Thursday, December 2, 2010

Getting the Help You Need Part 2. What to Do When Your “Help” Isn’t Helpful

Picture this: Aunt Mimi has taken the long trip from Pittsburgh to “help” in those first few days after you bring your baby home. As she steps through the door, she sniffs at the air, asks how long it’s been since you cleaned your carpets, sits down on the couch, and asks “What’s for dinner?” Later, your sister calls raving about a new book called “Baby Care in Less than 10 minutes per Day.”* She explains she’s excited about trying the "let your baby raise himself" system out on your baby. These are extreme examples but sometimes the “help” you get is no help at all or not the kind you need. In our last post, we offered tips about how to ask for help. Today, we’ll talk about how to deal with family and friends whose “help” ends up to be more work for you (like Aunt Mimi). Next time, we’ll share some tips on what to do when you are offered the kind of help you are better off without (as in our sister example above).

Handling Challenging Conversations

Before we go any further, please note that we’re going to assume that all of the people we’re talking about here are well-intentioned if also a bit misguided. If you are dealing with people who are trying to belittle or berate you, it is best to discuss the situation with your doctor or therapist.

Most of us shy away from challenging or emotional conversations. Confronting Aunt Mimi is particularly tough because you do need her help and you don’t want to insult her. Here are some tips to get you started.
  • Know what you want. Think specifically about what you want to happen after your conversation is over, the more concrete the better. For example, it is too vague to ask for “more help.” It is much better to ask Aunt Mimi to “do the cooking and dishes for the next 3 days.” Remember, Aunt Mimi is not volunteering to be your servant and she should not be expected to do all the household chores you and your partner did before the baby came. If all of those chores matter to you, recruit more help.
  • Focus on the present need. Think hard about what is the most important thing you need to say and say it first. If you need Aunt Mimi to help with the dishes, don’t be concerned about her comment about your carpets. Let it go. Start from the present moment and move forward. Worry about the rest after things are a little easier.
  • Don’t wait. If Aunt Mimi’s behavior is making you mad, don’t wait until there is an emotional scene. It is best to get things out in the open as soon as things start going in the wrong direction.

What does this look like in action? Maybe something like this: “We’re so glad you’re here Aunt Mimi; there aren’t very many people who understand how much help we need. We have organized a list of friends who have offered to help with errands and chores. They signed up for specific days and times. They’ve been wonderful. Finding the time to make regular meals and do dishes has been impossible. We desperately need your help with meals and dishes for the next few days. You must be tired from traveling. We were thinking of picking something up at the deli for tonight. Tomorrow, I was hoping you’d make some of that great stew you made last time I saw you.”

What if the Problem is your Partner?

Sometimes we find that our biggest challenges are closest to home. We’ve had several posts on the difficulties related to becoming a new parent. When you’re lost in the haze of those first few weeks, it is easy to think that you are the only one who is tired and frustrated. Keeping two things in mind can help you through this tough time. First, no matter how much others love us, they can’t read our minds. Don’t get mad if your partner doesn’t do the dishes because you thought he or she should know you wanted them done. Second, your partner is going through the same adjustments and challenges that you are. Taking care of a baby can be overwhelming emotionally and physically. Under extreme stress, people naturally want to “feel normal again” and get back to familiar routines. So, for example, if you made breakfast every day before the baby came, don’t be surprised if your partner sits down at the table and waits for you to start the coffee, especially after a long stressful night. As frustrating as that may be, don’t get mad. Sit down yourself and talk about how you can trade off making breakfast. Even better, wake Aunt Mimi and ask her to make her famous biscuits.

Don’t forget to ask your partner (out loud) for the kind of help you need. Be open to your partner’s feelings and seek ways to get things done together, recruit others, or let things go. Ideally, you should have a plan in place before your baby is born but it’s never too late to get one started.

Next time: Coping with the Kind of Help that You're Better Off Without

*Note: Don’t get excited; this book does not exist.


  1. This is really good advice I'm keeping this post for the record books!

  2. Disagree with a lot of this and think some of it is just silly! Husbands are going through a lot of adjustments, fair enough, but they haven't just given birth and in many instances are not the ones breastfeeding. A better solution is for husband and wives to educate themselves, with husbands taking an active role in seeking out information, on what to expect after the arrival of a newborn. Some of the things that parents need help figuring out are complex, like time management. My husband, for instance, tried to stay awake with me at every breastfeeding, but then was exhausted trying to wake up, and had a harder time doing what would have been MORE helpful, which was waking up earlier than me and doing a nice morning shift so I could sleep between feedings. Divide and conquer isn't everyone's style, but it should at least be considered. But thankfully my husband was never so thick as to need me to tell him that dirty dishes needed to be done! Honestly, "advice" like this burns me up. It just tells yet another generation of women that it's perfectly okay for men not to get it, that the postnatal period is "just as hard" on men as it can be on women, and that somehow in addition to raising a baby, we have to tell our husband's how to do our part. My husband would be upset if I infantalized him like that!

  3. Hello - we realize that not all of our readers will agree with our posts and we appreciate the time you took to write. It was never our intent to convey that we thought either that men were thick or that it was okay for men not understand the challenges faced by postpartum moms. It is wonderful that you have such a supportive husband (so much so that he would be insulted if he thought you needed to ask for help) but given the popularity of these last 2 posts, it is apparent that not everyone shares your good fortune.

  4. I went through a 42 hour labor. VERY tough. Guess who was beside me the whole way through TWO LONG nights pushing pink tennis balls into my back whenever I contracted? My sweet husband. Sure MY body labored and pushed out a baby, but my husband did not get the hormone surges I got either. We were BOTH completely drained by the time we got to the end, and then we had a baby to take care of! We definitely needed help! I had NO problem asking for it, but there were times that help was not as helpful as it could have been. Once we got past that initial sleep deprivation, though, things got a LOT better and the same husband that pushed pink tennis balls into my back, cooked meals, brought me water, rocked the baby, changed diapers, and so on. We had a beautiful babymoon!

  5. Wow, what a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Special note to "Me Again": I shared your thoughtful comment with everyone here but it was too long to post. Now that I better understand your perspective, I think you've misinterpreted our view of things. We welcome you to contact us directly at if you would like to continue our discussion. Best wishes to you.

  7. My "Aunt Mimi" was my own mother. She lives in another city and came for a few days after our baby was born to help. She decided that what we needed most was complex meals, so all day she was cooking and do the dishes. When I told her she could just throw the dishes in the dishwasher and be useful in something else she answered she didn't know how to use it and kept washing them by hand. Moreover she treated my husband like a toddler, constantly making him snacks and taking over whatever he tried to do to help. She usually does the same for my father, who never helps at home. I was so sleep deprived that I couldn't even talk to her. I just waited until she left and then my husband and I managed to get through on our own. It turns out it would have been much better without my mother's help.