“I need help.” Those are three of the hardest words in the English language — for me anyway. I don’t need any help. I can do it myself. That was (marginally) true for a long time.
But not any more: I am the mother of a toddler — a squirming, opinionated, stubborn, inarticulate 22 pound ball of fat and muscle. And I cannot do it all by myself. But I try. Even with a super competent and loving husband right there, I still get caught trying to do it myself, and I pay for it.
Since Seamus was born, I have hurt my back three times. It would be more accurate to say that Seamus has hurt my back three times. Three times Patrick stayed home from work for as long as he could and then arranged for his parents and sister and brother-in-law to come and hang out with Seamus. They did things like lift him into his high chair or changing table and carry him up the stairs. I could not do any of that on my own.
It was hard — hard to admit I needed help, hard to allow myself to be helped, hard to see other people (even family) doing what I thought I should be doing. But it was also an important lesson every mother needs to learn at some point. I definitely needed to learn it: I am not the only one who can take care of Seamus. He needs and loves other people, and that is good.
Seamus and I traveled to Baltimore on the train before Christmas. While I was in the bathroom at the train station, Patrick asked a young preppy guy to help me with my bags because he couldn’t stay with us until the train got there. When the train was announced, this guy came over to me, picked up my suitcase and followed me to the train. Turns out he went to Connecticut College, was a business major and was hoping to get a job at U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin upon graduation. His dad worked there. I thought about buttonholing the kid for the whole trip, trying to talk him out of his career path at the heart of the military-industrial complex, but he was already on to me because of the kind of questions I was asking, and he wanted to sit as far away from the baby as possible. Helping creates opportunities for conversation and sharing.
Later on in our journey, the conductor told us to get all of our belongings out of seats we had not paid for; the train was going to be full leaving New York City. We were folding ourselves into one seat when a woman leaned over us. She had a kid who was a couple months older than Seamus.
“You can come sit with us if you want,” she said. “We won’t get bent out of shape by a baby crying. I know how it goes; traveling alone with kids is hard.”
I thanked her profusely, but I was pretty sure Seamus would just fall asleep and I could work on the crossword puzzle unmolested, so I did not take her up on the offer. Yet I was so touched by her gesture. Helping brings out the best in others.
At every juncture of that trip (and the many others I have been on), people have asked if I needed help. I have mostly said no, even when their help would have made getting from point a to point B easier. Do I want to sit down? No, thanks. Why? Why say no? What am I trying to prove?
On an airplane a few months ago, I carried Seamus back to the bathroom. I did not have a plan.
“Do you want me hold him while you go?” the steward asked.
“Yes, please! Thank you!”
What would I have done if no one asked me that? There was no room for both of us in the bathroom. On a long car trip alone with the baby (why do I keep doing this?), I stopped at Wendy’s — yum. Seamus wasn’t walking yet, and after I got my fries and sandwich, I could not operate the ketchup dispenser one-handed. I sat down dejected. Fries without ketchup — yuck. A mom from another table came over and asked if I wanted some ketchup.
“I know how it is, trying to do everything one handed,” she said.
I was so grateful. I vowed to be attentive to others and jump in when I see they need help. Helping generates thoughtfulness and compassion.
I’m thinking about all this now, as Seamus approaches his first birthday, because I do need help. I can’t get everything done I want to get done and attend to Seamus the way I have been for the last year. It would be different if I had a job to go back to — finding childcare would have been automatic, a necessity, a non-issue. It would have happened months ago — most women are lucky to get three months maternity leave before they have to go back to work — and it would have cost a lot.
In a report released a few months ago, the Census Bureau found that childcare costs have more than doubled since 1985. The average family with a working mother and a child under 15 pays $143 a week for childcare, a whopping $7,400 a year. Despite these sharp increases in costs, the wages for most childcare workers have not gone up. The report also found that because childcare costs are so high, kids are spending more time unsupervised — not just teenagers, mind you, but 5 to 11-year-olds, on their own, for hours at a time.
However, I don’t have a job. I have commitments. So far, I have mostly done my work during his naps or our walks or while Seamus is engrossed in the serious work of being a baby — moving blocks from one place to another, pulling books off the shelves, working all of his pants out of the drawer, playing with the Velcro on his diaper until it fails and he is diaper-free.
This strategy works, up until a point. I wrote this column while he was happy and playing. But there are times when it doesn’t work and when I can’t just say that the baby ate my homework. Nevertheless, we can’t pay $143 a week for daycare so that I can be a good board member at War Resisters League, or work with Witness Against Torture to shut down Guantánamo, or help out at the food coop, or write my column for Waging Nonviolence.
So, I am trying. I am asking for help. In fact, a friend is coming over this afternoon to play with Seamus while I try and take care of some desk work. It is hard to do when Seamus is grabbing your mouse and your pen and the piece of paper you are writing on and then heading for the stairs with all three sticking out of his mouth. I have someone lined up to do something similar next week. His nana came last week, when I needed to go to the dentist (not something you can do with a toddler). I am learning to ask for help.
There are lots of models out there that don’t require $143 a month. Patrick and I both played in babysitting cooperatives when we were little, where parents took turns watching each other’s kids. Sounds pretty simple, but today it would probably have to be in peanut and pet free environments with only organic plastic free toys, and based in the latest progressive early-childhood development pedagogy. Or is that just me, trying to avoid asking for help by being snarky?
See, I need help asking for help.
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