“It’s so hard to ask for help. Because you’re supposed to be ‘Mommy.’ And you never want to say: ‘I need help being Mommy.’”
This is the opening line in a viral post from the popular Facebook page Humans of New York. When I first saw the post, I was excited to see a young black mother breastfeeding her little one uncovered. But there is a bigger reason this post is going viral — so many moms have felt exactly what this woman is saying. The fact that she had the courage to say it out loud is what was most striking.
Society has created this image of mothers as superhuman. We’re amazing, there’s no doubt about that, but we’re still very human. But because of this superhuman image, asking for help is almost equal to failure.
When you’re a new mother, whether it’s your first baby or your fourth, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed. These tiny humans depend on us for literally everything. Learning how to care for this new little person in your life is all-consuming, and sometimes you don’t know how deep into it you are until you’re drowning.
There you are, with a baby who is constantly needing to be fed or held or rocked. You can’t remember the last time you had time to pee by yourself, let alone shower and put on clean clothes. You’re covered in puke and milk and sweat and you’d love nothing more than 20 minutes to yourself to slough off the grime and feel like something resembling a human again. You can tell you need help, and yet…you don’t feel like you can ask for it.
And this is a huge problem.
New moms shouldn’t have to ask for help.
Even if they’ve done the whole newborn thing before, it’s a lot to deal with. Moms, especially new moms (and even more so, first time time moms) will run themselves into the ground to prove that they can handle it. But the people around them need to see through the faux bravado and the “I can do everything” exterior and realize that they need help.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing every time, but even something as simple as “I’ll hold the baby so you can go shower,” or “let’s order takeout for dinner” to take something off her already-full plate would make a huge difference in how she’s feeling. If you know a new mom, you can just assume she’s not going to ask you for anything. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need it.
Why is a new mom expected to have a baby and then just magically “bounce back?” We’re supposed to lose all the weight we’ve gained, look like we didn’t carry a person in our body for nine months and be full of energy. Then just as we’re coming out of the fog of having a newborn, many of us are expected to return to work or lose our jobs. We’re expecting new moms to be Donna Reed; the ideal wife and mother, a model employee, and on top of that a perfect size six. How in the world is that an attainable goal?
The biggest thing a new mom needs is support. Babies always have an uncanny ability to know when their momma is about to grab a few minutes for herself and take that as a cue to have a blowout diaper or need to be fed. If you see the blowout diaper, pick up the poop covered baby and change them so she doesn’t have to. If you can, feed the baby. If you can’t, ask her how else you can help. Get in the damn kitchen and make dinner. If she was about to eat, feed her instead of forcing her to try to eat one handed. Create the safety net she needs so that she remembers that she’s a person and not a robot going through her life on autopilot.
Additionally, encourage her to be vulnerable. If you ask a new mom how she’s doing and she says “fine,” probe a little deeper. See what she’s doing for herself, and not just for the baby. Offering emotional support is just as important as offering physical support. If you see that she’s struggling, putting the onus on her for her struggles is only going to cause her to sink deeper.
Asking “when was the last time you showered?” can seem like a harmless question, but it can also remind her that she’s letting herself go. In my days as a new mom, I was often told that I had an “attitude” whenever approached about just about everything, but the people making the claim never thought about how they were speaking to me. Language is everything.
“Hey, the baby is content for the time being, why don’t you take some time to yourself? If they become unhappy, I’ll handle it,” is a far kinder approach.
“I’m just one person and being ‘Mama’ 24/7 can make you crazy. I found myself getting frustrated that other people were going on with their lives,” the mom said in the HONY post.
New moms sometimes reach their breaking point and ask for help. But by then so much damage has been done that it takes a little part of their soul. Being there for them and letting them know you have their backs before they hit that point will show them they’re not in this alone. Reminding them that being gentle with themselves will make them a better mom is helpful.
And just remember this, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Fill their cup for them.