“I can’t…it won’t…I can’t…noooo!” My 4-year-old screams from his bedroom.
His cries followed by two loud thuds. Uh oh. I move quickly into his bedroom only to find him on the floor, two legs stuffed inside one pant leg, the rest of his clothes and shoes hurled across the room. He can barely put together a sentence.
“I can’t…ugggh…it won’t…I can’t do it!” he screams again.
“Ok, ok. Look at me. Take 3 deep breaths.”
He does. He calms.
“I can’t put my clothes on,” he says, big crocodile tears fall down his face. “Sweetie, all you have to do is just ask for help,” I say as if it’s the simplest solution in the world. Because it is…isn’t it? He stares at me with a familiar look. A look I’ve seen on the faces of countless girlfriends when I offer my help in a difficult time. The same look I saw on my husband’s face when we were going through Bennett’s open-heart surgery. The same heartbreaking look I saw on my Dad’s face this past summer when, after being diagnosed with Pick’s Disease (an aggressive and fatal form of dementia), he realized that life would never be the same.
And the look I’ve worn on my face during every obstacle, struggle, or heartbreak I’ve faced in my life when someone offered me a helping hand.
What if he thinks I’m incompetent? What if I get rejected? What if I am made fun of? What if she thinks that I am weak, or worse…broken? What if he leaves me? What if they see that I, in fact, don’t have it all together? What if they realize that I am a fraud?
Sigh. Yeah, ok. Asking for help is a lot more complicated than it seems. For many, it’s perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life. I’m asking my toddler to do something that most adults can’t do. Hell, up until very recently (I mean, very recently), I too struggled desperately with the concept of asking for help.
At five months pregnant, I was brought to my knees by the news of my newborn’s fatal heart condition and the life-saving surgery that would follow his birth. I knew my family was about to face the greatest challenge of our lives thus far. And even then, I couldn’t ask for help. My bestie (“What We Are” partner) Jen Dede gave me the “assignment” of writing down a list of needs, ways my girlfriends could help during this time in my family’s life. When it came time to turn in that list of needs, I had this:
“Things I Will Need…”
That’s it. That’s all she wrote.
It wasn’t for a lack of willingness, desire, or focus. I racked my brain for ways in which I could finish that sentence. I sat in mediation trying to connect to my need. I took long hikes where I would deeply consider how friends could help. I really wanted the help this time! Why was this so hard? I started realizing I had buried my need so far down in the recesses of my soul that it was no longer accessible.
Oh boy, what do I tell Hudson right now? How do I make it better? I hear my newborn cry from the living room. Interesting. He certainly has no problem asking for what he needs.
My 4-year-old would rather lie screaming in a puddle of his own tears before asking for help, yet my newborn has no problem screaming for his needs…and he has A LOT of needs. To be born into this world, he had to have one person push while another pulled just for him to take his first breath in the world. He takes milk from my breasts, falls asleep to my sway. He needs to be changed, bathed, burped, and carried. And he is not afraid to ask. In fact, he is crying right now because he is tired and my husband is probably not swaying him to sleep the way he likes to be swayed. How is it that in a period of just a few years, we go from openly and willingly accepting help – demanding it even – to burying it under a blanket of shame and embarrassment?
Truth is, we are born knowing what we need and how to ask for it. Then, somewhere along the way, society, our parents, a piano coach tells us that our natural born instincts are wrong because someone told them the same thing.
I was raised to believe that help was a four-letter word. It elicited weakness and incompetency. At 10 years old, I injured my foot during a performance in New York City. I walked off the stage and collapsed. Then, I crawled over to my mother and said, “I need help. I can’t walk.” My mother snapped, “Suck it up. You are embarrassing me.” So, I did. Suck it up. Over the next three days, I sucked it up so hard, walking around NYC, my foot swelling to the size of my thigh. The pain was unimaginable. When we finally went to the hospital, we learned that I couldn’t walk because MY FOOT WAS BROKEN!!!
Before you pass judgment on my mother know that she was raised by parents who told her to, “suck it up.” My Papa threw his son in the pool and said, “Swim!” Our grandparents, the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” generation, thought they were helping their kids by making them tough, capable of surviving the next world war or great depression. Therefore, our parents thought they were doing the right thing by maintaining that same mentality:
*Asking for help = weakness / incompetence / brokenness
*Not needing help = strength / capability / perfection
Anyway, that’s the thing with parenting. All your unpacked baggage rears its ugly head at some point and on some level through your child. My husband and I displayed a “never be needy persona” that had taught our son to follow suit despite the fact that, in an attempt to not repeat the mistakes of our parents, we encouraged him to have a healthy relationship with asking for help. We were breaking one of my top five parenting rules:
Don’t ask your kid to do something that you are unable, or unwilling, to do yourself.
The key word here being DO. See, “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t really work with kids (It doesn’t really work with anyone). People listen to and follow behavior not words. Hudson was watching us “do” (aka struggle to do everything on our own without assistance) and learning from our not so great example. Like him, both of us would rather get so frustrated trying to self-handle a situation that we would end up throwing a tantrum, having a breakdown, or starting a fight before surrendering to the phrase, “Can you please help me?”
Well, until Bennett. Everything changed with Bennett. I was so paralyzed by the enormity of our situation that I just started saying yes to any help offered. I allowed my mom to take my car for an oil change. I said yes when a friend offered to send over a car detailing service (Seriously, I really need to take better care of my car). My girlfriends graced my home with the most beautiful baby blessing, showering myself and Bennett with song, prayer, and a birthing necklace, each bead handpicked to support me through our experience. A necklace that didn’t leave my hands for the entire time I was at the hospital with my son. My friend Ann, a massage therapist, insisted on coming by at midnight to jump start my contractions after we learned I was being admitted to the hospital for induction at 2am. I accepted. While at the hospital, I said yes to my friends delivering food, juices, and even vagina cooling pads. I submitted to all of the help and it felt good…really, really good.
In the beginning, I didn’t know what I needed or what I would need. But here’s the thing, I had surrounded myself with people who knew for me and showed up…no questions asked. By the end of our journey at Children’s Hospital, my friends had taught me not only how to reconnect to the part of myself that knows what she needs, but they reminded me that showing up for another human is a tremendous gift for both people.
So, back to Hudson. Taking a lesson from all the incredible humans who showed up for me- no questions asked- I wipe away the big crocodile tears from his little face. I begin to dress him. First, removing one of his two legs that he had shoved into his one pant leg. Then, his shirt…his socks…his shoes. Hudson stands up, fully dressed. He says, “Thank you, Mama,” and runs out of his bedroom with a smile.
If you have a person in your life who is struggling and having difficulty asking for help, maybe she (or he) is like me. Maybe she is unsure of what is needed. If so, just show up. Show up without hesitation. Show up without conversation. Just show up…no questions asked.
I’ll leave you with this passage from the divine David Whyte. In his book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,” he writes about the subject of help:
It may be that the ability to know the necessity for help; to know how to look for that help and then most importantly, how to ask for it, is one of the primary transformative dynamics that allows us to emancipate ourselves into each new epoch of our lives. Without the understanding that we need a particular form of aid at every crucial threshold in our lives and without the robust vulnerability in asking for that help we cannot pass through the door that bars us from the next dispensation of our lives: we cannot birth ourselves. To ask for help and to ask for the right kind of help and to feel that it is no less our due as a live human being; to feel, in effect, that we deserve it, may be the engine of transformation itself. Our greatest vulnerability is the very door through which we must pass in order to open the next horizon of our lives.