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 at for 10 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. 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:
DO offer advice, especially if the parent asks for it. Bonus points if this advice is based on your own personal experience
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.
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.
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.
DO listen and make sympathetic noises.
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.
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.
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.
DO keep an eye out for symptoms of postpartum depression.
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.