While an honor, becoming a temporary member of a new-baby household can require the diplomatic intuition of a veteran United Nations negotiator — and that's before you factor in the post-pregnancy hormonal swings. Here are a few tips from nursery-week survivors on how to drive very excited, somewhat frazzled first-time parents toward success, not insanity.
"The key is not to impose your vision of 'good' and 'bad' parenting, but to be there helping with whatever needs to get done," says Grandparents.com president David Brinker, who became a father to daughter Alexandra in June. "When you do that — you'll become the hero. By the time my mother-in-law was ready to leave after spending 10 days helping us, I didn’t want her to go."
DO: Ask permission before offering advice.
Parenting doesn't come with a detailed instruction manual. The only training is on-the-job experience. A new mom is already reeling from huge life changes and demonic hormonal fluctuations. Measure your words and comments very carefully, knowing that your normally easygoing daughter or daughter-in-law may take the slightest arched eyebrow for a billboard that screams "Bad Mother."
DON'T: Wait to be asked.
If you're willing to stay over and help out, go ahead and offer. Be sure to place a caveat, though, that a "No, thank you" won't hurt your feelings. Be flexible on the timing, as well. Many new parents want a few days at home to adjust to their new addition before they welcome visitors, even those who are there to pitch in. Have a frank conversation with your child about what his or her expectations are for your visit. Do they want you to take the night shift? Cook meals? What kind of help do they most envision needing?
DO: Be prepared to take care of both new parents.
It's a natural instinct to think first of your own child, but remember that both new parents are embarking on this adventure together, and are likely to be equally tired, overwhelmed and in need of some TLC.
DO: Bring a thick skin.
There's limited room for sensitivities in a post-birth household, and the new mom gets first dibs on that territory. For Christina, a new mom of twins in Dunedin, Fla., her biggest stress came from dealing with tensions between her mom and her husband, such as who should stay overnight with her in the hospital. "Worrying about communication and feelings was taxing with hormones surging," says Christina.
DO: Jump right in.
No plans for dinner? Offer a menu, then grab the car keys and head to the grocery store. New parents are overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and emotionally drained. Any decision, even something as simple as what to have for dinner, suddenly feels monumental. Having someone take over daily decisions and chores is a big relief.
DON'T: Expect to be entertained.
No matter how helpful or thoughtful they are, houseguests still disrupt the household norm. A new mom is going to worry about your comfort and happiness as a guest in her home, no matter how much you tell her not to. "Keep in mind that new parents are pooped, even if they say they're fine," says Sandra, a Weston, Conn., mom of two. "Don't expect the new-baby visit to be a vacation. Bring a good book and be prepared to just hang out."
DO: Resist the urge to reorganize the spice rack.
While she deeply appreciated the help with meals, "my mother-in-law tended to reorganize where I put things in the kitchen, and that was frustrating. I had so little control over my life at that point and that seemed to make it worse," says Jennifer, a Shelbyville, Ky. mom of two.
DON'T: Do the parenting, but do support the parents.
While it may be tempting to take the baby reins, resist the urge. Instead, encourage the new parents to be the primary caregivers, says Sue Johnson, a grandmother of five and co-author of Grandloving: Making Memories With Your Grandchildren. "If you can show them that you have confidence in their abilities, I don't think there's any greater gift that you could give them."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.