Unless someone has been through it, they'll never understand. I'm guilty of that with so many things I think I fully comprehend and can have an opinion on. At least, I used to be. I learned so much in the past year about myself through the people around me and how they chose to show up in certain situations. I can safely say now that I've been through pregnancy and the newborn stage (aka "fourth trimester"), so I have a much deeper appreciation for what new, first-time moms experience during this phase. If you're looking for ways to support the new mom in your life, (first of all, congratulations!) then this is for you.
To start, maternity leave is NOT a vacation. In fact, it's the furthest thing from it. Maternity leave is a very sensitive topic for me. I chose to take the full 12 weeks and was met with unsolicited comments and questions from people as if there was some sort of prize for taking less time. I understand everyone's circumstances and preferences vary. I personally didn't think 12 weeks was enough and I agonized over this. The emotional aspect of maternity leave alone is enough to take a toll on a new mom. On top of that, add sleepless nights.
When I say sleepless, I mean Mama will be a frazzled, stressed out, walking zombie surviving strictly on caffeine and that new baby smell. She will question everything she's doing while also trying to assert her new position as a mother. She will try her hardest to diplomatically decline advice she doesn't agree with when all she really wants to say is, "I couldn't care less about what you did with your child. This is my child and I deserve respect on the decisions I make as his/her mother." There's a lot of that. On no sleep. It's not for the weak, mentally or physically.
I'm almost 8 months postpartum as I write this and even I have somewhat forgotten how difficult the physical recovery of delivering a baby is. What's wild about that is that I'm still dealing with recovery. You'll see some moms say they don't feel like themselves until their baby is a year or older. Pregnancy makes some serious rearrangements in a woman's body, so it's no surprise that it takes a while for everything to find its way back into place. The first 6-8 weeks after delivery are the hardest on Mama's body whether she delivered naturally or via C-section. C-section recoveries are especially difficult, though. I had an emergency C-section and it took me a good five minutes to get myself to a sitting position just to try to get out of bed in that first week. That being said, the Mama in your life will likely be going through the worst physical pain of her life and still try to get up multiple times throughout the night to take care of her brand new baby.
What can you do to support Mama?
Plain and simple, have her back. There are going to be opinions flying in all directions. She's dealing with a lot, and no matter how much you think you're dealing with, you have to believe she's dealing with more. Stand up for her when you hear her defending herself when she shouldn't have to. Tell her she's doing an amazing job and that you trust her. Remind her of how strong she is and how this is a temporary phase.
Unless she is being completely negligent and careless, don't doubt her. If you are constantly judging a new mom and watching her every move waiting for her to fail, you are the worst type of person. First of all, no one has gotten an A+ on parenting, ever. Like millions of new moms, I'll bet that the Mama in your life has been reading, researching, and absorbing all throughout her pregnancy and currently at every given chance she has a free hand to Google a question on her phone. She is learning as she goes and whether you want to admit it or not, she has the upper hand as that baby's Mama.
Be kind, be patient, and be empathetic. All she wants to know is that you understand what she's going through. Her hormones are still all over the place and she is trying to do a lot with a little.
Make sure her basic needs are being met. Ask her if you can take over so she can: go to the bathroom, eat a meal, take a shower, etc. Even just 15 minutes of time to herself will make a world of difference. She needs it.
Offer to do chores around the house so she can actually spend time with the baby. Everyone always offers to take the baby, but that's Mama's time to bond! She really needs help with laundry, dishes, bottles, tidying, and so on. Let her have uninterrupted bonding time with baby without worrying about the long to-do list.
Take a night shift or at least part of it. But, you have to promise that if you do, you won't complain about it the next day. Mama needs sleep for recovery (mentally, physically, emotionally). She cannot do it all alone even if she's the only one on maternity leave. Again, it's not a vacation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to support the new mom in your life, but it's a start. It's also a very attainable start, no extravagant gifts or displays necessary. The most important thing to remember is that the fourth trimester is a time for Mama to bond with baby and get used to her new, and most important, role in life. If you can do anything for her, it's to try to facilitate this as much as possible.
Wishing you the very best of luck to you on this journey and enjoy every minute of that sweet little babe.