There are a lot of lists out there of things not to say to specific types of parents. But there are quite a few things that people commonly say that you should never say to any parent. Because we’re all in the same boat here.
I should give a disclaimer: this isn’t directed toward anyone I know. In fact, most of these things have not been said to me at all. At least not with my new baby. This post was inspired by something someone I don’t know said to a friend who I barely know. So if you’re reading this and you actually know me, you’re off the hook.
Even if you’ve said these things to me. Which you may have. But it’s okay. I still like you.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s my list of the top ten things you shouldn’t say to new parents. And, because I like to be positive, I’ll include what you ought to say instead.
1. “How’s MY baby?” Grandparents are usually the culprits with this one. Listen, grandparents. It’s awesome that you feel this close, sweet bond with your grandchild. And it’s natural that you should feel some possessiveness. Yes, it’s your grandchild. But it’s not your baby. Your baby is the parent. You know, the grown-up holding the baby. The one with spit-up all down her shirt and pee in her hair. Yeah. That one.
My mother used to do this all the time my daughter. She got better about it. Eventually she got to where she would say, “How’s my baby?” in a sing-song voice clearly intended for a baby, while looking at the baby, and then she would quickly correct herself. “I mean you!” she would say, shifting her gaze to me. “You’re my baby! How are you?” Nice try, mom. I appreciate the effort though.
But apparently I’ve gotten her pretty well trained, because she has not once called Teddy “her baby.” Which is good. Because this baby is mine. All mine.
What to say instead: How is the baby? Or better yet, How are you? Because that’s easier to answer. I may not know how the baby is. He’s a mystery. I may not know how I am either, but I can make a better guess.
2. “Is he a good baby?” Strangers often ask this. It takes great self-control on my part to not slap them in the face. Because what they really mean by the question is, “Does he sleep well?” or “Is he quiet all the time?” Neither of which actually has anything to do with goodness. Although in our culture apparently those traits are synonymous with goodness, at least until you’re an adult, at which point you’re expected to speak up and have opinions and skip sleep so you can work more. Don’t get me started.
This question is doubly frustrating when you have had a baby who doesn’t sleep and isn’t quiet. And triply so when you have one who is “good” by this standard and another who’s not. I mean, is my son better than my daughter because he sleeps more? Heck no. It’s wrong to even imply it. So stop asking me this.
I usually reply, “Of course!–all babies are good.” Which is better than ranting about the unfairness of our cultural expectations to a stranger, I guess.
What to say instead: Are you getting any sleep? Or How are you doing? Again, it’s nicer to ask about the parent. A new mom may have no idea how she’s doing. But it’s less loaded than the good baby question.
3. “Let me hold him so you can get some cleaning done.” Do I even need to say why this is wrong? Especially when you’re first meeting the baby in the early postpartum stage? Here’s a mom with a brand-new baby–she’s only just met him too, okay? She wants to hold him and smell him and get to know him. Oh, and she’s exhausted because she just, you know, gave birth. She doesn’t even need to be standing up, much less doing housework.
None of my friends or family have ever said anything like this to me. If they had, they would probably not be invited to my house ever again. But I hear from my friends that their relatives have said this to them. All the time. If you are a relative of my friend and you have said this to her when she had a new baby, then shame on you. Call that mom up right now and apologize. Then say this:
What to say instead: Can I fold this laundry for you? Better yet, Would you like me to fold this laundry or sweep the floor? Oh, and bring dinner. If you are visiting a new mom, bring dinner.
(By the way, thanks to all my friends who brought me dinner after Teddy was born. I am not sending you a thank-you card. I hope you don’t mind. New moms should not be expected to send thank-you cards. But I am grateful. They were all delicious.)
4. “Are you still [anything]?!” You can fill in the blank here. Still breastfeeding, still bottle-feeding, still cosleeping, still sleep training, still babywearing, still using a sippy cup, still potty learning. Whatever. Anytime you imply that the child should be done with that by now, you’re out of line. Because you’re not the parent. So it’s none of your business. Period.
What to say instead: How is [whatever] going? It’s okay to ask about controversial topics, as long as you ask without judgment. You can ask me how tandem nursing my four year old and my four month old is going. You can ask how sleep is going. You can ask how EC is going. As long as you’re not implying that the parent is doing it wrong, you can ask about just about anything. And chances are that if you’re willing to listen without judgment, the parent will be happy to talk–and vent–and even ask advice–about just about anything. Honest conversations like that is how real friendships are made. And every parent needs someone they can be honest with.
