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The dominant culture (white, middle-class, nominally Christian, developed-nation culture) is ambivalent about asking for help. Overtly, we encourage people to ask for help, and covertly we judge them when they do. This causes problems for mothers, who, like everyone else, occasionally or even frequently need help. And because of a societal expectation that mothers can handle everything (when they aren’t causing all social ills), it can be very hard for mothers to ask for help. It’s time for all of us to consciously refuse to feel shamed by society’s unhelpful and unrealistic judgments.

If you are a mother, you do need help. Fact. No matter how easy your baby and no matter how naturally you take to maternity, there will be times when you need help, times when not asking for help will do active damage to you, your child, or someone/something else. We are not superheroes.

I’m a single mother, my child is not easy and I do not take easily to maternity, so I have learned to ask for vast quantities of help. I have been blessed beyond description to receive it.

Here’s a heartfelt public thank you to every single person who has ever supported my child and me. Some of you are true heroes in our lives, some of you are the gentle backbone support of community and some of you have been one-time angels in a moment of need. Sometimes your greatest gift has been saying ‘no’ to a request for help.

Along the way, I have learned much about asking for help. I encourage everyone, and especially mothers, to take on the challenge of asking for every bit of help you could possibly want or need. You won’t get it all, but you will get a lot, and you will learn even more. You will also learn about giving help.

Who to ask

Many mothers, especially those who live far from family, believe that there is no-one to ask. This is not true. It is appropriate to ask non-family members for help with your kids. Let me say that again: It IS appropriate to ask non-family members for help with your kids. Possibilities include neighbours, friends, parents of your children’s friends, people from your church or club, acquaintances you know to be trustworthy, other parents from a playgroup or school. If necessary, pay for childcare.

Society, at least the segment surrounding me, has very clear assumptions about childcare. Society thinks that mothers (where are the fathers??) should pay for childcare only if they are earning. To do otherwise is frivolous and indulgent. I ask, is that true?

Let’s kill the belief that mothers exist to provide for others 24/7. Let’s acknowledge that mothering is hard work. Let’s acknowledge that mothers (and others, of course) need occasional breaks to recharge batteries. Growing numbers of mothers not only know this, but are willing to face and refuse the shame that society would have us feel for taking time for ourselves.

This is a radical statement: It is OK to pay for childcare even if you are not earning money. It is OK to pay for childcare even if all you want to do is sit down with a magazine and a cup of tea for an hour. It is OK to pay for childcare if that is what will keep you sane. Your kids don’t benefit from an insane mother. It is OK to pay for an hour of childcare, and it is OK to pay for childcare 5 days/week even if you are not working outside the home, and it is OK to pay for childcare for any amount of time in between. Some of us are not designed to look after little people day after day after day, and it’s better to be at your best with them for a short while than at your worst all the time. Get rid of the idea that it is indulgent to pay for childcare even if you are not working outside the home. Mothers hold an awareness of their children in their minds and hearts 24/7 and sometimes they need a break.

Trust your intuition. Sometimes you will make a connection with someone you hardly know, who is exactly the right person at the right time. It helps if you have acquaintances in common, to reassure you that they are safe. Also trust the people your child(ren) gravitate to. At different stages of her life, my child has made strong links with people I was not necessarily close to. They have been a gift, as they gave her things I could not possibly give.

One can’t predict who will take to the job (of being involved and offering help), and that’s fine. Serendipity has provided lots of adults for different phases of my child’s life. It helps that I live in a small community and know a lot of people in different walks of life. It is also crucial that I have talked myself into believing (with the help of loving friends) that it IS ok to ask for help, and that I have made active efforts to connect to child-friendly people in my communities.

Heronsister’s tips for mothers (or anyone) asking for help:

  • There is no shame is asking for help. Keep this firmly in mind at all times!
  • Get clear what help you need. Is it an hour or three to yourself, help with dishes or housework, a listening ear, advice, company, help with DIY?
  • Make a clear request. No beating about the bush, no hinting. Complaining that things are hard and hoping they take the hint is not honest and leaves a bad taste for everyone. People can respond clearly to a clear request. Keep the drama to a minimum.
  • Be prepared to hear ‘no,’ or ‘not today but I could do X on Thursday.’
  • In fact, reassure the person you are asking for help, that ‘no’ is a perfectly fine response. People feel free-er to say yes if they know they can say no without upsetting you.
  • Be grateful for each and every offer of help, even if you can’t or don’t want to use it.
  • Do not take them for granted! They are giving you their time, which is their life.
  • Ask for a kind of help that you think they can give easily.
  • Before you ask for help that you really have to have, for example for an important doctor’s appointment, make a list of three people to ask. If the first person says no, ask the next person on the list. This takes some doing at first, but with practice it gets easier.
  • Respect their time: be ready for them when they come, if at all possible, and let them go at the agreed time. Unless you are desperate, and then you can ask for more help, to which they can say yes or no.
  • Say thank you. Hug them. Look them in the eye and let them know that you appreciate their gift to you. Do not do this as a victim. You are giving someone an opportunity to serve, and people love to serve.
  • If at all possible, offer them help. It may not begin to match their contribution to your life, but it is important for energy to flow in both directions. There are always little things you can do for another, e.g., birthday cards, a gift of wildflowers, home-made treats, a piece of your child’s art.
  • When you have help, do what you most need to do. Your helper may not understand that you are not asking for help to get things done, like paid work, housework, paperwork, appointments, etc. So gloss over the fact that you spent the whole time rearranging your sock drawer or staring at the goldfish. Say you got the things done that you needed to do, and how much better you feel (which is presumably true). Because looking after YOU is the whole point.
  • If no help is available, know that you will survive. In other words, take one day (hour, minute, breath) at a time.
  • Remember that even though your child(ren) may be driving you to despair, you are not asking your friend to take on the despair.
  • Your children will probably behave better with someone else.
  • Someone else only has them for a few hours at most, which is QUITE different from the 24/7 responsibility you have. For a short time, they can take whatever grief your child can dish out.
  • Remember that many people would love to have an ongoing relationship with a child — an empty-nester, someone who’s never had children, someone who wants an excuse to play.
  • Above all, recognise that people are interdependent. Not one of us can do without others. There are times in our lives when we give and give, and there are times in our lives when we take. Mothers, especially new mothers, do an enormous amount of both.