Yes, my house may be burning down and I may be surrounded by outlaws, but that doesn’t mean a casserole or used thong panties will help. (Brownie points if you can name the music video and artist this image comes from.)

As I’ve been doing my observation to become a childbirth educator, I’ve noticed a very interesting phenomenon. I’ve been hearing a lot of doulas and CBE’s warn against the perils of people “helping” in the first few days after the baby is born. Their advice was to keep visitors out for the first few days and allow the parents and baby to recover from the birth.

It was a little surprising. I had heard some horror stories about “helpful” relatives and neighbors after the baby comes. Sometimes people come over to help but just want to see and hold the new baby right away at the expense of the new parents’ bonding or rest time, or someone who decides to do laundry without asking about any special instructions and ruins an entire supply of cloth diapers, or a relative comes over and feeds the older children junk food against the mother’s wishes… But despite these kinds of stories, most of the time I had heard that parents should gratefully accept any offers of help after their baby arrives.

And on the other hand, I’ve heard of many women who have mothers, neighbors or good friends who are willing to help out around the house or take older children for outings right after the new baby is born. (In twenty years I want to be one of those mothers/mothers-in-law.)

But should new parents simply be grateful for everyone who shows up at their door- even if the helper actually causes more trouble than help? Is it really “the thought that counts”?

There is a fantastic article from the December 1990 issue of the LDS magazine Ensign called “Caught in a Casserole” by Joni Winn Hilton. She starts off by describing an incident that had happened in her neighborhood some time before. A Vietnamese had family moved in, leaving everything behind in their homeland to start a new life in a new country. The neighbors responded by bringing over pies and casseroles and offering odd jobs to the father and left feeling very satisfied with themselves for their generosity.

But for the Vietnamese family, it was the opposite of what they needed. They had never eaten American food and the father was a highly educated professional in his native country, not some skill-less itinerant. Sure, it was a convenient way for the neighbors to check something off their to-do list and pat themselves on the back, but it wasn’t what the family needed.

I experienced something similar after births of my first two boys. When our oldest was born, he required specialized care at a high level NICU where there was no rooming in available. Fortunately, we lived relatively close to the hospital, so my husband and I spent most of our time with our new baby at the NICU for the first couple of weeks of parenthood learning how to take care of his condition and meeting with a slew of specialists. We were getting about five hours of sleep each night. We lived off of a morning green smoothie, apples, trail mix and chips and crackers from Whole Foods. We ate most of our meals in the car.

We had changed our diet some time before, finding that cutting out dairy for my husband and most gluten for me helped with a number of health issues we had had. Since we no longer ate the same way the other people in church group did, they tried to help by bringing meals by for my husband’s parents who we were residing with at the time. My mother-in-law said she didn’t need the food, but she went with it anyway. Since it had gluten and dairy in it and we were already in high stress circumstances, we didn’t want to risk eating anything that could upset the already delicate balance we were trying to maintain physically, mentally and emotionally.

With our second baby, we were still living in the same area with the same church group and what we really needed were meals. We now had a special needs child on top of a newborn. We didn’t have much help and were pretty busy as my husband tried to take care of our oldest while cooking meals for the first few days and I kept up with the laundry from the day of the birth onwards.

One thing we did have plenty of though, was baby blankets.We had received a number of lovely baby blankets as gifts with our oldest, some of which had become very special, but now that he was older and no longer needed them they were perfectly suited to our second baby. Because some of the blankets had deep meaning to us in seeing our first through his NICU stay, we weren’t inclined to give them away. However, this time the church group brought us baby blankets. Lots of baby blankets. In addition to the half dozen or so baby blankets we already had, we got three or four new ones. We ended up donating the new ones because we simply couldn’t use them and didn’t want to give away the special ones. But we hoped someone else might benefit from them. It’s really difficult to make a meal out of a baby blanket. (But if you ever come up with any good recipes, be sure to let me know.)

This kind of phenomenon is not exclusive to neighbors though. I’ve been taking a class for my MPH in disaster relief and emergency management and emergency response personnel frequently deal with the same problem- on a much larger scale. Disaster response organizations have had a difficult time dealing with all the wrong help. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, aid workers kept finding unsolicited volunteers who showed up in Port-au-Prince without even a ride from the airport. Without any purpose for being there beyond “helping” and with no food or supplies of their own, these people often ended up relying on disaster response organizations to provide them without shelter and food- draining resources from the very people they claimed to want to help. Tsunami and hurricane relief workers frequently have to deal with finding a place for unsolicited and useless donations that show up in the wake of a tropical disaster- like evening gowns, cans of expired food, fur coats, stiletto heels, thong panties, housewares and outdated prescriptions.

If you want to really get your humanitarian socks knocked off, watch the recent Oscar winning documentary Poverty, Inc. about how ongoing foreign aid often causes more problems for developing countries than it solves.

And so here comes the question: If we’re giving to make ourselves feel better, but it doesn’t actually help the people we claim to serve, is it really service? Sure, offloading some old stuff or rushing off to Haiti might make you feel good about yourself, but is it what someone else needs? As I look back at the experiences from my postpartum days, it does strike me that no one really bothered to ask what might help us. Looking at everything from the Vietnamese family to the tsunami donations, there are frequently a lot of assumptions that go into service, mostly that we understand the situation and that what would be most convenient for us is helpful for the people we intend to serve.

But there’s one thing I can tell you for sure: PLEASE save your used thong panties and outdated prescriptions and canned goods the next time a tropical storm hits! You can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned donation to a reputable humanitarian organization. Remember, they buy goods in bulk so even a few dollars can go a long way to providing clean water and medical supplies during a disaster response. =)



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