A Philadelphia couple is facing backlash after asking their neighbours to give them free meals and clean their house for them once their baby arrives.
The request was shared online, first to the crowdsourcing platform Meal Train and then on Nextdoor, a private social network for neighbourhoods.
Both posts have since been deleted, but not before snippets were shared to Twitter by neighbour Jack Jokinen.
In his request, father-to-be Jim Burns writes that he is “teetering on a fence of emotions” about the impending birth of his first child.
“On one side is joy and excitement, of course. But on the other side, is a great deal of fear!” said Burns.
“One of the things I’m most afraid of is not getting a great deal of sleep and as a result not being in the best frame of mind to offer my wife the support she needs to recover from the child-birthing process.”
Burns asks his neighbours to participate in what he refers to as a “meal train” or “mental-health check-in train” or “do you need any help today train.”
He then proceeds to list recipes for dozens of meals, including things like banana oat bars, salmon sweet potato cakes and chicken soup with white beans and kale.
Burns also shares the couple’s specific dietary restrictions (“we try to avoid sugar whenever possible”) as well as their favourite and least favourite meals.
“Alex really dislikes mashed potatoes,” Burns said of his wife.
Neighbours who can’t cook are asked to instead drop by and offer to walk the dog or clean some dishes. Burns also notes that in the event the couple doesn’t want to be disturbed, neighbours can drop meals off in the white cooler in their yard.
According to the Twitter user who shared the thread, the first response from a neighbour was a positive one.
Someone living nearby wrote, “hey neighbour! We live across the street with the crazy dog and three-year-old… we certainly know how tough this time can be and what a big transition it is so count on us for support!”
However, the response from the larger online community was not nearly as warm.
Twitter user @jasondunn wrote, “meal trains are great! Supporting new parents is great! But, uh, normally it’s the *friends* of the new parents that support them with a meal train. I have never, ever, seen anything as bizarrely entitled as this.”
And @taellosse said, “you don’t publicly ask for the kindness of strangers then provide a list of recipes sorted by preference.”
In an interview with the New York Post, Burns said he was shocked and disappointed that his request was being received so poorly.
“I apologize if it was taken the wrong way — and I’m frankly just very surprised and a little disheartened by … the response,” Burns said. “If they are not interested, then they don’t have to check that site or do anything. This is the world we live in.”
However, according to etiquette expert Lisa Orr, it’s understandable that people are irritated by the request.
“It definitely sounded like an entitled young couple who is going to be in for a rude awakening when the reality of parenting sets in,” Orr said. “We do have an etiquette, particularly in North America, around how new parents should ask for help.”
“Typically, the first step is that family and close friends offer, rather than new parents sending out a request for help.”
In Orr’s experience, it’s common for a friend or family member to take the lead, putting together a list of things that need to be prepared prior to the baby’s arrival.
“It almost becomes an extension of a baby shower as a way to support a new family,” she said.
“If expectant parents do ask for help in advance, it’s [usually] a personal request, not some mass email.”
For Orr, expectant parents need to recognize that their friends and family didn’t make the choice to have a child — they did.
“As such, it’s their responsibility to figure it out,” Orr said. “If they do make a request for help, it should be in a way that shows their gratitude in advance for the support that is clearly above and beyond.”
According to Orr, expectant parents shouldn’t assume that friends, family or neighbours are going to help.
“Any support that they do receive is a gift that they should feel very fortunate to receive,” she said.
According to Orr, there are appropriate ways for expectant or new parents to ask for help — and this is not one of them. Here are some things to keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation.
Help is a two-way street
Showing respect is especially important if you need to lean on people you don’t know well, which can sometimes happen.
For parenting expert Ann Douglas, you should try to build your network in a way that moves beyond your need for help.
“Ideally, you’re going to be making this request of people with whom you already have an existing relationship, but if you’re new to a community, you might have to turn and ask people you don’t know particularly well (or at least not yet),” said Douglas.
“Social media makes it relatively easy to build community with friends of friends, so even if you only know a handful of people in your community, the network you can access via these friends of friends may actually be quite large.”
In Douglas’ view, it’s fine to lean on neighbours, but it shouldn’t be a one-way street.
“Sure, you might benefit from a casserole right now, while you’re trying to adjust to life with a newborn, but that neighbour down the street might benefit from some help with yard work in a few months’ time when they’re recovering from hip surgery,” she said.
Be clear about what you need
In your request, get straight to the point, but be accommodating.
In Orr’s view, the few people who offered to help at your baby shower are the perfect people to ask.
“For example, ‘If there’s any way you might be able to come by the house a few times for a few hours to watch the baby in the first month… that would really help us out. Please let me know if there are times that work for you,’” Orr said.
Working around their schedule shows you’re not taking them for granted.
Douglas believes there’s a fine line between a request and a demand — and the difference is in the way you ask.
“There’s no point having your freezer full of casseroles that you can’t eat because they contain foods you’re allergic to or that you and your family simply don’t eat, but maybe you might want to give people a little bit of latitude,” Douglas said.
“If you’re too specific in your language, it might sound like you are placing an order rather than making a request.”
It’s as easy as stating your dietary issues but allowing the other person to choose their own recipe.
Be respectful and show gratitude
“The father-to-be suggested people could leave food in the cooler outside for those times when the new parents didn’t want guests… [but] etiquette would clearly require people to say ‘thank you’ when the gift of a homemade meal is arriving at your door,” said Orr.
By suggesting strangers could leave their cooking on the porch [or in a cooler] like a meal delivery service, Orr thinks Burns shows a “complete lack of gratitude.”
Instead of doing this, Burns should have made it an individual and personal request.
“Email, text or call are all fine,” said Orr.
After things have settled down, take them for coffee or write them a note to tell them how much you appreciated the help. If possible, return the favour or pay it forward.
“Every new parent can benefit from support, but if they’re going to ask, they should really ask politely,” said Orr — and Douglas agrees.
“It feels good to be part of a caring community of people who look out for one another. It’s all about nurturing that village along — or building that village from scratch.”
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