I think one of the main things I realised when I had a child – aside from how absurdly difficult it is to do simple daily tasks with a new baby and no sleep – is how useless I had been to friends who had already had babies. I had felt delighted for my new-mum friends and genuinely excited to meet their babies, and I would have been willing to help them in any way if they had asked for something. The trouble was, having not experienced the challenges of new parenthood, I had absolutely no idea what it was that my friends might need. So I would merrily turn up for an afternoon with a homemade cake, cuddle the baby, distribute presents, chat about the goings on in the outside world, and then be on my way, duty done. On the journey home, my mind would fill with blissful soft-focus vignettes about life with a new baby, drawn mainly from sentimental ads for nappy and formula. And that would be that for a few months.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the parents had probably made a monumental effort to make their lives look halfway normal before I arrived – and that even if they were moved to ask me for help, they probably wouldn’t have known what exactly to ask for.
When Oscar was born, the penny dropped: I had been a bad friend without even meaning to. When I met Rachel’s son, George, I arrived at her house with a huge homemade lemon meringue cake (that took up valuable space in her fridge); I can’t even be sure that I washed up before I left. When my friend Ramona had her first child, we managed to bring her a proper dinner, but I spent the entire visit quizzing her about the gore and indignity of childbirth when she probably wasn’t feeling up to anecdotes, and I must have overstayed my welcome because I held Rudy for so long that my arm was completely dead when I gave him back. And when my friend Becky gave birth to her daughter, I continued to invite her to all sorts of child-inappropriate events, including afternoon tea at a fancy London restaurant, without any inkling of the huge amount of planning that goes into even a trip to the shops when you are a new mum. While all post-natal visits are well-meaning, not all of them are a blessing.
To make things worse, when Oscar was born, it was the friends who owed me the least who helped me the most. Rachel cooked me lunch or dinner at every opportunity, regularly offered to take Oscar off my hands for an hour or two, and kept insisting we come to theirs for a bit of light relief. We spent New Year’s Eve at their house, bringing nothing but our two-week-old son, and felt like normal(ish) human beings for those few hours as we tucked into a three-course dinner, drank bubbly and played Singstar while Oscar dozed in the same room. Rachel is still way ahead of me when it comes to anticipating need: despite having a newborn son to care for, her birthday present to me this year was to invite Oscar to sleep over at hers so that Juan and I could go on a date AND have a lie-in the next day. She has, quite simply, been great.
It was only when one of my best friends told me that she felt exactly the same way about me that I realised that we don’t necessarily need to pay back in kind the people who help us (although it never hurts to do so). The kindness and support we receive from more seasoned mums is something we can pay forward to those who experience this life stage after us, when the memories of the experience are still vivid. What’s more, everyone’s needs are different: I really appreciated practical help and morale-boosting pep talks, whereas Rachel says she craved company more than anything else.
When my friend had her son, I tried my best to help, bringing her lunch when I visited and leaving a homemade dinner for her and her husband (which I put in foil containers to save on washing up), and just generally offering as much emotional support as I could. Now that she’s got used to being a mum, she’s doing the same for a friend of hers who’s just given birth. And so the cycle of fairy godmothers continues.
I didn’t rely solely on Rachel’s support, of course; other friends pitched in too. One brought me soup served in a cup to minimise washing up; another gave me huge bags stuffed full with newborn clothes and told me she didn’t want them back. And, of course, my mum was a godsend – she would come all the way down from Nottingham just for the day and would be happy to do nothing more than sit in my lounge listening to me witter on about naps, do my washing up and buy me lunch; she still comes down to London on the train every week. It all adds up to a whole lot of love.
So, because I’m feeling schmaltzy, what with Christmas on the horizon and Oscar about to turn two, I thought I’d write this as a public thank you to all of the people in my life who kept me (just about) sane and boosted my morale and confidence in those first few months. And to remind us all, parents and non-parents, to do our best to look out for each other – and to pay it forward.
What help did you receive when you had your first child? And what do you think is the most helpful way to support other new mums?