My daughter turned 7 months old this past week. She is 7 months of amazingness, love, beauty, fascination and joy. She truly is an incredible soul and I thank God every day and count every blessing that we are lucky enough to have her in our lives. But what happens when something you wanted so much is so hard to adjust to? I still get choked up thinking about how hard the first 3 months of her life were for us.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I found my very first gray hair on the morning of my daughter’s birth. I’m an “everything happens for a reason” person so I took this as a sign. Lo and behold, the first 3 months after Julianne’s birth, affectionately named “The Fourth Trimester”, were pretty tough for us. Although not talked about often enough, the newborn phase is pretty rough for every new parent from what I gather. And obviously for different reasons, even from one baby to the next in the same family. It isn’t always the idyllic baby peacefully sleeping for 20 hours a day, waking them for feedings and diaper changes and snuggles and then right back to sleep. In fact, it wasn’t at all like that for us and I pretty much wanted to throat punch anyone who told me to “sleep when the baby sleeps”. I’m not a violent person, but in my opinion, a severe lack of sleep and struggling with breastfeeding for the first ten weeks will do that to you.
I’m not sure why everyone acts like everything is sunshine and roses when you have a new baby because a lot of times it is far from that. Yes, there are incredible moments, but this is probably one of the toughest adjustments one can ever go through, and I think it’s important to be real about how tough this can be. Everyone has their own adjustments to parenthood, but I think for families like us living overseas, or really any new parents living far away from family for that matter, it’s that much harder.
Jeff and I have been together for 8 years this year, married for 4 and are usually pretty relaxed and laid back people. We work hard to maintain stability in all areas of our lives; our marriage, our finances, our emotional health, and our physical health. Therefore, there is rarely any “extremes” or drama in our lives. And our daughter was 100% planned. We really thought we had this in the bag as far as setting the stage for easing into parenthood.
It is a total crash course, trial-and-error kind of thing. True, no one and nothing can truly prepare you for what you will experience because everyone goes through different parenting challenges. But I think it’s important to be honest here about what it’s actually like. Well wishers will say “Enjoy every Moment!” and when you are living from moment to moment with a million ups and downs you will question how exactly you’re supposed to “enjoy” this. There are episodes of tearful, anxious, exhausted desperation while trying to figure out how to get the baby to stop crying and wondering how you’re going to fix whatever’s wrong, and why what worked yesterday isn’t working today. Then that moment passes and, you can breathe again and you look at your spouse and realize everything is going to be ok. You look at your sweet baby, your heart overflowing with so much love that you think it might burst!! You sign with relief because the two of you got this.
But that’s just it, when you live away from family, it’s just the two of you.
An old expression comes to mind pretty frequently… “It takes a village to raise a child”. That expression has been burned into my brain because one of the deans at my undergrad college used to use that expression at least once in every speech he gave (shout out to my Wilkes University crew…you know who I’m talking about!). And as a Resident Assistant, I went to A LOT of campus events, and heard this saying at least a million times in my 4 years there. Anyhow, living overseas means you do not have a village. Don’t get me wrong, we have lots of friends and supports out here. But you can’t expect friends to come over and sleep at your house and get up with the baby at 3am so you can sleep…. Or to come over at 6am to give you a break and let you nap because you were up half the night….Or to do your food shopping and stock your fridge/freezer/pantry…. Or to help clean your house…. Or to watch your newborn for a couple hours so you can have a date night with your spouse. ALL OF THAT is what you ask family for, if you can, and if they are willing. But living overseas means family isn’t around for that.
Moving here was a choice, and like any decision, we have to accept the consequences. We love it here and being here means I get to be a stay at home mom while Julianne is little so we wouldn’t change that for the world. But it also means we have no consistent help. And that is so damn hard. Do-able, obviously, but extra exhausting since there are far less people to share the load of meeting a newborns/infants ever-demanding needs. Thank goodness for the people both near and far that came through for us with extra support, even at a distance… I’m really not sure where we would be without them! I’d like to take a minute here to thank those that went the extra mile to help us out when we so desperately needed it. I love those lists of “How to Help a New Mom”, so I’m going to tailor my own list here for overseas/long distance families Here goes…
10. Anything you can send is AWESOME. Amazon.com is one of my favorite websites. We have Julianne’s baby registry on there and it’s a great one-stop-shop for anyone who wants to send the baby (or new mom or dad) something and wants to know exactly what to get and doesn’t have to bother with sending it out via snail mail. Another amazing thing about Amazon is that you can send gift cards immediately via email. SO HELPFUL! And extra bonus points for those people who did take the time to send things via snail mail. Handpicked or handmade baby items are just so sweet, especially since we didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl- getting her first boxes of all girly outfits and toys was such a treat – special thanks to all of our parents as well as Aunt Barbara, Nana, Aunt Heather and others (sorry if I’m forgetting to list you here and you sent us something!) for those incredible boxes of gifts for Julianne!
