This week, whenever I have found a spare moment to myself, I have continued to read 'The First Forty Days' by Heng Ou, with Amely Greeven and Marisa Belgen. It is beautifully written and brimming with sensible and realistic advice for the expectant mother.
One of the passages that led me to reach for my yellow highligher (a habit from my career as a lawyer which is proving impossible to shake) concerns asking for help. It resonated with me because, as a first-time mum, I was really rather rubbish at asking for help. I felt like I should be doing everything myself. I felt like I should be able to do everything myself and want to do everything myself. If I could not do everything myself or did not want to do everything myself then this surely made me a failure. A bad mother.
Of course I now see that this was nonsense, but when you are in a fog of hormones and sleep-deprivation, your rational brain does not function particularly well. Prenatally, I knew my husband would be taking paternity leave after Emilia was born and did not think much beyond that. For those two weeks, we were running a pretty smooth operation. My responsibilities involved feeding the baby round the clock and having skin-to-skin contact with her, while his involved pretty much everything else: nappy changes; grocery shopping; cooking; five trips a day to Boots to buy forgotten baby 'essentials'; cooking; walking the dog and fielding visitors. His return to work hit me hard. I was ill-prepared. I had assumed that I could do everything that my husband had been doing on top of what I had been doing. I could not. I was too tired. I did not have enough hands. It would take me approximately an hour to get myself and Emilia ready to leave the house and, by the time we were ready, she would usually want to feed again. Mission aborted. There was also a heavy feeling of loneliness, because our little team lost had one of its key players for the majority of each day. Many visitors had already been to see us during the first two weeks, and many of those yet to visit wanted to come at weekends, not during the week. I had not appreciated how long the early days would feel.
Think, before your baby is born and the fog descends, about the sorts of things you may need help with after the birth. Think about which friends and family may be able to help with specific tasks, for example: cooking a meal to be heated up in the evening; walking the dog; taking the baby out in the pram for a walk; keeping you company for part of the day. If you have a partner, and your partner is taking parental leave, discuss what the split in responsibilities will be both during that period and once that period comes to an end. Be realistic. Recognise that what works for you may not be what works for Jennifer and Hugh from your NCT classes.
So how do you ask for help?
Not like this (which is an example that sprung to mind for no particular reason):
Me - I would have really loved some chocolate tonight, but I forgot to put it on the Ocado. Husband - OK. Me (a few minutes later) - I think I will go to the shops to get some chocolate. Husband - OK. Me - I had better get my shoes on then. Husband - OK. Me (a few minutes later) - I am so tired. I just don't have the energy. Husband - Are you trying to ask me to go to the shops and get some chocolate for you? Me - If you wouldn't mind...
The best way to ask for help is directly, politely and kindly. My (totally fictitious) example (could have) led to a) an unnecessary delay in me obtaining chocolate and b) my husband saying something along the lines of, 'I wish you would just ask me directly when you would like me to do something rather than engaging in this ridiculous pantomime.' Asking for help is a skill and, like any other skill, it will only improve with practice. 'Start in the third trimester, and you'll be a well-oiled help-asking machine by the time baby gets here', writes Heng Ou. I could not agree more, particularly if you know that asking for help will make you take you out of your comfort zone. You will probably be surprised to find how many people want to help, but were just waiting for you to ask so as not to be overbearing. Keep in mind, also, that you may not always need to initiate the asking. People - whether through politeness or a genuine desire to be helpful - are generally good at volunteering. Here is a classic, oft-repeated scenario from the first few months following the birth of Emilia:-
Visitor - Can I bring you lunch tomorrow when I come to visit? Me - No, no, don't worry. I can pop to the supermarket. Visitor - Are you sure? Haven't you got your hands full? Me - No, it's fine. It's the least I can do.
Of course I would have secretly loved it if my visitors had brought me lunch. The gesture of someone taking care of me when I was vulnerable and weak and had so many wakeful hours in a day but seemingly no time. The luxury of not having to make a decision about what to eat when my brain was constantly in decision-making mode trying to interpret my new baby's cries and her needs. So as well as practising asking for help, try to practise accepting sensible offers of help whenever they are made, rather than batting them off.
After all, if the visitor was only offering help to be polite, then it was not very polite.