I was at the insurance info session for my new job a couple months ago, and one woman showed up with a tiny baby in a carrier. I spent like half of the info session eyeballing them, trying to guess how old the baby was and planning what I was going to say to her. As a self-appointed goodwill ambassador to all new moms, I knew I just had to say something. So when we were done, I strutted over and asked her how old her baby was.
“He’s eight weeks,” she beamed.
“Oh, congratulations, he’s so cute! And by the way, it gets so much more fun!” I replied, thinking I was being the most uber-supportive mom-stranger ever.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Well I think THIS is fun.”
Crickets. I had no idea what to say. I think I just whipped around and slunk off with my tail between my legs.
There I was, trying to be that person to say that thing that really made someone’s day, meanwhile I seemed to completely offend her instead. Why had my comment backfired? Who knows – maybe she had heard it a million times before. Maybe she really DOES love eight weeks (I guess someone must). Maybe she was hating it and trying really hard to cover it up. Whatever the reason, I had said the wrong thing.
I think my desire to say just the right thing comes partly from the fact that I am a “helper” by nature (and a school psychologist by trade), but it’s also that I had a really rough go of it early on in motherhood. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about what I was feeling, and I felt really alone in it. Plus, people say really stupid things to you when you’re a new mom. A few examples:
“Are you loving it?”
Stock response: Umm parts of it?
Real response: Which part? The zero sleep? The cracked nipples? The constant feeling that the world is crumbling around me? NO!!!
“Sleep when the baby sleeps!”
Stock response: I’ll try!
Real response: WOW what a novel idea, I’ve never heard that one before! THANK YOU for your endless wisdom.
“Enjoy every moment.”
Stock response: Um thanks, will do.
Real response: If I think too much about what’s actually happening at every moment, I might run away and never come back.
“You look tired.”
Stock response: I AM tired!
Real response: NO SH*T, SHERLOCK!
Having talked with so many other moms about this, I know that my experience was not at all unique – but it was still pretty awful for a while. Some of the really thoughtless, stinging comments really stuck with me, but also, I think a lot about a few of the comments that made a huge difference in the other direction. For example, my father-in-law told me, “You are a strong woman.” And I remember this one conversation I had with my sister-in-law about how hard it is to be a new mom. It was nothing earth-shattering, but it validated a lot of the things I was feeling. I have not-quite-intentionally made it my mission to help other new moms feel not so alone. Unfortunately, not everyone reacts in exactly the way I expect.
I think what I have learned is that pregnancy and motherhood are such sensitive topics – and such personal ones too. It is really hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even when you have been in a really similar situation. Even a seemingly benign comment can strike a nerve for whatever reason. So what to do? Forge ahead, knowing full well that I might offend someone? Say nothing at all?
I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. I think it is better to say something than nothing (a smile and a held door are good too), but what to say?
What do you say to new moms?