9. Food, glorious food. Thank God for my friends who brought us food. Special shout out to my zumba friends who came by with all sorts of goodies, and to Shawni who came by multiple times with dinner and desserts for us. What a lifesaver!! But for those that are afar, you can send food. Again, I redirect you to amazon. There are also a lot of state-side companies too that send food such as edible arrangements, Mrs. Fields Cookies, Hickory Farms meats & cheeses, etc. Or go old school and send a care package like the old days in college. Extra bonus points for sending things from the U.S. that are not available to us here overseas! No food will go to waste (unless it’s expired or perishable of course) in a new parents’ home… ESPECIALLY if the new mom is breastfeeding. I was starving like Marvin for at least the first 8 weeks, I swear.
8. Services make great gifts too! Our friend Jeanne stopped by with adorable outfits for the baby AND gift certificates for massages for us…how amazing is that?! God knows you need it after childbirth, but of course after your body has healed. Another great service option- Cleaning!! If you’re a slightly OCD new mom like me, you will want this. Sitting around for hours nursing a newborn and staring at all the things that need to be cleaned/organized in the house may drive you up a wall. Back home, a family member might stop by and fold laundry for you or something like that but since that’s not really an option, and I wasn’t going to ask my friends to come over and wash my floors for me, I ended up hiring someone to come in once a month for 3 months and do the deep cleaning for us for a very reasonable price. I have hired and sent cleaning people to others’ houses before when they were in need of help so this is a great option. Even if a “Merry Maids” or the like doesn’t exist in someone’s area, there will definitely be another cleaning service or person around for hire.
7. Time is of the essence. If you don’t have the financial resources to send gifts/food/services to a new family it’s all good! Time is one of the most precious things you can offer someone. One of my best friends out here, Chris, came by for a visit when Julianne was 6 weeks old. Julie was going through a growth spurt and cluster feeding like crazy. I was able to sneak a quick shower in that morning, but doing hair/makeup or getting dressed into something other than pj’s was just not happening. I opened the door to greet my friend with spit up on my shirt and milk stains. Thank God we’re good friends enough that she didn’t care, because I was desperate for the company. Being a new, stay at home mom can be very isolating. Jeff only got 3 weeks off of work so by week 6 you can imagine I was in need of some adult conversation during the day…especially during those darn growth spurts when you’re pretty much doing round-the-clock feedings and can’t go anywhere. Of course Chris brought adorable little gifts for us, but my favorite thing, which I will never forget, was how she held my fussy baby for 30 minutes so I could use the bathroom, change into a clean shirt, and make/eat lunch. It really is the little things. Obviously if you live far away you can’t do this, but you CAN call and check in. I know people rarely call people anymore because it’s all about the texts/iMessages/FB messages/Facetimes etc… and I’m guilty of that too. But sometimes I just really wanted to hear the voice of a loved one, have a real conversation, and not have to show them how much of a hot mess me and/or my house looked via skype. Thanks Aunt Kim, for always calling me and checking in! Take a few minutes and call a new parent, it means a lot.
6. Ask them how they are doing. When you’re pregnant, everyone asks you how you’re doing and how you’re feeling. As soon as they baby gets here, it’s all about how the baby is doing. Which is totally understandable, but most of the time the baby is fine and the new parents are the ones struggling. I can’t even begin to imagine how a mom with Postpartum Depression gets by without someone asking her how she is doing. (Even more reason to ask!!) I didn’t have that, thankfully. But like most new moms, I did go through small bouts of the “baby blues”. I had my fair share of tearful bouts and even an anxiety attack in public one of the first times I left the house without the baby for an hour. I mean, let’s be real here, your entire life just turned upside down. Of course, your new baby is amazing. Let us not forget though, that your body, your emotions, your marriage, your previous day-to-day routine…. EVERYTHING is different. Being a new parent is hard for a million different reasons. And that can be hard to adjust to. But it’s important to talk about. Obviously, ask about the baby, but don’t forget to ask about the new parent too- dads included! I remember being awake feeding the baby at 3am one night, sobbing and texting my mom why no one asks me how I’m doing anymore. For the love of God, don’t forget about the new parents. I can almost assure you that that new baby is getting all of the love/nourishment/attention it needs and then some. It’s the new parents’ needs that are not being met consistently and if you can’t physically help them to eat/go to the bathroom/get a shower/sleep then at least be there to listen about how tough it is. It will pass, but a listening ear goes a long way. And for the people who’s excuse is “I didn’t want to call and wake the baby”… we now live in a time where phones can be silenced. I put my phone on silent mode every night because, with the 6 hour time difference between the U.S. and Germany, there’s a high likelihood someone will forget and call or message me at a crazy hour. And I’d rather someone call and leave a message or send a text at an odd hour when my phone is on silent than never contact me at all. Plus there’s a good chance we’ll be up soon to respond anyway!
