The Etiquette of New Parenthood

By Leigh Balber, Child Magazine – 02/01/2003 – 12:00am


There’s something about a new baby that seems to cause normally polite people to toss their good manners out the window. Maybe that’s why my husband and I had 30 guests camped out at our apartment the first day we brought our daughter, Emma, home from the hospital.

While I’m thankful for our wonderfully supportive family and friends, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little less of them those first few days. We just couldn’t seem to turn anyone away. So I had to grin, bear it, and grind my teeth while serving drinks and watching visitors pass my 3-day-old around like a football. As I was wearing down the enamel on my back molars, I wondered what social protocol applies to the birth of a baby.

To my relief, etiquette experts agree that the mother’s and baby’s well-being should be a family’s top priority, especially since women are routinely discharged from the hospital within 48 hours of giving birth, before they have a chance to recover. “Friends and relatives must be aware of a new mother’s need to rest, to be cared for, and to bond with her baby,” says P.M. Forni, Ph.D., co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project in Baltimore, an academic consortium that assesses politeness in our culture.

A little planning can go a long way toward establishing peace, according to Charlotte Ford, author of 21st-Century Etiquette. “Make it clear exactly how long guests are expected to stay,” she says. To avoid a battle royale on your living room carpet, work out a visiting schedule in advance of the birth that will ensure equal visiting time for both sides of your family.

If your mother-in-law is ready to square off against your mother over who gets to visit the baby first, feel free to quote the etiquette experts, who say the maternal grandmother has the advantage, fair or not. And most protocol pros advise against allowing both sets of grandparents to stay overnight at the same time, anyway, no matter how well everyone gets along. The best thing to tell your dejected mother-in-law is that it’s just too much to have the whole gang over at once and that you’d love to have her come a day or two after your own mother leaves.

Beyond the immediate family, it’s not impolite to ask other well-wishers to wait a few days or weeks before visiting. Leave specifics on your answering-machine message, says Shawna Schuh, an etiquette consultant in Gaston, OR: “Mom and baby are doing fine. They’ll be ready to greet the world starting Tuesday at noon.” If you’ve created a Web site for your new arrival, post visiting hours and other guidelines alongside those precious newborn photos.

If you’re worried about offending anyone, present the rules in a humorous way, suggests Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies. Some people write captions for baby pictures to accomplish this: “I know I’m cute, but I still need my beauty sleep. Please stop by before 7 p.m.”

Although visitors should never just drop by your house unannounced, some will. My 80-year-old neighbor Sophie, all 90 pounds of her, managed to push past the baby nurse standing guard at our front door and make a beeline for our bedroom. There I was, wearing nothing but my super-sized maternity underwear. Sophie was unfazed. She peered down at Emma in her bassinet, cooing at her for a good three minutes and trying to converse with me.

Another good trick for reminding guests to keep their visits short — without saying a word — is to wear your pajamas (a clean, attractive pair, of course). This way, people will be more likely to realize that you need your rest. But if you haven’t had a chance to hit Victoria’s Secret for a suitable ensemble, simply tell your guests it’s time for you to feed the baby — an activity that’s associated with privacy.

Or take a tip from Schuh and try the husband-wife tag-team method, in which one spouse discreetly signals the other one with a predetermined code word or gesture that indicates it’s
time to initiate a formal good-bye to visitors (“If I yawn, you have to get rid of them!”).

With our onslaught of guests that first day, I felt as though I was running a bed-and-breakfast with an all-day buffet (albeit a pretty anemic one: Not having had the foresight to stock up on snacks, all I had to offer my guests was a bag of stale pretzels). Entertaining can be a huge burden for new parents, so most of the etiquette experts give them a break. “This is not a dinner party,” Dr. Forni says. “Visitors should never expect to be fed. The only obligation you have is to offer them something to drink.” If I could do it over again, I would have had some cookies and a few bottles of sparkling water in the cabinet that my husband could have easily pulled out when visitors arrived — no fuss, no stress. What’s even better is when guests show up bearing edibles: One new mom practically wept with joy when a friend of hers brought over a fruit tart.

Most people would agree that a new baby is irresistible. Everyone wants a piece of her: a chance to clutch her tiny hands, cuddle her, hold her. Our little Emma was a pretty good sport when it came to these hand-offs. But even she had her limits, as did I. Whenever I didn’t want her passed around, my fallback line was, “The pediatrician said it’s not good for too many people to hold her when she’s so young.”

Actually, Palmo Pasquariello, M.D., my pediatrician in New York City, doesn’t mind being used as a scapegoat. “That way people are not angry at you,” he jokes. More seriously, he reminded me to trust my maternal instincts. “If you don’t want someone holding the baby, don’t feel bad about saying no,” he says. When you do allow guests their chance to snuggle, it’s okay to ask them to wash their hands first; in fact, they really should. Although mothers pass germ-deflecting antibodies to their newborns, caution may be warranted when you’re dealing with a house full of guests, according to Dr. Pasquariello. “It’s like going on an airplane,” he says. “The more people there are within a concentrated area, the more likely it is someone will have a virus.”

Birth announcements are the decorative cards that announce a baby’s birth and list her vital statistics such as time of birth, weight, and length. I always thought these were a solicitation for gifts, but I was wrong. Baldrige says they’re just what their name implies: announcements. “It’s a way to say, ‘I thought you would want to know about this delicious creature who’s come into our lives and share in our happiness,'” she says. Baldrige advises new parents to send birth announcements to “everyone,” including long-lost college friends, colleagues, and bosses.

Fox qualifies that sending an informal birth announcement via e-mail is okay, but only if it’s followed by formal printed or handwritten cards that you send out through the regular mail. Ideally, these announcements should be sent before the baby is 3 months old, she says. I’ll have to keep that in mind for my next child. The recipients of baby announcements should respond with a handwritten note, Fox says, or at the very least a phone call congratulating the new parents.

Though sending a gift after the baby is born isn’t mandatory, especially if someone has already given a shower present, it’s always a nice gesture, the experts say. “It doesn’t have to be anything that’s going to put a dent in your wallet,” Ford says. As with any gift, it’s the thought that counts.

We had the good fortune of being showered with presents – Emma received enough outfits to clothe a small battalion of babies. Knowing that thank-you notes are de rigueur, I envisioned myself addressing envelopes during Emma’s 4 a.m. feedings in order to get them in the mail promptly. It’s a good thing the experts allow some leeway in this regard, because I certainly needed it.

Fox says that although parents should try to get the notes out within a week of receiving the gift, it’s acceptable to take up to three months. “Just make sure you do it,” says Fox. “That’s what’s really important.” My biggest pet peeve is when the note is “from” the baby. We all
know that babies cannot write. While some protocol experts say it is more proper for the parents to do the thanking, what counts is getting the notes done. “If they want to be cutesy, let them be cutesy,” says Baldrige.

When her own grandchildren were born, Ford took a hands-on approach and ghostwrote some notes for her daughter. “I don’t think it matters who writes them as long as the person is thanked,”she says.

I’m embarrassed to admit I still have a handful of thank-you notes that need to be written. However, since my husband has claimed a sudden and mysterious case of carpal tunnel syndrome, I too may have to recruit some help from my mother.

Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the February 2003 issue of Child Magazine.

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