There is no one on Earth who doesn’t know a mother, isn’t that a crazy thought?
Maybe you’re a mother, married to a mother, friends with a mother, and then of course there are our own mothers who are obviously very mother-y indeed.
At a time when it can feel like nothing short of major life-disrupting action matters anymore, here are some small everyday things you can do to support the mothers in your life. Speaking as a mother, we need all the help we can get.
1. Hold doors for mothers carrying babies and little kids.
This is as simple as it gets. It does not get simpler than this. The molecule? Not as simple as this thing. An amoeba? Complex in comparison.
If you’re not a mom it’s impossible to know what it’s like to have had little sleep, feed a baby (perhaps with your boobs), throw a coffee in your face, put tiny clothes on a small human, gather a bunch of necessary junk in a bag, head out the door, realize previously mentioned baby has just pooped itself because that’s what babies do in order to advance their relentless exhaustion-based agenda, start all over again, get everything including the agenda-driven baby in the car, hope that said baby does not lose it’s ever-loving mind on the drive, finally arrive at a coffee place just to treat yourself this one time because you have to get out of the house before you lose your own ever-loving mind, get everything you own and care about out of the car, lug the surprisingly heavy car seat on your arm (or hold a baby in one arm and a toddler’s hand with your other hand and why aren’t we born with three hands?) and then watch as 47 able-bodied people refuse to lift a finger to help you in any reasonable way.
No, the world does not owe us. Oooooh wait, the world actually does owe us since mothers are how the human race literally continues. OPEN THE DOOR, WOULD YOU PLEASE. It really does make a difference! I’ve had doors close on my foot, fingers, elbows and half my body while trying to Indiana Jones my way through an open door with my kids. This is easy. Please do it.
2. Help a mom on a plane, help a mom on a train.
Unfortunately, from quite early on, mothers get the message they should be able to handle absolutely everything on their own without complaining. So when moms travel solo? They expect nothing but grief. Glares for having had the audacity to carry a human in baby form on a plane, glares for trailing multiple kids wherever they go (what … else … are they … supposed to do with them?), glares for nursing, glares for existing. The tiniest kind gesture goes a long way. Instead of wondering where your goodie bag is for tolerating children—and don’t you dare expect one—just be a decent human being.
Even though 98% of moms will say “no thank you” and they’ve got it covered, offer to carry a car seat, a bag, their coffee, their kid. Offer to put their carryon in the overhead or grab them a drink from the dining car. A well-timed game of peek-a-boo with a fussy toddler is an easy gift to give and better than anything money could buy.
3. Returning from maternity leave is like the first day at a new school. Show her you get it.
You go off to have a baby, your workplace (if they’re nice) sends you some pretty flowers and maybe a baby gift. Maybe they even give you a not-awful amount of time off for leave. So far, so good. But then you return to work and it’s like some people forgot why you were even gone. They expect you to jump right back in as though nothing has changed (only your whole life, but okay fine.) Your clothes don’t fit right, you barely remember how you did your job before, and you don’t understand how to use the phone without another human being fused to your side (or front.) In lots of ways, it’s like you’re starting from scratch.
When I returned to work after having my first child, I was a mess. I was tired, emotional, hormonal, worried. I was also thrilled, nervous, and excited to reenter the world of people who shower and brush their teeth on a semi-regular basis. It was a big day. And on my desk on that big day was a bouquet of flowers with a little card that said, “Welcome back” signed by a coworker. This co-worker didn’t work in HR, she wasn’t my boss, we weren’t even particularly close, but she had a one-year-old daughter at home. She had walked many a mile in my slippers. She knew exactly how I was feeling. It didn’t matter that we weren’t best buddies and it certainly wasn’t her job to do anything about my return. And that’s why her gesture meant so much.
I took it upon myself to pay it forward. I would find out when new moms were returning to work and I’d make sure their office was cleaned up, that whoever was squatting there would be moving along, and that there were always, always flowers on her desk on her first day. It made me feel good. It will make you feel good. Don’t wait for your workplace to do this. It doesn’t need to be a policy. It can just be you, or a few co-workers, or a department. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. It’s just a way to say, “This might be hard (or exciting or great or messy) but I/we get it. It’ll be okay. We’re happy you’re back.”
Every once in awhile I come across that card that was tucked into my flowers on that day, now almost 15 years ago. I’ve never found a good enough reason to get rid of it. I’m sure I never will.
4. Moms feeding their babies is not an open invitation for advice.
Seems a bit duh, doesn’t it? But it’s pretty amazing how much mothers go through — physically, emotionally, mentally — just trying to keep their babies and little kids fed. The last thing they need is a round from the You Should / You Shouldn’t chorus. You should cover up, you shouldn’t use formula, you should nurse more, you shouldn’t nurse here at all and on and on and KABOOM my head just popped off.
Both sides are equally guilty of shaming moms and their choices. For every busy body who tells a nursing mom to cover up because they’re offended, there’s another busy body in the formula aisle shaming a complete stranger for what’s in her cart (I know, because that last one? It happened to a friend of mine.)
What I’ve taken away from my time on the breastfeeding battlefront are the words-as-lifesaver of my lactation consultant, Sally. My nipples were cracked and bleeding, the mere approach of my daughter’s mouth made me cringe in the deepest parts of my soul. I just plain didn’t like her because she was causing me so much pain. I was going down, big time. I felt guilty about feeding her formula, I felt guilty about failing for the second time with this whole breastfeeding thing, I felt guilty about letting her down, and I felt guilty about letting myself down. That’s when Sally said, “You just need to feed her, however it needs to happen. Because if you go down, the whole ship goes down with you.”
I supplemented with formula, I pumped, I took the weight of the world off my shoulders, and that kid went on to nurse until she was almost a year and a half. But I needed someone to give me permission to do all that. I needed someone to get me away from the tree I was banging my head against and show me the whole forest instead.
If you see a mom feeding her baby, feel free to keep your mouth shut unless 1) she asked you for advice and 2) you are sharing words of support. Reminder: No one ever died from not sharing their opinions. And if you’re in a position to lend an office with a locked door or schedule a meeting differently to help accommodate a pumping mom, good on you.
Be a voice of support and show you trust mothers to feed their babies, however that needs to happen. Breastmilk, formula, a combination. Tops off, tops on, under a blanket, in the backseat of a car, in your office, in a coffee shop, on a rocketship for all I care. It’s simple: make the world a friendlier place for the nourishment of very young children. Because judgment never nourished anyone.
Remember that every day is a new day to help a mom feel supported and appreciated.
Lend a hand, give a compliment, open a door, give a thumbs up, play peek-a-boo, get her a coffee, tell her how awesome her kids are. You have the power to do something so day-turn-around-ing you might actually forget how easy squeezy it was to do in the first place.
Kimberly Harrington is a writer, mother and wife, and the author of “Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words.” She’s also a contributor to McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Cut.