This is a story about the earliest and most important lesson I learned as a mother.
It was three weeks after giving birth; my daughter hadn’t slept for more than sixty minutes consecutively, my husband hadn’t been able to take off more than a few days for paternity leave, and his job required him to make long drives early in the morning. Because I was concerned about him falling asleep at the wheel, I forbade him from taking night shifts with our wakeful child.
I can do it, I said: I’m the mother, I have it handled.
Of course, a few days in, this spectacularly wretched plan landed me in my therapist’s office, blubbering incoherently about what a giant failure I was for not being able to care for my child and myself on what amounted to maybe two-and-a-half (non-consecutive) hours of sleep each night.
My therapist took one look at me and put her pen down. “Your mom lives ten minutes away, right?”
I sniffed. “Yeah.”
“And she keeps offering to help you, right?”
She advised me to sleep over at my parents’ house on the nights that I would normally be taking care of the baby alone. Since they were ready and willing to help, she said, they could take “a shift” with the baby, and I could get at least four or five hours of sleep. This wasn’t a permanent solution, but it would help me survive until she started sleeping longer stretches.
I was horrified. A grown woman, tucking tail and running back to her mommy because she was a little tired?
“That can’t be the solution,” I insisted. “There are so many people who don’t live near family, who don’t have any kind of support system. What do they do?”
“They suffer,” she said simply.
So I packed up my colicky infant and headed to my parents’ house. My father, mother and brother all chipped in, angels that they are, and together they got me a good five hours of sleep. We did this several more nights throughout the course of my daughter’s first two months.
I had thought I would be smothered by the intensity of my gratitude to them. Instead, I was liberated by it.
It’s a cliché because it’s true — women want to do, to BE, everything. We will work 50-hour weeks to earn a paycheck that buys the groceries, we’ll cook the food and set the table and serve the meal and stay up late washing the dishes and boxing up leftovers, and we will often ignore our husband’s pleas to help out. Most of us don’t even realize we do this. Most don’t know any other way of being a mother. We just want so badly to prove that we have it handled.
Well, I don’t have it handled. Anything. I am not a strong, independent woman. I am not the Beyonce of motherhood. I am not on top of anything, I don’t have any of my stuff together, and I am so, so, so dependent on other people for help, for counsel, and for support.
This doesn’t mean that I take advantage of people. But my therapist was right when she pointed out that it’s very, very hard for people who don’t have support systems. Why would I choose to ignore mine?
I will spend my lifetime telling my daughter how much help I got during the first months and years of her life. About how her aunt dropped off meals at our house for weeks and weeks because I was so busy with the baby and with work. About how her uncle and grandpa built her crib and changing table because her daddy and I were too overwhelmed. I’ll tell her about the diapers we were given and the groceries that were bought for us and the emotional support that was ceaselessly offered by friends and family.
She will grow up in a world that prizes independence almost above all other things and in a society that grimaces at the idea of a child accepting help from her parents after the age of 18. She will hear her peers being praised for how much they can accomplish on their own and for how infrequently they need to rely on other people.
I want her to know that that’s not the only way to be. I want her to know the art of being vulnerable and accepting help. I want her to know that it is a beautiful and even holy thing to exist in the debt of another person’s loving kindness.
I truly believe that the help I’ve accepted from others so often has transformative power.
It has made me a better person. It’s made me more grateful, more compassionate, more empathetic. It’s made me more inclined to help others, and more understanding when people fall short of my expectations. It’s made me more conscientious of what I “take” from people, and more eager to give back.
Because I understand that I literally cannot get by without the support, assistance and goodwill of other people, humility is for me like a warm, worn blanket. It has become my dearest friend.
Before giving birth, I had such a grand vision of my motherhood. I planned to be so self-sufficient, so independent, so unfailingly competent. I had hoped motherhood would turn me into a hero, but instead I look at my life and I am proud to say: there are no heroes here.
There’s just me, and I am held together by K-cups, prayer and the generosity of others.