5. “When are you going to [anything]?” Again, fill in the blank. Sleep train him, wean him, leave him with a sitter, leave him with a sitter overnight, come out and party with your friends who don’t have kids. The answer? I don’t know. I’ll do it when I feel like it. I’ll let you know if you’re invited.
What to say instead: What new tricks is he doing? Every parent loves to talk about this, right? My baby can roll over! This is the most amazing thing ever. I could talk all day about this. Just don’t ask unless you’re prepared for a long conversation.
6. “He wants his [aunt, grandma, friend, etc.].” Here’s a newsflash. If you’re holding him and he’s crying, then he doesn’t want you. And you know what? That’s okay. He’s not supposed to want you. He’s supposed to possibly be willing to tolerate you for brief periods before he wants to go back to his Primary Caregiver, Sustainer, Provider of Life, and Possessor-of-All-That-is-Comforting-and-Wonderful. That’s me. Hand the baby back, and step away slowly.
What to say instead: Do you want him back? Sometimes the Possessor-of-All-That-is-Comforting-and-Wonderful wants a little break. If he’s crying but I’m not reaching for him, you can ask if I want him back. I may want to finish peeing first. Which is allowed. In which case you can do your best to comfort him for three seconds while I wipe. Then I will take him back and (hopefully) make him happy again.
7. “He’s so small/big/fat/skinny/dark/pale/etc.” I admit–I say these things all the time. Especially the fat one. Fat babies are just so darn cute. It’s almost impossible not to comment.
But–be careful. You just never know if the mom is sensitive about a particular trait. Some parents will get upset if you comment on the adorable smallness of a preemie, or a baby who isn’t gaining weight as fast as the doctor would like. Some parents worry about how fat their babies are. Even a comment something as innocent as the roundness of a newborn’s head might upset a mom who had an unwanted c-section.
What to say instead: He’s so beautiful. Or handsome. But I think my boy is beautiful. Precious, adorable, and healthy are usually safe ways to admire a baby, too. Which is what you really want to do, right? Because the truth is that all babies are good and beautiful.
8. “Are you going to do THAT here?” You hear this mostly about breastfeeding, but it could apply to a lot of things. Changing diapers, or pottying a baby. Changing his clothes. Putting him to sleep. Look, there are inappropriate places to do some of these things. But chances are that if a mom is trying to do it “here,” the she has already considered the options and decided this is the best place to do it. I have walked around crowded parties trying to put my daughter to sleep in the sling. People would get annoyed with me because she was fussy (not crying loudly, but fussing), and why wouldn’t I just take her in a dark room and put her to sleep there? But I knew that she wasn’t going to go to sleep in a dark room, and no matter what I did she was going to be fussy, so why should I spend the whole party sitting alone in a dark room with an unhappy baby? At least this way one of us was happy. If you see a parent doing something in a place that strikes you as inappropriate, generally the best thing to do is assume they have good reason to be doing it there.
What to say instead: Can I get you anything? The parent may not know that there is a dark room where they could sit with the baby. If that’s the case, then of course you can offer. Just be careful not to imply that they’re doing something wrong.
Of course, if a mom is changing a poopy diaper on your brand-new leather couch, you have every right to ask her not to. It’s your house. But in a public place, it’s not your call. Leave her be. She’s doing the best she can.
9. “His tummy hurts/he’s tired/he’s hungry.” You know what? I know what my baby needs. And if I don’t know what my baby needs–which is often the case–then you sure as heck don’t know. Stop guessing and let me figure it out.
What to say instead: What does he need? At least let me be the one to guess. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.
10. “How do you do it?” I don’t get this much. Yet. But it’s pretty common for parents of twins or parents with a lot of kids. And it’s not really an offensive question in itself–I’d be happy if someone asked me, actually. The only trouble with asking this is that most of the time, the answer is I don’t know. How do I make dinner with one hand while wearing and breastfeeding the baby, talking on the phone on the other hand, and fending off the preschooler with my foot? I have absolutely no idea.
What to say instead: Do you want a hand with that? The answer to that is always easy. Yes.