So there I was, eating a breakfast taco in the bathtub.
I estimated I had three minutes to eat breakfast and bathe before baby Hayley, just a week old, would stir, squawk or scream. As I wolfed down a 2-day-old, soggy taco and haphazardly splashed body wash over my shoulders, I was too tired to find humor in my beautiful mess. Breakfast and bathing don't go together. Except when you're desperate.
Over the coming weeks of being a first-time mom, I'd love to tell you that I mastered some amazing schedule and even went back to the gym. I didn't: I showered every three days, ate when something was handed to me and sang Christmas carols in June because my brain couldn't remember nursery rhymes. In three months of maternity leave, my biggest moment was when Hayley laughed for the first time. My second biggest was when I left the house all by myself and drove to Starbucks without the radio on. It was so quiet.
In all the in-between moments, I simply existed. I was a human vending machine for a baby who ate a heck of a lot more than I did.
Many family members and friends asked that wonderful question: What do you need? Depending on the moment, I needed my pre-pregnancy body back; I needed a 17-hour nap; and I needed a vacation in Cancun. I needed to be alone, except when I didn't. I wanted to bake but didn't feel like waiting on the oven to preheat. I wanted somebody else to wear my boobs for a while so they could feed the baby at 2 a.m.
You might be noticing that none of those, really, are gifts.
Figuring out what new moms need is exhausting, both for the gift-giver and for the frazzled mom grasping for the answer to an impossible question. So during moments at home with Hayley, I started making lists of items I couldn't live without. After all, I couldn't remember the important stuff in real time.
To the grandparents, partners, friends and neighbors of new moms, here are some practical gifts that might make Mom, on a good day, feel special. On another day, they might just make her feel like less of a slob. That's a win, too.
What to buy a new mom
Stud earrings: The beauty of colorful earrings is they make her feel pretty. As a recent sleep-deprived mom, I loved little gifts that made me smile when I looked in the mirror — and took the focus off my hair. (See also: sunglasses, mascara.) Note that nonstud earrings, while fun for date night, don't work around grabby babies. Try low-priced shops like Nordstrom Rack, Francesca's and Charming Charlie for cute stud earrings in many colors, most for $15 or less.
One-handed food: You may not know what your sweet new mom loves to eat. Here's a good rule: Give her food that can be stored in the freezer, then heated up and eaten with one hand. And gift it 4-6 weeks after baby was born, because that's the time when the neighbors' potluck plan has ended. Ask her or her partner a few questions: Does she like eggs? Tiny, pre-made quiches, microwaved in 30 seconds, might do the trick. Does she have a sweet tooth? Mini cupcakes or pre-made cookies. Is she trying to eat healthy? Offer to cut up a week's worth of fruits and veggies, her choice, and package them in little baggies.
A free, reliable baby sitter: New mom does want to hang out with the family members while they coo over her new baby. But she probably wants to get the heck out of the house, too, and not worry that the child care giver will be a) neglectful, or b) expensive. If you're a family member or friend who can reliably show up and shoo her out of the house, do that. If you're prone to staying a little too long, hire someone to relieve Mom, then pick up the bill.
Leopard-print flats: After a few weeks of spit stains, it starts to get old. But getting dressed up is hard. Forget about heels; those are a special hazard that most new moms (should) try to avoid. Gift her some leopard-print flats, a seriously specific suggestion I first read in the great book Carrying On: Style, Beauty, Décor (and More) for the Nervous New Mom. I wore mine with jeans, a loose-fitting top and some colorful stud earrings on the next stroller ride. You'd have thought I was ready to walk the red carpet.
A free handyperson who will assemble furniture and toys, then clean up the mess: I've read that some couples assemble Ikea furniture as a form of marriage therapy. I call it grounds for divorce. Consider offering furniture and toy assembly at her home so those highchairs, car seats and jumpers can find their rightful homes, instead of sitting in the corner of the dining room, in boxes. Bring tools and batteries, then leave the house cleaner than you found it.
Athleisure: She who wears gym clothes doesn't have to go to the gym; that's the Dallas mom rule. Buy her some comfy, stylish clothes you know she wouldn't buy herself. So, basically: Buy her Lululemon gear. That stuff's expensive.
An Amazon Prime account: Perhaps this should have been first on the list. In one day during maternity leave, I ordered protein shakes, pacifiers, a new iPhone charger and a water filter for the fridge from Amazon. What would've taken me trips to the grocery store, Target and Best Buy took 10 minutes on the internet. And then someone dropped all that stuff off on my doorstep one day later! Amazon Prime is the best gift a new mom could get.
When all else fails, just send her a text message telling her she's doing a great job. Love and encouragement, especially when she's sitting in the dark at 3 a.m., will show her how great she really is.