The Kindest Ways People Showed Up For Us When We Had A New Baby

12 parents of all ages look back on the postpartum gestures they'll never forget.

by Lila Harron Battis
New Parents Issue 2024

There’s an old saying (of questionable validity) that you don’t know what love is until you have a baby. It’s too often used as a way to lord one’s hard-won parenting knowledge over the uninitiated. And while it’s true that when my daughter was born, I felt like I was drowning in my love for her, the full weight of this saying revealed itself only after we got home: You don’t know what love is until you’ve had a friend leave hot dinners on your porch for weeks. You don’t know what love is until your mom drops everything to stay for a month, cooking and cleaning and caring for your new family. You don’t know what love is until a stranger in the neighborhood sees you out with a newborn wrapped up against your chest, asks your address, and leaves a huge batch of homemade soup on your front stoop. You don’t know what love is until people emerge from the woodwork and go out of their way to soften your landing into parenthood.

A month after my daughter was born, my husband had to go out of town for the first time. I was terrified. A friend of mine left her own baby at home and drove two hours to my house, bearing snacks and drinks and the easy confidence of a mom with nearly a year of experience under her belt. She walked laps around my living room, rocking my daughter as she wailed, and I looked on in awe. And then she asked if she could clean my bathroom — my disgusting, neglected bathroom, with a month of unspeakable grime caked under the toilet rim and pale pink mildew ringing the sink drain. You don’t know what love is until your friend has driven four hours round trip just to pull on rubber gloves and scrub your toilet bowl.

Ahead, here are 12 more stories from the trenches of new parenthood, on the large and small ways we take care of one another.

Care Packages For The Big Kids

My daughter, our third child, was born with a rare genetic disorder, which we didn’t know until she was about 8 days old. She was in the NICU for about six weeks. So on top of normal postpartum stuff, I had a C-section for the first time, and I had to leave her in the hospital when I was discharged. It was just a perfect storm of emotions. We were living in Texas at the time, far away from our families. It was still Covid, so we were on our own. I would wake up, spend a day at the hospital, and come home. I was barely getting through the day. I definitely felt like I was neglecting my older two children.

The week before Easter, one of my best friends in Boston sent a kit for the kids to make Easter cookies. It was pre-made sugar cookies, icing, and decorations and stuff. It was just one of those little things that I normally would have done with them that I just didn’t have the bandwidth for. A lot of times when you have a baby, so much of it is about the baby. But recognizing that there were other people affected by everything that was going on, and our whole family unit — that meant a lot. Especially for me. It was nice to have something that was so simple, but they enjoyed it so much, and it was already all set, so I could actually sit down with them and just open it up and do it.

— Claire, 36, North Carolina, mom of three, ages 8, 6, and 3

Our Own Moms Mothering Us

The first few days postpartum were a little bit of a blur. My baby had jaundice, so I had to set the alarm for every three hours to feed him. It was many nights of broken sleep, and in daytime hours, I felt like a zombie. In the morning, my mom would come over, and I remember she would say, “Go take a shower. Go take a nap.” She would fold laundry for me — I would have dumped loads of laundry on the couch intending to fold it, but, you know, it just doesn’t fold itself. If there were bottles in the sink, she made sure that those were taken care of and that the sink was ready to go for the next round. It was such a weight off my shoulders. She respected boundaries, so she’d ask, “Do you have anything that needs to be dusted?” knowing full well that something needed to be dusted. She’d ask first, and not in a “this place is going to hell in a handbasket” way, but because she’d been there and done that. When somebody has a baby, you don’t have to send the biggest bouquet or the grandest gift — the gift of time is the most precious thing that you can give new parents.

— Carla, 48, Florida, mom to one 14-year-old

After the birth of my first kiddo, my mom came and basically lived with us. Our baby would have these terrifying choking episodes and stop breathing, so one of us would always stay awake to watch her, and my mom would take some night shifts so we could sleep. Then there was one night when I had some kind of allergic reaction to some med. My boobs were hurting and leaking, I was in those mesh underwear, and I was covered head to toe in a rash. My mom was taking care of my baby and I was supposed to be asleep, but I walked out, basically just in the underwear, covering my boobs at 2 in the morning, and I was like, “Mom, I don’t know what to do.” She covered me in some kind of medicine. She was there to take care of my baby, but she was also there to take care of me. There’s something visceral about just knowing that your mom is there.

