If you’re the guardian of a small human, then you’ve no doubt been on the receiving end of tips on how to best nourish/pacify/hold/clothe/burp/diaper/sleep train/love/read to/raise your offspring. Surely you’ve also been subjected to such maddening aphorisms as “Enjoy every minute,” “Sleep when the baby sleeps” and “God only gives you what you can handle.”
In the history of parenting, it’s possible that no pearl of wisdom offered to an acquaintance or stranger with a child has ever actually been beneficial. On the other hand, it’s eminently plausible that those nuggets of uninvited counsel have irked/insulted/upset the person on the receiving end. Especially if that person is on their 192nd hour with no more than 17 consecutive minutes of sleep, it’s been eight days since they saw the inside of a shower and they mistakenly put salt in their coffee instead of sweetener because who cares and what is the meaning of life anyway.
That’s why, when scrolling through my Facebook feed recently, I kept going when I saw a post from an old friend. He wrote about how his newborn fidgeted incessantly and wouldn’t sleep, so no one else could sleep, either. I felt his pain as I remembered being a new mom and having so few resources during those tough, long early days. Parenting websites were scarce when my older daughter was born, my husband and I had no family living nearby to provide relief and many of our friends back then were childless. Baby books were all I had to go by, and the information I got from them wasn’t particularly helpful.
But being open to constructive comments shouldn’t have to mean opening yourself up to gratuitous and useless recommendations. I was on the receiving end of a lot of aimless observations or passive-aggressive input masked as support. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on a better way to rear the child that had been attached to me since conception, and the barrage of advice was challenging in my fragile postpartum state.
I was hardly a professional mom by the time my second daughter debuted three years later. But, fortunately, I had gained enough confidence to take the judgmental looks, and the impractical and irrelevant advice, in stride. Instead of getting defensive or depressed, I simply smiled and said thank you. I also became skilled at cherry-picking the good stuff from the heaps of generally futile guidance, because it was worth it to learn about the best breast-feeding covers and pillows, the onesie trick or how to swaddle like a rock-star maternity-ward nurse. All of those things made my life just a wee bit easier, after all. And when you’re overwhelmed and can’t differentiate one day from the next, even an ounce of respite can feel like a giant leap in the direction of regaining your pre-baby sanity.
I navigated back to my friend’s Facebook post a few minutes later, wondering whether his partner had tried eliminating cow dairy from her diet to alleviate their son’s fussiness. Many of my friends swore it helped with the gripes of their nursing babies. Also, the benefits of correct swaddling and having an infant sleep in a car seat (even in the house) cannot be overstated.
I typed out a reply but paused before sending it. Presenting my opinion might make me that person who annoys or condescends to someone who is already feeling fragile. But what if cutting out dairy or swapping the bassinet for a car seat ended up being the silver bullet that allowed them all to get some rest? I thought about the handful of unsolicited suggestions that I still employ, including “Don’t make happy happier” (genius), and to steer clear of pediatricians whose offices stock toys in the waiting room (hello, rotavirus).
New parents don’t want to hear your sad stories with unhappy endings. Although newborn babies may all eat, sleep and cry, their who/what/where/when/why/how are as unique as their fingerprints. Your belief-disguised-as-fact statements about children you don’t know, or with whom you’ve spent little time, advances nothing. However, a demonstration of empathy coupled with specific techniques that worked for you or others you know (as opposed to urban myths, anecdotal tales, blanket statements or articles you read but can’t remember where) in similar situations could be warmly received. Take the time to consider, too, whether a new parent is fishing for advice or what they’d really rather hook is some compassion.
I did comment on my friend’s Facebook post, and after a short discussion, announced my intention to exit from the conversation before overstaying my welcome.
“Please don’t,” he replied. “We are reading all we can and taking all the advice we can so that we can be better informed. Hit me with some knowledge whenever you think it’ll help. Most of the people telling me things are straight morons. I value your opinion.”
Still, anyone second-guessing whether their point of view will be appreciated should err on the side of silence. And if your opinion isn’t wanted, offer wine instead, because that will be welcome for sure.
Meredith Cohen Carroll is a freelance columnist and writer based in Aspen, Colo. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and Town & Country, as well as on Babble.com and Mom.me. Find her online at meredithcarroll.com and on Twitter @MCCarroll.
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