful reminder that advice is great, but just a little positive pep talk will go a long way.

  8. Jennifer K October 9, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Excellent article. I’m not a parent yet but it drives me crazy when people launch into horror stories every time they see someone with a baby or someone who is pregnant! Is that really necessary??

  9. brennalayne October 10, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    AMEN!!! I used to cringe whenever some well-meaning stranger would say, “These are the best times of your life,” and I’d think, “If that is truly the case, then you’re about to watch me end it all right here in the middle of the grocery store.” There should probably be a public awareness campaign for new parents along the lines of the “It Gets Better” campaign for LGBT youth.

  10. lauratfrey October 10, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    This is all excellent but the #1 thing to remember is BRING FOOD. ALWAYS BRING FOOD.

  11. Wanderer October 10, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    Ah, timing couldn’t be better for me to have read this post. My baby is 1 month old and I’m tired of my mother telling me that she did this and that when we were this age and it was fine. But she doesn’t understand it is not fine with me, doing same things to my child. It doesn’t help when she says things like “you grew up in a noisy household so its ok to make noise around the baby” when I ask her to speak mellow. Sigh.
    Lovely post and very appropriate. I just wish more people get to read this.

  12. MarinaSofia October 10, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    You mean puppies are not as hard as newborns? You can’t just take babies to animal shelters when it all gets too much? Aw, shucks, you’ve destroyed another illusion of mine. Sorry, I speak as one who has had two newborns and no puppies…
    I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read your post – I’ve been on the receiving end of all of the above … but what is even worse, I probably have been on the giving end of this kind of inane advice occasionally! And I should have known better!

    • bellejarblog October 13, 2013 at 1:14 am #

      Oh, I’m sure that I’m guilty of some of this stuff, too! In fact, I can recall some pretty cringe-worthy stuff that I’ve said to new parents, hah. I’m trying to mend my ways, though!

  13. Cathy Olliffe-Webster October 10, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    When I had my first baby I thought the world had shifted on its axis. Nothing could have prepared me for that immense change – and sleep deprivation? I thought I was going to die from it. Literally die. Which I welcomed because that meant I could sleeeeeeeep. Still, when I look back at that time, I do so with pleasure. Because it was on those sleepless nights, rocking my baby while the sun rose, alone in the dark world with nothing but a tiny creature in my arms, that I fell in love.

    Now that he’s a teenager? Not so much. 😉

    • bellejarblog October 13, 2013 at 1:06 am #

      I wish I had those nice memories of Theo’s earliest weeks! Mostly they’re just a blur of tears and anxiety and sleeplessness. I do get a little choked up when I look at pictures of him as an itty-bitty, though.

  14. KimberlyPalmer October 10, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Great post -as always you make me think – and rethink. And @laurafrey – so funny, and SO true!

  15. kristinmh October 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    I probably did #4 a few times, especially with my birth story (“And then there was blood everywhere. LIKE A HORROR MOVIE”).

    The thing about people getting offended when you don’t take their advice? Do not get it, but it is totally real. It’s like “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize when you told me what you did with your kid’s sleep issues that I was receiving wisdom directly from Sleep Jesus! My bad, I will immediately implement your plan”. Maybe it’s because we all feel embattled and in need of defending our own parenting choices, and someone else’s rejection of our choice feels like judgement? Or maybe people are just assholes.

    • bellejarblog October 13, 2013 at 1:03 am #

      Also most often the things that people are suggesting are a) things that I’ve already decided that I don’t want to do or b) things that I’ve tried and didn’t work.

      Yeah. People are super weird about advice.

  16. Raschel-Miette October 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

    I dislike intensely the whole “is she/he a good baby”? Like babies are intentionally “bad”. Like they have control over their needs. My daughter woke every 2 hours until she was three, so that put her firmly in the “bad”. Ugh. Let’s just no one ask that question again ever. And also, hello and welcome to the dichotomy you will face for the rest of your life.

    • bellejarblog October 13, 2013 at 12:41 am #

      Oh man YES. According to that standard, my son was THE WORST BABY.

      That is a question that needs to be never asked ever again.

  17. Ronni October 12, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    One thing I think new parents need almost as much as more sleep, is validation. I haven’t been a new parent for nearly 11 years, but I get so annoyed when I see someone posting on facebook about how things are hard and someone chimes in with some bulls*** preppy answer, completely invalidating what that new parent is saying and feeling.

    • bellejarblog October 13, 2013 at 12:38 am #

      Yes, totally! Is it really so hard to say, “Gee, that sounds awful, I’m sorry!”

  18. Ann October 13, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    I agree with everything you said except #1. IMHO, offer advice only if asked. If the diaper is on backwards, so what? The kid will survive.
    Having said that, I can’t resist passing along the best parenting tip I ever got: “Always remember, there’s nothing a baby can get on your hands that won’t wash off.”
    That one helped me through some bad days when our kids were sick, with puking and diarrhea at the same time.

  19. K. Kreiger October 14, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    Oh my, this was so great!

    Personally though, I would change #1 from “DO offer advice, especially if the parent asks for it.” to “…ONLY if the parent asks for it.”

    I am only 6 months along with my first and the only thing thus far that I find more annoying than the “just wait until…” sentence, is the unsolicited advice. Ironically when stating that I very much dislike the unsolicited advice elsewhere, I was told “just wait until they are born…” which I am sure is a truth but my pregnancy hormones wanted to double punch them in the face (figuratively speaking…of course).

    Thanks for the great post!

  20. elizabethjaneclarke October 18, 2013 at 1:53 am #

    I agree. The early days (and nights) are numbingly hard. But the teen years are a whole different ball game. Small kids = small problems. Big kids = BIG worries!

    • bellejarblog October 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      Yeah, there are for sure different challenges (and different rewards!) at every age. I am terrified of Theo’s teen years, hah!


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    […] The Pink Switch: Gender and Parenting. Scott Sharplin ponders why pink and blue matter so much to parents, and over at the Bell Jar Blog, Anne Thériault has great advice for talking to new parents. […]

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