I used to write gift guides. I’d write them for magazines, or websites – gift guides for the smelly co-ed, gift guides for the Ohio stockbroker cousin you see once annually, gift guides for the receptionist that, when cornered at the office Christmas party, admits that she really and truly wants to be an artist instead.
Still, my favorite gift guide to write has always been a gift guide for the new mom. I don’t know, it just seems to me that there is a lot of really cute baby stuff out there, and mostly items for pampering oneself, and I’ve always thought if anyone needed a good pampering, surely it was a new mom? Also, curating gift guides is a lot like shopping for yourself without spending money, so it has been both therapeutic and financially cooperative. I’d scour the web for the best stretch mark cream and would stumble upon a tangerine and eucalyptus combination that sounded so intoxicating I’d nearly search for my wallet until I’d think, oh, I’ll just gift guide this instead. Clean break.
But then I became the new mom to whom I was writing for and it occurred to me that I know nothing of what a new mom actually wants, because to know what a new mom wants, you have to know what it’s like to be irrationally sleep deprived at 3am, smelling of milk and despair and in want of nothing more than quiet, and emotional stability, and perhaps a really hot shower. And although it pains me to admit, truly, those $40 baby shoes simply weren’t going to make the cut in such dire circumstances.
And so, my new gift guide is simply this: to gift a new mother the freedom to choose, and to wear proudly, her new identity.
Her new identity, her new role in the great relationship hierarchy, is a mother. This is no small thing. A mother is a keeper of dens, of secrets, of wet wipes. Her branch, once bare and naked, has now grown heavy with the gravity of responsibility – of sprouting a new leaf that will bud and grow and bend and twist. A branch that will never break away completely, but will turn larger and longer – winding toward the sun – to eventually reach for another, the family tree bearing a new weight forever and ever and on and on.
Elizabeth Stone calls this transition – this choice to have a child – “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I don’t know that there’s a stretch mark cream to handle that sort of breadth; to smooth over that deep of a transition. Perhaps that’s why labor is so messy, hard, grueling – to allow the pieces of a mother to fall apart so she can rebuild them into something new, Humpty Dumpty style. Something with enough space and cracks to fit a new leaf, a budding branch, a growing soul.
Gifting a new mother the freedom to let herself become new, and still loved, is a tremendous offering. It is to say, simply, go on and speak this language you’re learning. Speak it, at any moment, this new dialect of babies and Ferber methods and pureed carrots. Question aloud, to binky or not to binky? I will do my best to follow along even if I haven’t yet learned, or cannot remember.
This kind of gift is packaged a lot of ways, but I received it in a way I remember often, and it was simply in the form of a girlfriend’s phone call of this sort:
Let yourself change. Make room for new skills and leave the old ones on the shelf for a bit. (They’ll come back, I promise.) For now, be your distracted, sleepy, edgy, tired, anxious self. You have nothing to prove. Don’t waste your energy clinging to the expectation that you need to be the same woman you were before, because you are not. You are a changed woman. You have been changed. And I can’t wait to get to know the new version of you, even if there’s mashed something in your hair and you cannot finish a sentence. Now relax, I’m coming over with take-out at 6. (Don’t you dare clean the kitchen.)
If you say this, or write this, to a new mother, she will cry. And she will remember. And she will think of it the next time she feels behind on her inbox, or feels guilty for not attending her nephew’s last soccer game, or she feels lazy for heating up a frozen pizza for dinner, again.
You will have set her free in those moments, and so, she will already know how to release herself. She will have learned to walk around a bit, cageless, because you will have taught her.
And then she will fly.
[Image Credit: Woodnote Photography]