Parenthood is an inordinately challenging task. There is never enough time to check off everything on “the list,” to read every article worth reading and to carve out enough time to reflect on it all. No matter how efficient I am, I am constantly bumping up against my personal boundaries as a parent. I just can’t do it all.
For much of 2009, I conducted thousands of mini efficiency experiments. I wanted to answer the question: If I do things differently, can I get it all done? The results were uniformly disappointing: the answer was “no.” (No. NO! ) Then, one quiet morning when Ayla mercifully slept past 6 a.m., the answer came to me. I simply had to learn how to ask for help. Not just the “Can you pick up some berries for Ayla?” or “Can you drop off the rug at the cleaners?” sort of help. I was ready to ask for more, sustained help.
Several years ago, when I was still living in New York City, my therapist repeated the oxygen mask instructions recounted on an airplane: “Put on your mask first, before helping to put one on your child.” Her message: You can’t help anyone unless you help yourself first. And so, the first thing I did was to ring up a life coach who had coached me intermittently over the years.
I’m not quite sure how to name what we do for an hour every week—it’s one part therapy, one part career coaching and two parts intuitive listening (I extol, she listens, and actually remembers everything I’ve said). She sees patterns that I can’t—she encourages me to uncover my true intentions and to take risks as I try to advance my career, and build stronger connections amongst my community of friends and colleagues. It’s hard work what we do—and some weeks I’m exhausted from trying to live out my best and highest intentions every day—but I still can’t help but feel excited when the phone rings at 11 a.m. on Thursdays, and I hear her voice, asking me how I am.
One of my goals is to learn to ask for more help and support—even though I fear that it will make me seem weak or needy. Through coaching I realized that the only way to figure out whether my fears are valid is to live differently--until I have answered the question: Is it really so awful to depend on others?
A few weeks ago I asked two friends to take care of Ayla on a Sunday morning so that I could have some uninterrupted time for reflection and spiritual practice. I was nervous about asking—but my friends eagerly agreed to help, and committed to do so as often as I wished. Their warm response made me wonder why I hadn’t asked earlier. Why couldn’t I see how many people would have delighted at the opportunity to help a friend—even if I couldn’t return the favor?
That Sunday morning was one of the best I’d had in years. I packed Ayla off and then returned to the apartment, and sat quietly as an unusually warm winter sun bathed me in it’s light. I breathed deeply. When my mind grew crowded with worries, or fears, I prayed—tentatively—for help. Then I breathed some more. And instead of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, they rolled down my back, past my toes and seeped into the earth. This esoteric practice just naturally happened—without any thought or planning. With every breath, my load lightened a little more, and then some, until I felt the way I imagined Ayla feels everyday—quietly confident that she will be loved and fed, disciplined and bathed, tickled and engaged, everyday.
The message of the past six weeks seems to be that I’m not alone (nor have I been, nor will I ever be). Whatever problems I have will be resolved, and not by my hand alone. I wish I had known last year, or last decade, that asking for help is one of the greatest sources of strength. Instead of feeling small or weak, I feel supported and stable. This, I think, is just one more paradox of life. What we think will diminish us, only increases our power.