5. Some advice about advice. If you have an opinion, and you really think the new parent needs to hear it, be gentle about it. Usually, giving your parenting opinion on something one time is more than enough. Maybe they need to hear it. Maybe they don’t. But repeating it over and over is not helpful. They probably heard you the first few times you offered the advice (solicited or not) but for whatever reason, chose to do things their own way. Take it easy on the judging. Things may be different now then when you raised your kids. Or, your baby born around the same time as mine might have different needs or respond differently to things. No two babies are exactly alike, no baby comes with a handbook, and no parent is an expert, no matter how many kids you’ve had. Being a new parent means making mistakes and learning from them. There is A LOT to learn and it’s a trial-by-fire/learn-as-you-go thing. Chances are the new parents are already in the new habit of laying awake at night, beating themselves up thinking about what they did wrong and how they can do something better next time. You don’t need to join that beat-down party. Please remember that and be kind.
4. Don’t assume. Try not to assume that a new parent DOES or DOES NOT have time. It doesn’t hurt to ask! On the one hand, people might stop inviting you to a few things because they assume you’re too busy with the baby. When in reality, maybe you would’ve actually went to their event and frankly, would’ve enjoyed getting out of the house!! Conversely, some days a 30 minute phone call is just not going to happen. It’s just not. The previous week when the baby was cluster feeding non stop there’s plenty of time for a phone call but it probably would’ve been a bad idea to go to a friends party. But the next week when the baby is awake more and needs more entertainment, a long phone call is out of the question but bringing the baby to a family friendly get together where she can see and observe new things now that she is more alert is an awesome idea! Thank goodness for our friends Lisa and Ashley who always hit me up when they’re coming downtown and offer to stop by for a visit. I really do appreciate the company and the opportunity to chat, even if it has to be a brief visit because the baby is having a tough day. You never know if the new parents want company or want to go out, and whether they can or not is for them to decide. Extending the invitation is always appreciated. Just ask!
3. Patience is a virtue. Baby brain is a real thing. I used to have a mind like a steel trap. People were often impressed by how much I remembered or how organized, on time, etc I was. I truly pride myself on being a loyal/responsible/reliable/dependable person. However, sometime during pregnancy this starts to change a bit and your mind shifts more and more to the baby, leaving little room to recall or remember other things. This is EVEN WORSE for people who were bad at that kinda stuff to begin with and then had a baby. There’s a good chance some things are going to be forgotten, confused, mixed up, or fall by the wayside. Try to be understanding. This is not intentional.
2. Practice Forgiveness. Along the lines of the previous comment, there’s a good chance that the new parents are going to have to cancel on something or forget/not have time to do something you wanted them to do. Be forgiving. They probably wanted to do it, but the new and adorably cute pint sized boss in the house who has no sense of time/schedules/plans decided otherwise. Like that meme going around facebook about not being a parent and having the time to do “whatever the hell you want”, yeah it’s the opposite of that. Most days during the first 3 months if I had time to wipe my own @$$ I was lucky. So I apologize now for the thank you cards I forgot to send (although I tried to at least say a thank you in person, via text/email, or send a picture of Julianne wearing the outfit someone sent or posing with the gift someone gave her), for the texts/emails/phone calls that I forgot or took forever to return, or for any other inconvenience we may have caused anyone, as it was completely unintentional. It’s just the 2 of us here, struggling to make it through the day and trying to keep a new tiny human alive, that’s all.
1. Have some empathy & pay it forward. If you’ve never been a parent, I don’t expect you to know what this is like. Having helped raise my siblings, having done a lot of babysitting, and having a Masters Degree in Social Work with a focus on families and children, I thought I knew what it was like to raise kids before I became a mom. And I did, for the most part. But the truth is, you don’t really know until you live it. That being said, if you’re a parent, you’ve been there. Put the shoe on the other foot and ask yourself what you would’ve wanted or needed when you became a new parent. Or recall the things you had that you were grateful for. Chances are, you had a variety of people aside from your spouse and a few friends to stop by and help. You had your parents, in-laws, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. to drop by and lend a hand. This is especially true for older generations who lived closer to one another. My parents for example moved in with my grandparents shortly after having me, and we still lived there when my brother was born. While I’m sure it wasn’t always peaches and cream, an extra pair of hands can go a long way in saving a new parents’ sanity. Same for when my sister was born, my brother and I were teenagers then and spent a fair amount of time helping with the baby. Older siblings can be a great help! But for brand new parents of a first/only child this isn’t an option.
Living away from family without any help is HARD. But then I remember the beauty of the situation we are in and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love living in Europe, I love having our daughter here, and we are truly blessed to have this opportunity for me to stay home and raise her.
If you know new or expecting parents who live far away from family, or even just far away from you and you want to help out, I hope this list offers some good insight. Now that I’m a new parent, you can be sure I’ll be more helpful to my other new mom & dad friends and family members because this is the toughest, and most rewarding, job ever. And we can all use a hand and some help sometimes :)