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He was born.

He was a good nurser.

Mama’s milk hadn’t come in yet.

Hospital was training for “Baby Friendly Hospital” status and discouraged all of the things that detract from successful breastfeeding, including suggesting formula.

Baby-friendly training was still a little shaky on identifying exceptions and situations of need.

The short story is, my firstborn could have benefited tremendously from a bottle or two of formula. His bilirubin levels climbed and climbed, and by his 3rd day earthside his numbers were through the roof. He had to be admitted to the NICU to treat severe jaundice after we had already spent a day at home.

My college bestie did our intake that night – she happened to be a NICU nurse on shift and I called her to tell her we were coming. She knew exactly what to say, and I’ll never forget it.

This sucks right now, but he has everything he needs here. Pretty soon this will all be just a bad dream.

That right there had all the elements of a supportive statement – empathy, reassurance, and a peek at the brighter time ahead. It was perfect, and exactly what I needed to hear.

A day passed and we were told we would be switching hospitals because they needed the bed, and my baby boy was the biggest and healthiest baby in the unit. Of course, this was an added stress on top of everything else.

A family member came to visit and I’m sure I was visibly upset throughout all of this. So, she offered this phrase I’ve come to not love.

“My Baba always told me, ‘Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.'”

I clearly remember immediately rejecting her sing-songy phrase.

“If his numbers don’t come down within the hour they will start a blood transfusion. The auditory team will be here in the morning to test him for hearing loss, which is the indicator for brain damage. This is a big [expletive] problem,” I replied.

I don’t use expletives lightly. But a mom of a 3-day-old baby in intensive care gets to use as many four-letter words as she pleases, gosh darn it.

Older moms, listen carefully. Little kids, little problems...that little phrase may be short, rhythmic, cutesy, even famous. But nothing good can come from saying it to a young mother. Nothing.

Think about what it does.

It minimizes her plight. 

Sure, older kids drive cars and try beer, and there can be some pretty dire consequences attached to those things.

But older mothers often forget that mothering babies is intense. It takes every ounce of your attention, and it often consumes all 1440 minutes of a 24-hour day. Yes, all of them. All of the inconsequential diapers and spit ups and wake ups and bites and skipped meals and skipped naps and interrupted sleep, it all adds up.

So if a young mom wants to vent to me, it’s my job to lend a sympathetic ear. One-upmanship has no place here, even if smelling like spit-up doesn’t contend with bullies and girlfriends and college applications.

It invalidates her feelings.

“Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems” tells a young mother that she shouldn’t feel what she’s feeling, because these issues aren’t worth it.

Older mothers probably mean well – they’re probably trying to be comforting. But it doesn’t take away the young mother’s stress. It just makes her feel guilty for having big feelings about things she was told are inappreciable.

When someone comes to us for support, even if it’s just to unload and feel better, let’s make sure what we say is helpful.

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