Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Ministry of Presence

I felt a little bit guilty as I went to visit a newly postpartum friend the other day. You would think, given my love for discussing baby gear and the fact that (according to Frank) I've read and practically memorized every baby book in our library system, that I would have the perfect new-mom gift picked out and ready to go for these occasions—but I hadn't known what to get, so instead I was going to meet her baby empty-handed.

I arrived to hold her precious two-week-old and she admitted it felt frustrating to be cooped up constantly inside because of the cold weather. We began talking—starting, as I always ask a new mom, with "Would you be willing to share your birth story?" Like every other new mom I know, she was eager to spill all the details to someone who was interested and genuinely cared. I love to hear birth stories—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've heard enough of them by now to know that most likely I will respond to at least one part of the story with "That's incredible. You are so brave. I'm so impressed with you" and to another part with "That must have been so hard."

I noticed that her baby's nails were kind of long and she admitted she had yet to cut them.

"It's so scary to cut their nails for the first time, isn't it?" I said.

She nodded vigorously.

"I made Frank do it the first time." I laughed. "Here, get the nail clippers. I'll help you."

So she got the itty-bitty nail clippers and I showed her how to hold each tiny finger in turn and pull down the fingertip to trim the nail, so that together we cut all of the baby's nails while he slept.

Next on the agenda was babywearing. I had recommended that she get a k'tan (my favorite of all the babywearing devices) but she had yet to try it out. We took it out of the packaging and I helped her secure her baby in a nice newborn hold. Once he was safely in place and sleeping contentedly on her chest, she was elated.

"Wow—I have both hands! This is amazing! I can see why you love this so much!" She glowed with excitement and wore her baby for the rest of my visit.

Next she was curious how to get more sleep (very curious!) so I told her about the principles of safe co-sleeping (recommending this book) and shared how co-sleeping mothers get more sleep and how co-sleeping has worked well for our family. She asked about using NFP postpartum and I explained that while she would want to see a professional practitioner for her personal case, I have had perfect success using ecological breastfeeding (also called lactational amenorrhea) to delay fertility, and explained the standards she should follow to have the best chance of success with that (mostly, no pacifiers). Recently I mentioned to a single friend that I haven't had a cycle since before Frankie was born, and she was shocked and very concerned for me! I had to laugh as I explained that this is perfectly normal and, in my case, intentional. It's crazy how little many women know about the normal functioning of their bodies. Our bodies as women are incredibly powerful—it's amazing what they are capable of!

My friend asked when the baby would start sleeping a consistently long time at night and I thought about the previous week, when an excited-to-be-crawling Frankie had woken up every few hours trying to crawl.

"I'll be honest with you—I could give you an answer, but it would be B.S.," I told her. "I have no idea!" She laughed.

At that point she began to worry about how she would get to an event that evening, because her mom had borrowed the car with the only car seat base in it. I taught her the Number One thing I wish I had known as a new mom—that you can actually use your newborn car seat in any car, without a base, with just a regular seat belt (for most car seats). Seriously—check the side of the car seat for a sticker with an instructional picture. Is your mind blown? Well, mine was, when I found this out TWO MONTHS into Frankie's life, after torturing myself, Frank, my mom, and everyone else with convoluted car pick-ups and drop-offs because we thought we always had to use the base that was only installed in one car. Let's not discuss. Just, please, if you know a woman who is about to or just had a baby, show her the sticker on the side of the newborn car seat that tells how to use the seat in any car, without a base. I bet you she didn't notice it (none of my mom friends had) and it will be the best thing you ever say to her, pretty much. Life-altering. ANYWAY.

Becoming a mom for the first time is a transition unlike any other. Those first few weeks after the baby is born are the most vulnerable a woman can be, both physically and emotionally. While new moms do need people to cook meals and clean and hold the baby while they shower, I think most new moms—especially those becoming a mom for the first time—need someone to sit with them for a little while and say, "It sure is hard, isn't it? It's normal to cry a lot the first few weeks," and "You look beautiful, dear friend," and most of all, "I know how you feel. You're not alone"—and that, I think, is what God put me on this earth to do.

Becoming a mom is so hard, but it's also amazing—and one of my favorite things about it is the loyal bonds of sisterhood that are forged between us as we figure it out together.

