Forget presents. New parents need social support

When I was a first-time expectant mum 4½ years ago, I bought into doing everything by the book, including my baby shower.

I spent hours poring over reviews for products to curate a registry and while the shower itself was not over the top - a gathering of about 15 women at my Brooklyn apartment - it hit all the traditional marks.

A long-time friend organised it and made finger foods, my mum ordered a cake and I spent an hour awkwardly opening everyone's gifts in front of them so they could coo over cute things and I could express my gratitude in person.

The party was a complete success by every standard measure. But as I think back to my first year of motherhood, I think maybe my baby shower was a missed opportunity.

I was, like most new parents, unprepared for the year that followed. My son was born with some health problems that required hospitalisations and surgery.

I was back at work before I was ready and lost my job shortly after. I had tonnes of anxiety and went through a profound identity crisis.

More than a surplus of onesies and toys, what I needed most was strong support from people I could count on during those tough times.

I had friends, but I did not know how to ask for help.

The gifts did not bring the comfort I craved. The outrageously expensive stroller I was convinced we needed and asked my parents to buy, for example, went largely unused, as we ended up favouring a lightweight umbrella model.

I sometimes think about the better ways that money could have been spent during my son's first year while I was unexpectedly unemployed.

I am a reporter covering social and economic issues facing mothers. And the more I research, the more I have come to dislike baby showers. Not because I loathe all that is tiny, adorable and Pinterest-worthy, but because I believe the tradition needs an update to address the needs of modern parents-to-be.

New parents need childcare help, meals, groceries, therapy and social support. And these feelings have recently solidified for me as I await the arrival of twins in February.

What is increasingly clear this time around is that I do not need fancy stuff. I need help.

Here are four concrete ideas for how people can meet the real needs of parents and create a more modern, and inclusive, celebration when gathering to fete an expected baby.

1. Ditch the expensive gear registries and start a "honeyfund" for expecting families.

Rather than registering for that full-price baby swing your kid may sit in twice and hate, expectant parents should consider signing up to receive money for "experiences" that could make a real difference in their lives.

Honeyfund has launched an offshoot site called Plumfund, which has a baby shower feature.

That is a start, but I wish it allowed people to contribute to or "buy" experiences for people explicitly.

2. Do not just fund gear.

Spend time thinking about and researching your needs for non-material support.

This could include a session with a lactation consultant, a plane ticket for a beloved sister to come to help for two weeks after the baby is born, a weekly night nurse so the parent whose partner is deployed can get some sleep, or help with recurring bills to take away some of the financial stress when one or both parents are taking unpaid parental leave.

Most everything a baby needs can be handed down from other parents or purchased second-hand for a fraction of its original cost.

Steer your friends and family towards helping with support costs, instead of shelling out money for top-of-the-line new stuff.

3. Get shower attendees to sign up on the spot for a Meal Train.

Signing up to bring food or have meals delivered has become increasingly popular.

Providing home-cooked meals during times of stress and transition feels deeply nurturing and can be an opportunity to check in, in person, and see how the new family is doing and reduce their social isolation.

While we did not have a Meal Train after the birth of my son, some neighbourhood friends set one up for us after one of his operations and I think I burst into tears of gratitude every time some food arrived.

4. Use the baby shower as a moment to include the new parent in online and in-person community groups.

Veteran parents have often put months and years into finding their "tribe".

Rather than spending an hour opening gifts, invite guests to brainstorm about these groups beforehand and use that time to formally include new mums in supportive communities, whether it is the invite-only buy/sell/trade local listserv where they can get a tonne of baby stuff at deep discounts, the community centre that offers stroller walks for new parents or details about the La Leche League meeting that provides sanity during the hardest post-partum periods.

WASHINGTON POST

• Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and creator-host of The Double Shift podcast, a show about a new generation of working mothers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 22, 2019, with the headline 'Forget presents. New parents need social support'. Print Edition | Subscribe