— Joanna, 39, Oklahoma, mom of two, ages 4 and 2

I never imagined having kids without my mom around, but she passed away two years before my son was born. Her absence left an enormous hole in my life, and never more so when I was pregnant and then a mom. I missed a million things about her not being around as a grandma, some big, some small, like shopping for cute newborn clothes, or pulling out mementos from my own childhood — sentimental things that just hit different with your own mom.

Back in the ‘90s, I would always send my hand-me-downs to my aunt Wendy's daughter. We'd box my old dresses and sweaters up and go to the post office together, a fun little family tradition. When I was recently pregnant with daughter, I got a box in the mail from Wendy. It was full of baby clothes I'd worn thirty-plus years ago. Things that, for the most part, my mom had picked out. It felt like receiving a gift from my own mom, and the thoughtfulness of Wendy to keep those clothes all these years brought me to tears.

It wasn't until I was pregnant that I realized a sense of family continuity was lost with my mother —memories of her pregnancies, tales from my childhood from the perspective of a new mom. Getting gifts that she had picked out years before felt like getting a piece of my mom back, and I'll never forget it.

— Carey, 38, California, mom of two, ages almost-3 and one month

The Best Neighbors

When I was three days postpartum and had just gotten home from the hospital, my milk started coming in. My newborn wasn't latching at the time, so it was very painful. I was trying to relieve the engorgement through exclusively pumping, but my pump wasn’t doing the trick. After being awake all night, I texted my neighbor across the hall at 3 a.m. in desperation. She came over as soon as she woke up at 5:30 with her hospital-grade pump, a massager, and words of comfort. I was a mess, and she was so sweet and understanding. I will never forget that.

— Jacqui, 33, New York City, mom of one almost-2-year-old

When my younger son was born, my older boy was in preschool, and his bedtime coincided with the baby’s crankiest hours. My husband was often working late, and my neighbor across the street would come over. She would call through the screen door and say, “Do you need help?” And I would mostly say yes. She would come in, and take the baby, and sit in the rocking chair in the family room, and say, “Go, go do what you need to do.” And I would then get to spend one-on-one time with my 3-year-old who needed attention so he could go to bed calmly. I’m sure it was interrupting dinnertime for her and her husband, but she never hesitated. I don’t remember whether I asked her the first time; all I know is when I needed her, she was always there gladly. It was such a gift. It’s the gift of time, right? Somebody gave up their time to come and do exactly what I needed most at that given moment. I think we’re all kind of scared to reach out of our little circles. But my experience was when I asked for help, no matter who it was or where it was, somebody stepped up.

— Erika, 57, California, mom of two, ages 22 and 25

My 70-year-old neighbor would go on walks with me when my husband was out of town and my baby would just scream at me all day. After a month of having family and my husband with us, I was all of a sudden just by myself with a little infant. It was tough — he would just cry all day long, and I couldn’t put him down ever, my back hurt, and I was up every two hours at night. I was desperate for human interaction, so I’d text my neighbor to see if she wanted to go on a walk. I just remember the first time I walked into her house, I have the baby in the carrier, and as soon as she said hello, I immediately burst into tears. It was just the overwhelm. And she was like, “OK, are you OK? Are you ready to go?” She could tell I didn’t want to talk about it. It was such a nice distraction. I needed company, and I needed to feel like a person because this little baby was all consuming. She would acknowledge it was hard and then move on. I know some people may have wanted something else, but in that moment, that’s what I needed, was just to walk and chat with another person and not make a big deal that I had no control over my emotions.

— Mercedes, 30, Indiana, mom of a 1.5-year-old

The Kindness Of Near Strangers

Twenty years ago, I was living in Cobble Hill, in Brooklyn. There was this restaurant, the Boerum Hill Food Co. — it was a place I’d gone for years, before I even got pregnant. Once my daughter was born, I started to try to venture out, but it was just a lot harder than I thought it would be. And really lonely. One thing I’ve always loved about New York is you’re walking through the world and everybody’s having totally different experiences — but when my daughter was born, that made me feel so isolated. The first time I left the house alone, I walked around Brooklyn until I got tired and stopped at the Boerum Hill Food Co. I knew one of the waiters, Lynn, pretty well. When he brought my food, Lila started crying. I tried to hold her and eat, but couldn’t find a way to balance the baby and a sandwich. I felt so lost and lonely. Without a word, Lynn gently took Lila in his arms. He sat at the table and chatted with me while I ate. His simple gesture took away the loneliness. It was so full of love. I would never consider saying “Hey, do you mind holding her,” even though I knew him — but I felt close enough to him that when he took her out of my arms, I had no problem with it.

