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Why Family, Friends, and Strangers Should Stop Saying These 5 Things to New Parents

Ms. Meyers is a mom, teacher, and author who writes about issues in early childhood education and parenting.

Stop Saying These 5 Things to New Parents!

Stop Saying These 5 Things to New Parents!

My husband and I recently adopted an adorable pound puppy. We love her dearly, but she’s proving to be quite the handful: chewing everything in sight, whining in the middle of the night, and requiring three walks a day, plenty of play time on the floor, ongoing training sessions, and lots of socialization at the dog park and around town. She’s a full-time commitment and we’re sleep-deprived and exhausted.

My normal routine has been eviscerated. I can’t get my work done, accomplish household tasks, or even manage to wash my hair, apply makeup, and roll on deodorant. Our house looks like a complete mess with dog toys strewn everywhere along with masticated pieces of paper, cardboard, and sticks.

Words That Annoy New Parents

Having this all-consuming pup takes me back 20 years ago when I gave birth to my first child. It makes me recall how overwhelmed I felt. It makes me remember how I craved just a little alone time to use the bathroom, take a shower, and eat a meal. It makes me think about how I needed just a moment to regroup and regain my sanity after listening to my colicky baby cry for hours. It makes me think about how I yearned to hear some words of encouragement, kindness, and compassion.

Instead, what I got were a lot of annoying comments that left me feeling hurt, guilty, alone, ashamed, and defeated as a new mom. Today, I hear some of those same remarks with my puppy. This time around, though, they just make me chuckle at folks who speak before thinking, who are so eager to criticize rather than connect. With that in mind, I made a list of 5 things people should never say to new parents.

Five Things to Avoid Saying to New Parents

1. "Enjoy every minute because it goes so fast!"

2. "Don’t pick up a crying baby or you’ll spoil them."

3. "You look so tired."

4. "If you don’t want him, I’ll take him!"

5. Avoid telling stories that hijack and outdo theirs.

1. Enjoy every minute because it goes so fast.

Heather gets this little nugget of advice constantly from older, well-meaning strangers when she’s out and about with her 3-month-old daughter. They offer it up as if it’s the most precious counsel she could ever receive and she should be duly grateful. Upon hearing these words that have become a cliche, she smiles warmly, agrees enthusiastically, and thanks them sincerely. Yet, it wasn’t always that way.

Heather’s baby is her third child, and she wasn’t nearly as receptive to this guidance after having her first. In fact, it made her feel guilty and doubt herself as a new parent. She questioned why she wasn’t enjoying motherhood as much as she should. She wondered what was wrong with her.

Her days as a stay-at-home mom were long and exhausting. She sometimes missed her job at the office where she could use the restroom without interruption, sit down to savor a cup of coffee, and have meaningful conversations with grownups. Being told repeatedly she should relish every moment of motherhood—the crying, the poopy diapers, and the separation from the adult world—just added to her feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and despair so many new moms experience.

2. Don’t pick up a crying baby.

Aracelly was shocked and crestfallen when her mom, mother-in-law, and aunts told her not to pick up her son when he cried. “If you attend to his every whim, he’ll have you wrapped around his little finger,” they cautioned. “He’s just manipulating you to get his way. If you give in to his wails, he’ll be spoiled.”

Fortunately for her newborn, Aracelly knew this was dreadful advice that could have a long-lasting negative impact on his psychological well-being and sense of security. Dr. Darcia Narvaez addresses this issue in her article, “Dangers of ‘Crying It Out’” in Psychology Today. She writes:

“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”

Aracelly knew to protect her son from the awful counsel her relatives gave. As a 23-year-old first-time mom, though, she had been hoping to rely on them for sound, loving advice and not dangerous, debunked guidance from 70 years ago. It left her feeling alone and wary just as her parenting journey was beginning and she wanted and needed their support.

3. You look so tired.

When Derek became a father, his mother would announce at family gatherings, “Dear, you look so tired!” He’d politely reply, “Yes, I am tired. The baby is keeping me up at night so I’m not getting much sleep.”

On the inside, though, he fumed. Along with having his first child, he had just launched his own business. He had a lot going on and was experiencing a great deal of stress. Instead of criticizing his appearance, he wished his mother was the type who’d follow up such a remark with “Can I come over tomorrow and watch the baby while you take a nap?”

If she was unwilling to offer her babysitting services, Derek's mom could have at least offered some empathy. Whether they’re family, friends, or strangers, people should be kind, compassionate, and non-judgemental with new parents. It’s extremely helpful when folks recall their own struggles upon becoming moms and dads themselves. The following comments build connection, leave an opening for an honest dialogue, and give everybody a good laugh:

  • I was so woolly-headed when I became a dad. It was an achievement if I left the house wearing pants!
  • I walked around like a zombie after a sleepless night with our crying baby. I once lost my Smartphone and found it in the refrigerator the next day!
  • When my daughter was a baby, I drove her around for hours because she’d sleep while in the car. I must have listened to 50 audiobooks doing that, and it kept me sane!

4. If you don’t want him, I’ll take him.

When I was walking our dog recently, a middle-aged woman wailed plaintively: “I want a puppy so badly!” I agreed they’re a lot of fun but then mentioned some of the struggles I was experiencing: waking up in the night to her whines, cleaning up her messes as she wasn’t yet house-trained, and dealing with her painful bites because she was teething.

She immediately contradicted me by saying, “Oh no! Puppies are so cute, sweet, and darling! They’re perfect in every way!” Her response made me feel as if I were a sad excuse for a human being who didn’t love her dog enough. She shamed me and torpedoed any bond that could have formed between us.

When thinking about it later, I remembered how my mother did something similar after I had my son. Whenever I’d complain about the struggles of being a new parent, she’d say: “Well, if you don’t want him, I’ll take him!”

Her words put me in a shame spiral, causing tremendous anguish. After all, she was saying if I weren’t enjoying every bit of rearing my son, I should surrender him to her. She was implying I was an ungrateful mother, didn’t deserve my child, and had no right to kvetch about anything.

Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor, and best-selling author, writes about such shaming incidents and how they negatively impact us in I Thought It Was Just Me. When folks say such things, she argues they break the bond of humanity between us. They pass judgment on us rather than connect with us. For vulnerable new parents, who desperately need love and support, this is especially devastating.

In the video below, Dr. Brene Brown discusses the harmful impact shame has on us. New parents are especially vulnerable to feeling shame, especially when friends and family make thoughtless remarks.

5. Stories that outdo or hijack theirs.

Tyler was thrilled to finally have a baby girl at 39. He and his wife were only having one child so he was spending lots of time with his daughter and celebrating every milestone. Everything she did seemed miraculous to him and he wanted to share the exhilaration with his parents. He phoned them every Saturday to give an update since they lived in another state.

Tyler would tell them stories about his daughter: how she loved to sleep next to their dog, how she snored like a grandpa, how she giggled while pulling his beard. His anecdotes, though, would immediately launch his mom and dad into tales of their own as they recounted similar stories from long ago about one of their six children or recent ones about one of their 14 grandchildren. Tyler gradually called his parents less often.

Reflecting upon this years later, he expressed why talking with his parents during that period was so heartbreaking. He said succinctly, “It felt like they were robbing me of something precious. Those fleeting days with my daughter were magical. When everything she said and did reminded them of what someone else said or did, they devalued my unique, cherished experiences and I pulled away.”

What do you think?

© 2021 McKenna Meyers