The little things can often mean the most, and never was that more true for me in my first year of motherhood. I had a dear old friend call for a visit after our daughter was born and she did two remarkable things:
- Ask if it was OK to bring along her girl, who was 5.
- Included a note with the gift she gave us with the words: “DON’T WRITE ME A THANK-YOU NOTE!”
As a mother herself, she knew to mention on our initial birth-announcement phone call that she was happy for us and would be in touch soon, after we’ve settled in. With newborns, many moms worry about germs, hence asking about bringing her own child, and she washed her hands upon entering and instructed her daughter to not touch the baby without speaking with me first. And even though I’m a diligent thank-you-card writer, simply giving me permission to not worry about the note back to her was refreshing.
For many people, acts of kindness toward anyone, not just new moms, is second nature. These are the people I see bathed in golden light, a true gift for all humankind. They see kindness as a regular, conscious practice; perhaps they even refine their strategies when their audience or lifestyle shifts, and return to clarifying the value in maintaining an open and giving heart in their own lives.
In general, I was extremely lucky to have such caring friends and family, but there were a few instances where I would have appreciated some more thoughtfulness:
1. Skip the comment, “You look tired.” It’s an odd statement anyhow, not a compliment at all, although you may think you are conveying empathy for a worn-out new mom. But really, all I hear is, “You look awful.” I’d rather hear, “I’ve been there, sister.” Feel free to avoid any commentary about appearances altogether, because when my body is dumping a bunch of hormones postpartum, I’m more sensitive than ever. So when you tell me, “You look amazing today!” I wonder if I look cruddy the other days.
Better: “It’s wonderful to see you!” “You are amazing!” “Your baby is adorable!” or “Your baby is so sweet!” Focus on the baby or the joy of us being together instead of how I’m presenting myself today, because maybe I’ve chosen to wear makeup, or maybe I haven’t showered in a week. Does it matter (offensive odors aside)? Really, it’s just great that we’re all alive and here together.
2. Bring a meal or offer a service in lieu of giving gifts. Unless you have something particularly special that you feel strongly in giving, offer to bring a meal. This translates to any friend in need — sick or post-surgery, partner on military deployment, when a loved one dies, and more. A lovingly made meal is so thoughtful and useful. Be sure to inquire about dietary restrictions, and cook something healthy and nourishing and people-pleasing so everyone can enjoy it. Bonus points if it’s freezable — which is an important note: Take stock of freezer size! A good option here is MealTrain.com or MealBaby.com, a terrific free service that allows friends and family to organize meal delivery. MealTrain.com even has a donation option if you’re not a cook but would like to contribute to groceries, and MealBaby.com has MealGifts.com, which provides chef-made meals delivered nationwide.
The other perk of gifting food instead of stuff: We all need to eat three meals (or more) a day, but I might already have a drawer full of onesies in every size. Or I’m partial to a particular brand of baby lotion or diapers or only use cloth diapers. It takes the guess work out of giving for you, and means one less trip to the store for an exchange or return. (On that note, don’t take returns or exchanges personally! Gift giving is a whole other, emotionally charged topic that I’ll save, but just because you love a product doesn’t mean another person will feel the same way.)
3. When offering to provide a service, consider your source and gather information first. Have I been complaining about not having time or energy to clean? Then by all means, suggest you help with kitchen cleaning, vacuuming, or doing laundry — or if I decline because I don’t feel comfortable having my cousin fold my undergarments, ask if I’d be open to a cleaning service coming in for a few hours and pick up the tab. I’d let my mother-in-law fold my towels, sheets, and the baby’s clothes, but rather she left our clothing to me.
If I haven’t discussed any challenges with cleaning, no need to mention it. In fact, I may enjoy it and feel like I’m doing a great job, so when you suggest helping me dust or mop the floor, or take over and start doing dishes, I might feel insulted. A general query, “Are there any chores you need taken care of?” serves us both well, and I can tell you to shovel snow from the sidewalk or walk the dog. Just be sure if you offer, you’re up for any task! Find more great tips at Mommypotamus.com.
4. Be a good guest, and watch unsolicited advice. Keep your visit brief so mama and baby can get some rest. Don’t pick up around the house without asking, or point out messes to clean up or repairs to be made. Don’t expect me to “host” you or make you meals (seriously, this happen to one of my friends), and don’t stay overnight. Be polite, quiet, compassionate, and tell me I’m doing a great job. Offer hugs.
As often was the case during my pregnancy, many people come out of the woodwork offering seemingly treasure troves of parenting advice — whether it’s welcomed or not. I did my best to let much of it roll off my back or absorb only the nuggets that were needed, but sometimes their words caused huge frustration. A tip for all: Think first before offering unsolicited advice, and ask if Mom is open to suggestions. Then, Moms, be OK with saying, “I’d rather not receive any advice at this time.” If the undesirable tips are already lingering in the air, try this response from life coach Lauren Zander:
- Take a breath, smile, and say, “How is that helpful?”
- Or, again, with a smile, say, “What did you mean by that?”
It gives the speaker a chance to rethink what they said, perhaps apologize if it’s warranted, and the receiver of said words to collect their thoughts and respond in a way that feels truthful and not powerless.
5. Use the Golden Rule often. The more we are able to look inward and treat others with the same loving kindness we’d like to receive, the better world we can create. The more we are respectful to one another, the happier we’ll all be. Start with yourself:
- Put your hand on your heart and close your eyes.
- Breathe deeply.
- Disrupt any negative thoughts with affirmations or prayer.
Do this daily, or whenever you feel tension rising. Psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, notes in our May 2015 piece, “The Power of Kindness,” “We get stuck in these anxious, negative loops. So we seek out comfort where we can find it, and end up overeating, or paying too much attention to our smartphones, or otherwise constantly trying to distract ourselves.” When we stop these tendencies, she says, “The brain has the wonderful ability to make things automatic. When you have awareness that you want to be kind, and then you practice it, you’re essentially rewiring the compassionate part of your mind.”
It’s science, folks: You can change your mind, and you can be kinder.
And if you can be kinder to yourself, if you take a breath first and be thoughtful in your approach, you can be kinder to others — new moms and everyone.
TELL US: What kind words or actions from others have you found most helpful? Share your ideas with me on Twitter, or in the comments section below.
Photo credit: Mark Lewis. Pictured: Me and my daughter, at 11 months, with my grandfather Wilbur Lewis.