by Jennifer Margulis
Most first-time parents are shocked by the appearance of a newborn baby. My oldest daughter, who was born almost two weeks before her due date, had wrinkled skin, half-closed eyes, and skinny frog legs which kept their cocked shape from the womb for weeks. Her snuffly nasal breathing and squeaky snuffing noises reminded me of some kind of Extraterrestrial creature. Although she was adorable, she looked nothing like the billboard babies I had seen in commercials. One day I exclaimed to my husband, "I thought we were having a baby and here we are with an alien rhinoceros!"
If newborns look and sound strange to us, according to Meredith Small, a cultural anthropologist at Cornell University and author of "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape the Way we Parent," most American adults have never held a newborn baby, let alone cared for one, before they become parents. Some new parents even feel panicky around their newborns.
"I was intimidated out of my mind," remembers Katelyn Murphy-McCarthy of Atlanta, Georgia, whose son, Aidan, is now five. Her husband, Michael, held Aidan most of the time because she was terrified that she would drop him. "I was really hyper careful and afraid that bad things were going to happen to him all the time. I felt like I was thrust into a new world that no one had prepared me for ... there was so much to do to keep this tiny person alive."
The transition from a couple to a family is not always easy. But friends and other family members can provide invaluable help. What is the best way to help new parents? "The best is when friends and family just notice what needs to be done, and do it," says Murphy-McCarthy. "If they see that the fridge is empty, they can bring over a bag of groceries. If the bathroom is dirty, no new mom is going to ask a friend to clean it. But almost every new mom would be relieved if someone did. My mom cleaned the entire house while I was in the hospital."
Greenfield, Mass. resident and film producer Sonia Lindop agrees. "I think help with practical things -- like dishes and laundry is the best thing friends can do ... Anything from putting things in order to bringing over a cooked meal," Lindop, whose daughter Angela is now four, says. "My mother came and helped, she stayed with me for a month. She cooked, she did the laundry, she cleaned. I just fed the baby and took care of the baby. I was able to dedicate my time to the baby."
If new parents, especially, need a lot of help with their first babies, families with older children need help, too. "I thought I knew it all, but I didn't have the same child the second time around," says Frank Faherty of Hadley, Mass., whose sons, P.J. and Patrick, are just seventeen months apart. "He was a totally different baby. I had to learn it all over again!"
Experienced parents, even if their children are close in age, have a certain amnesia about newborns. They forget that tiny babies, like toddlers, need constant and undivided attention: that they poop several times a day, waken every few hours all night long, confuse night and day (sleeping all day and wakeful at night), and cry inconsolably.
For parents with other children, taking one on outings so that the parents can spend time with the other is often helpful. "We wanted P.J. to feel like he was still an important part of the family," remembers Faherty, who was a pediatric nurse until he became a full-time stay-at-home father. "My mother-in-law tended to the baby and we were able to keep doing our activities with P.J."
For families with more than one child, it is important that the other children, especially if they are very small, do not get forgotten. "Almost everyone who gave Patrick a gift gave P.J. something, too," says Faherty, who was grateful for his friends' thoughtfulness. "That gave him something to do -- something to open -- when people came over. It helped him not feel like the new baby was taking away from him."