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Mother's Helper

Ann Marie White and her husband, David Mowry, prepared diligently for the arrival of their first child. They transformed a bedroom of their Ossining, New York, house into a nursery, laundered dozens of brand-new undershirts, and secured the grandparents-to-be to pitch in after the baby was born. The plan: White's parents would drive down from Rochester, New York, to help out for a week. Mowry's mom would fly in from Oklahoma and take over after they left. Mowry had arranged to take two weeks off from his job as a lawyer in New York City. Every detail, it seemed, was in place for a stress-free delivery.

The grandparents' arrival certainly made the transition from hospital to home easier (especially after White went into labor a week early, the evening of Christmas Day). But by the end of January, Mowry was back in the office, working long hours. All the in-laws had gone home, and the pediatrician had warned White against taking Alexander outside in the cold, or exposing him to other children to ward off respiratory syncytial virus, a potentially serious lung infection. She was housebound for several weeks. "I loved taking care of Alexander, but I felt isolated and helpless," she admits. "I didn't want to bother anyone else with questions about the baby, or if I needed supplies, or even just to talk. I wanted to be self-sufficient."

If you're equally reluctant to ask for help, you're not alone, says Ann Grauer, the Milwaukee-based president of DONA International, the world's largest doula organization. "Women place such a premium on being independent, but there is nothing wrong with being dependent after having a child," she says. In fact, research shows that feelings of helplessness can contribute to postpartum depression -- so if you find it hard to accept aid, you've set yourself up to be unhappy, says Grauer.

The notion of self-sufficiency is relatively new. For centuries, childbirth and childcare were a community effort. Experienced moms attended a delivery and shared their parenting secrets. While you may not want a gaggle of women comparing notes in your hospital room, even the most independent mom needs plenty of support, and can get it if she follows these steps:

Figure out who can -- and can't -- help you
Before the birth, take stock of your friends and decide who can take on which tasks. But consider that the people you most want to be with you might not be the best equipped to handle the heavy lifting you'll need.

Marda Todd of Pacific Palisades, California, knew she was risking some hurt feelings when she asked her mother-in-law, not her mother, to help out after her daughter, Haley, was born. "It was just a practical decision," she says. "My mother-in-law is in much better shape. Keeping up the house was really exhausting." Todd kept her mom involved by asking her to attend the delivery.

Of course, your partner will (and should!) shoulder a number of the household responsibilities, but Ann Grauer cautions against overburdening him. New fathers are trying to adjust to their new role -- and yours. "They have needs of their own," she says.

So you'll want to establish a support network outside the family and make the most of your existing social outlets. After her second child, Matthew, was born, Jennifer Sims was overwhelmed by the aid offered by members of her church. "It felt like a huge extended family," says the Edmond, Oklahoma, mom.

Figure out what you can -- and can't -- do

You'll make your life much easier if you plan out the two months after the delivery as ardently as you do the actual birth. "We had help those first two weeks," says Ann Marie White, "but everything after that we weren't prepared for at all."

Between the new responsibilities you'll have (2 a.m. feedings) and the old standbys (walking the dog), it'll help to separate the must-do's from the maybe-laters. Create a list of essential needs -- eating, sleeping, caring for the baby -- as well as a list of lesser concerns, such as housekeeping and practically everything else.

Then talk honestly with your partner about which chores you can handle and which you'll have to hand off. Know that you may be too tired at first to do some of the most basic tasks, like hauling a basket of laundry.

And before the baby's even born:

* Cook and freeze individual meals.

* Practice assembling all your new baby contraptions so you don't have to decode those portacrib, directions while in a state of advanced sleep deprivation.

* Establish a bond with neighbors so you feel comfortable calling on them in a pinch.

Speak up about what you want...
If you feel guilty about asking for help, follow that old Nike slogan: Just do it. Folks might be thrilled to be asked, says Grauer. "Say a coworker calls and says, 'I wanted to bring over a present for the baby -- is there anything you need?' We usually reflexively answer, 'Oh, no, everything's fine, thank you.' Stop doing that. Say, 'Would you mind bringing a gallon of milk?' People don't feel inconvenienced. They feel like they did something for you at a very special time."
In fact, for exhausted new parents, the shortest visits can be the biggest hits. A week after her son Quinn was born, "a colleague dropped off chicken salad and a bottle of wine, oohed and ahhed over the baby for fifteen minutes, and left," says Helen Olsson of Boulder, Colorado. "It was a revelation to me."

...And what you don't want

Don't feel obligated to entertain. For every random act of kindness, there's someone who drops by unannounced and then offers to "help" by holding the baby while you do the dishes. Tell friends that they shouldn't expect much from you for several weeks. And if guests outstay their welcome, be honest. "If I was tired and people were over, I'd say, 'I'm going to bed,'" says Todd.

If you receive well-intentioned offers you don't want to accept, just smile and say, "Thanks." Olsson recalls an elderly couple in the neighborhood who offered to watch Quinn. "It was sweet, but I didn't know them very well. I said, 'Sure, I'll call you.'" She never did.

Don't try to do it all
The first month after childbirth should be about bonding with this new person in your life. It's an illuminating, amazing time. It's also all-consuming. When there's barely a moment for sleep and showers, dishes in the sink and dust bunnies under the sofa should not take priority. But that's easier said than done when you're used to feeling in control 24/7 -- and feeling bad when you're not.

Let it go, says Helen Olsson. She cops to an obsession with order: "I'm a little bit picky about the house being neat and the beds being made." But after having son Quinn, she found her perfectionist streak got her into trouble. "When people wanted to come over and visit the baby," she says, "there was pressure to entertain and tidy up." On top of that, Quinn was jaundiced and dehydrated because Olsson's milk supply seemed to be drying up. "Breastfeeding was kind of scary, and he wasn't eating well," she adds.

Olsson hired a lactation consultant -- "one of the best things I did" -- and during their first meeting, her pent-up stress came pouring out. "I burst into tears," she says. The consultant's prescription: that she get into bed with the baby for three days and nurse on demand to kick-start the milk supply. Official orders given, Olsson finally felt she could relax, and with her husband and her mom holding down the fort, she and Quinn got in sync. "Breastfeeding forced me not to worry about the dust bunnies as much, to put my feet up, and to just connect with the baby."

Talk often with other moms

Freshly laundered undershirts are meaningless if your state of mind is a mess. No one knows what you're going through like other new moms, so seek them out. The telephone proved a lifeline for Ann Marie White when she felt isolated. "Friends and family would call and ask me how Alexander was," she says -- and she was touched when "they weren't just asking out of politeness. When people opened the door to that conversation, I really appreciated it."

Online bulletin boards let you confab about sore nipples in the comfort of your own home (see "Good Sources for Help", below). But nothing can replace human contact, as Jennifer Sims found out. Her best friend, Jane, also had a 2-year-old daughter and a newborn son. "Even if it wasn't anything traumatic, it was nice to have someone to talk to who was going through the same thing," says Sims. If you're the first (or last) mother in your circle, new mom groups can be found anywhere from your hospital to your local gym.

Think of becoming a mom as joining a very big, very special club. It's up to you to learn from, and then share, its members' accumulated wisdom. After a friend gave birth, Olsson made the new parents a pan of lasagna, dropped it off -- and went home.