Recently a friend asked me, "Tess, how do you know so many young moms?!" and I had to confess my secret: every time I meet a pregnant woman or new mom around my age, I go on a "search-and-befriend" mission where I pretty much barrage them with texts until we become real friends. You guys know that Frank and I do some public speaking, and that's his element—he loves to stand in front of a huge, crowded audience and give great advice that will hopefully change some lives. Meanwhile, I'm not a natural public speaker, and I feel sick to my stomach every time I have to speak, but this? Sitting on the couch holding a tiny newborn and talking a friend through one of the biggest transitions of her life? You guys, this is my element.

At last I got up to go, wrangling a cranky Frankie who was ready for his car-seat nap. I helped my friend take off the k'tan so she could nurse her baby, and said goodbye while she fed him on the couch.

Out in the car, after I buckled Frankie in, I was sitting in the front seat looking up directions home when I got a text from my friend saying that she felt like herself again after our few hours together.

I thought of the friends who rallied around me during my early months of motherhood. I remembered one friend who I called in tears when Frankie was a week old, begging her for breastfeeding advice. I remembered dear friends who brought meals and broke bread with us when I was still too weak to leave my house. I thought of all the pictures I have from last summer, of my girl friends and I laughing as we nursed our babies under giant nursing covers—back when we were raw and scared and inexperienced as mothers, but generously sharing with each other our time and advice, our patient listening, our encouragement and support—these gifts that are valuable beyond measure.

I thought of all these things and realized that in going to visit my friend the other day, I was passing on the compassion and solidarity that other mothers had extended to me. I am part of a chain of women, extending back as far as humanity, who choose to use our powerful gifts to strengthen the bonds between us. I've been blessed with the most incredible community of mom friends and I felt honored to share with her what they have shared with me.

As I drove away, I smiled as I realized that in fact, I had not gone to visit her empty-handed.


  1. This is a great post with great insight, Tess. I'm so glad you were able to pass on your mothering experience to this new mom.

  2. About the carseats - UGH!! I wish someone had told me, too - we didn't figure it out til we visited some friends when Kate was already 8 months old -- so much effort & energy wasted up until that point! :) But I agree with you wholeheartedly about the rest of the post - my favorite visits were other new moms coming to see me and share that yes, it's hard, but here are things you can do to make it easier. And I've loved doing the same to new moms now! It's such a worthwhile gift.

  3. I read your blog but had not yet commented til now. I am actually a non-Catholic reader, although I am a serious Christian--not sure if you get many non-Catholics! Somehow I ended up following all these Catholic mom blogs . . . I have a gajillion serious Catholic friends, and I'm sure we have friends in common. Anyway, I was really touched by this blog, because as a new mom (my son is turning 8 months in 2 days), I was desperate for the help of moms who'd already been through it, and that has been worth more than all the material gifts I could get. By the way, I am using LAM too and still haven't gotten my period. How many times a day do you nurse? I nurse 5 times a day and 1-2 times at night. Would love for him to sleep 12 hours at night, but wonder if that means I'll get my fertility back. And we bought two bases, which we knew wasn't necessary but we wanted to save a lot of time.

    1. Hi Meghan, thanks for your comment! You'd actually be surprised how many non-Catholic readers I get—probably 1/4 to 1/3 of my emails. :) It is so hard to resist all the Catholic mom blogs though... I love them and totally get sucked into the black hole of reading them for hours and hours!

      I haven't counted but I would guess I nurse him at least 6-7 times a day, plus 2-4 times at night. I nurse him in short intervals all day long and put him to sleep (for naps and bedtime) by nursing him, so it definitely adds up! I also wonder what effect it'll have when he starts sleeping through the night. Guess we'll have to wait and see. :)

    2. Ah ok, so your body really knows it's not time for another baby yet. God designed some amazing birth control!

  4. Such an awesome post. The other moms in your life are so lucky to have a friend like you. Makes me wish we could meet in real life. I feel like we would hit it off!

    1. Thanks, Emily! I feel like I'm lucky to have them too. :)

      I wish we could meet in real life too—how fun would that be?? You'll have to let me know if you're ever visiting Chicago!