— Leigh, 52, Argentina, mom of two, ages 20 and 10

We went into our second pregnancy thinking “we’ve got this in the bag.” And then we found out we were having twins, and everything from that moment on was panic. When you have twins, your dignity goes out the window. Your hesitancy to ask for help? Gone. We asked everyone and anyone for help. We had this rotation of people — my mother, my stepdad, my stepmom, my sisters. They came in, and everyone took a week, because that was what we needed. There was no paternity leave, so I used vacation, and I could take one week and then I had to go back to the office. I think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to being in the military. We had an actual spreadsheet. You don’t really get to reflect on it in the moment, those first three months are such a blur, but it was really touching. People would fly themselves out to come help us. And strangers — people were just shockingly kind. We had a 3-year-old and two newborns, so people saw us coming. There was one time in particular, it was buy-one-get-one-free day at the grocery store. This lady in the checkout line turned around and handed me a loaf of bread. She said, “You clearly need this more than I do.” And I mean, it’s a loaf of bread, but at the same time, we were in no position to reject it. Your pride wants you to, but you just can’t.

— Eden, 48, Georgia, dad of three, ages 12, 12, and 15

I still remember her name. I still remember what my daughter had on when she came over. It was the first or second week after my daughter was born, and my husband was back at work. His colleague’s wife stopped by during the day. She might have brought an outfit for my daughter. We weren’t great friends — we saw her at parties — but she was funny and easy to talk to. She somehow saw what I might be going through, which was, you know, being a 41-year-old woman who didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t hug me or hold my hand or do anything like that. She just came and sat on the couch and talked, and she made me feel so much better and relaxed. I think she was a social worker, so I’m pretty sure she knew how to check on my anxiety level. She had three or four kids, and I don’t remember what we talked about, all I remember is how much better I felt after she left. I felt like I could do it.

— Bridget, 77, Maine, mom of one, age 35

Something Just For You

In the early days, everybody was coming over and visiting, which was super sweet, but also even more exhausting, because really what you need in those early days is just some quiet time to bond and rest. Everybody was so generous, and sweet, and excited, and bringing gifts for the baby, or food, which was lovely. But one neighbor came over probably at least a week after he was born, and she said, “I remember what it was like when I had mine, and this is for you.” It was a gift certificate for a pedicure — at that point my life, I’d never had a pedicure. She said, “Everybody brings gifts for the baby and does nice things for the baby, or brings a meal, which is wonderful and helpful, but this is for you. You need a minute to be pampered and have some time for yourself.” It was the greatest. I went in; I had my pedicure. It was a wonderful experience. It was relaxing. And I thought, why would you do anything else for a friend when they have a baby, except give something to them for a moment for themselves?

— Laura, 55, Oregon, mom of three, ages 28, 25, and 21

Like a minute after my baby was born, my old roommate messages me, and she’s like, “Send me your address.” Two days later, a box shows up at my door just filled with things that were only for my postpartum experience — disposable underwear, the ice packs for your downstairs region, Dermoplast spray, things for lactation care to heal your boobs. It made me feel so seen, because my body was so broken.

After I became a mom, I looked around at all my friends who had had kids before me, and I was like, “Oh, I did not know how to talk to you. I have never once spoken to you appropriately about this experience.” You feel like you’ve been initiated into this very strange but wonderful club. That box from my friend was an acknowledgment of “I know you’re having a six-week-long period, and there are stitches and Band-Aids, and you’re also raising a newborn, and I know the baby’s taken care of, but are you taken care of?” She also included a card that was like “You’ve got this; every choice you’re making is the right choice; don’t listen to the Internet more than 30% of the time,” which is very useful advice. I was just so grateful for someone to be like “Hi, I see you. I see all of it. I’ve felt all of it. Those feelings in your body are real.”

— Ashley, 38, New York City, mom of one, age 1

Lila Harron Battis is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Maine.