Helping is more of an art form than you might think.
I remember reading somewhere that the words "Let me know how I can help," while well-intentioned, are actually not that helpful. In many situations where a kind gesture is needed – death of a loved one, a new baby, recovery, personal crises, life overwhelming in a myriad of ways – the last thing the receiver is capable of doing is identifying what he or she needs. Whether because of shock, fatigue, grief, or all of the above, asking for help can be just one more burden to place on someone already at a loss.
Luckily, there are so many things you can do to help someone going through a difficult time, and all of them can be done spontaneously and without waiting to be asked. I'm going to list some that are specific to a life with a new baby, but these often cross over into other situations.
1. Bring Food
Not long after we brought home S jr, a dear friend stopped by. Her main objective was not to meet the new baby, or chat – mostly she just wanted to drop off a big bag of food. Frozen stuff from Trader Joe's that saved us many times when Corey or I would realize we hadn't eaten and neither of us was capable of doing anything besides poking some holes in plastic and punching a microwave button. She herself is the parent of two and understood what would be most helpful. It was.
Another great option is to organize a food drop-off schedule. Online schedulers like Meal Train can feel like a miracle.
Or try something like Dream Dinners...after my mom died, a relative set this up for my dad and it was great.
2. Never Mind Overstaying – Don't Stay at All
Other friends stopped by for quick visits and brought food and we were sooooo grateful. And that's the key: Quick visit. Unless the person specifically says PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME I NEED YOU TO TAKE OVER MY LIFE FOR A BIT it's best to bring food, place in fridge or freezer, say congrats and then get the hell out. Babies aren't really supposed to have much contact beyond their families in those first weeks (some say months) so as much as you'd like to dandle a baby on your knee, keep your germ-ridden hands to yourself. Keep in mind that adjusting to life with a new baby is more than enough – the new parent(s) doesn't want to host you, too.
Some of our kind neighbors even took this a step further and just left food/gifts/cards by our front door. What new parent won't weep with gratitude when she opens her door and finds an adorable onesie/container of lasagne/bottle of champagne?
If you are in a position to stay awhile, for the love of god, make yourself useful. Do a load of laundry. Dishes. Vacuum. Dust. Wipe down the counters. Restock toilet paper. Straighten up the living room and light a candle. Change bed sheets. Put some fun magazines on a coffee table. Water plants. Take out the garbage. Walk the dog. All the things that are waaaaay easier to do at someone else's house? Do those. Trust me – no one will care that you didn't fold the towels correctly.
4. Be On Time
Here's the thing about babies: They don't care. They don't care about your schedule, or what's ideal. They don't care if you just changed your clothes or need to feed yourself or drink water or for the love of god go to the bathroom. Babies gonna do. And at some point, they have their own schedules, and often, parents come to regard those schedules as fairly iron-clad.
I didn't understand any of this until I became a parent. "Naptime," as uttered in grim, determined tones by friends with kids, seemed like a fluid concept. Don't they just, you know, fall asleep? Whenever and wherever? It's true that in the beginning, at least, S jr could and did sleep anywhere and you'd better believe Corey and I milked that until it was dry. But now that he's one and Wee W is three months, keeping to S jr's his nap schedule is paramount. Because we've seen what can happen if he misses a nap. Chaos. Cacophony. Tears and great sadness. From ME.
I say all this to encourage you to show up at the time when you say you'll show up. Again, adding just one more element into a day already overwhelmed by human need and activity can feel herculean to a new parent. Help them out by inserting yourself where and when you said you would. Everyone will be so much saner.
5. Be Healthy
This seems obvious, but I've been startled by how many people will touch my child and then say the fun phrase Don't worry, I'm no longer contagious. Cool. So if my child comes down with a plague, you're the one who's gonna come over and catch vomit, okay? And never mind my baby, what if I get sick? Then I smite you. Babies get round after round of shots – vaccines, immunizations – their entire first year of life. Because they're fragile and vulnerable and new. So please, please don't show up at someone's home with even a whiff of illness. It's just not worth it.
Welcoming a new baby is one thing, but when there's illness, or recovery, or a death, those situations can be delicate. Everyone has their own comfort levels, but no matter what you can express condolences, give support and send love.
After my mom died, any time someone reached out in any way, it meant so much to me. For me, to be left alone with grief is awful and terrifying. Even a text from someone saying Thinking about you was lovely and made me feel less isolated.
If you're housebound for any reason, being made to feel thought of and cared about is HUGE. And all of the above points can apply.
I've said the words Let me know how I can help many times in the past. But now, if at all possible, I just DO.
So go forth, gentle readers. And be on time.