Lately Fiona and I have visited a lot of new babies. I guess it’s the age (me: 32, her: 9 months); suddenly I’m carefully parceling out our hand-me-downs.
Which has me thinking about the custom of visiting soon after the family returns from the hospital. It doesn’t make much sense. In addition to potentially exposing the new baby to germs, even the most well-intentioned visit saps energy from the parents and throws off the precarious schedule that rules those early days. I recall how every minute that wasn’t spent feeding Fiona felt like it had to be allocated to eating, sleeping, showering, or slipping outside for fresh air. When people came over, I felt accomplished that I could converse while nursing. But after 20 minutes I’d look down and notice the latch was crummy. Before having a baby, it’s impossible to understand how tricky and time-consuming breastfeeding can be at first. Still, during this crucial period, people visit.
Including me. Who can resist? Not visiting can appear like not caring, and everyone wants to be helpful. Plus, new parents might be exhausted but also elated and eager to show off their new addition.
It’s no wonder that many cultures have a tradition of postpartum seclusion for mother and baby. In India it’s called the “confinement,” in China, “doing the month,” and across Latin America, la cuarentena or “quarantine.” All three refer to a roughly 40-day period of recuperation with minimal outside-world contact.
In concession to modern times, many women practice modified versions. And maybe such customs would prove too confining for the average American — would you really want to be cut off from the outside world for that long?
But we’d do well to take notes, as well as learn from our own experiences when it comes to contributing to healthy, restful postpartum periods for other newbies out there (and for ourselves if another baby comes around). Talking to fellow parents, several themes regarding new-baby visits emerged repeatedly:
Bring food. And not much else. Cut-up fruit and veggies; nuts and trail mix; frozen lasagnas and soups; green juices and smoothies — think healthy, easy and could be eaten with one hand. Sweets and Champagne are fun; sustenance is better. I love how the Meal Train trend has taken hold in Seattle: it relieves the tired parents of even having to ask. What not to bring? Gifts, especially off-registry, can sometimes overwhelm. Play it safe with a few sets of newborn socks (which disappear with madding speed) and save the elaborate toys or outfits for later.
Who should visit: Can’t take your shirt off in front of this person? They probably shouldn’t be coming over. Even if breastfeeding isn’t happening, it’s a good gauge of comfort level. The new parents should feel OK asking visitors for favors or booting them out when they’re tired. Everyone else (grandparents’ friends, neighbors) can wait.
On that note, stagger visits. Visitors and offers of help often pour in at the beginning. Then some weeks pass and the partner goes back to work, the helpful grandmother has come and gone, and suddenly the new mom is alone. A lot. My dad didn’t hop on a plane to New York right when Fiona was born; he maintained that, unlike my mom and sister, who played crucial roles early on, he wouldn’t be very useful at first. When he did arrive, at eight weeks, I was eager for the company. At two weeks, parents might still be riding a post-birth high; at six weeks, the lack of sleep has accumulated, the baby is probably fussier and mom is climbing the walls. Drop by then.
Lastly, if you must kiss the new baby, aim for the feet.
Born and raised in Seattle, Becca Bergman Bull is a writer, editor and new mom in Brooklyn.