Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Building Community by Asking for Help

I recently befriended a woman in town with 2 children of similar age to my kids. We met at story hour, and after a few chats it was obvious to me that this woman was a serious Christian who attended church regularly and cared deeply about the religious upbringing of her children. We chatted effortlessly about church, local school choices, homeschooling, and cloth diapers, among other topics. As the spring session of story hour ended, we decided to make a playdate for our children to get together. We did so, the kids played nicely, and we decided to get together again. About 1 week later this woman called me with a minor "emergency." Her 18 month old son had slammed his hand in the door and she needed to take him to the doctor for an x-ray. She couldn't bring her 3 yr. old daughter, and so she asked if I could watch her daughter for a couple of hours. Sure, I agreed, and within minutes her daughter was playing happily with my children in the backyard.

As I sat and watched the children play, I realized that my new friend had done something that I am very hesitant to do: she asked for help. If the situation had been reversed, would I have called her up and asked her to watch my children while I took one kid to the doctor? We had only had one playdate after all. No, I would not have asked. I probably would not have asked after 10 playdates. I would have asked my mother or husband to take off from work, or I would have waited until I could pay a babysitter in the later afternoon hours. But why?

Is it because I'm Catholic and the community at most Catholic churches is a far cry from ideal. My new friend is an Evangelical, and since I'm a convert to Catholicism, I do remember a greater sense of community in my old Evangelical days. I think this might be a part of it, and possibly the topic of another post, but I don't think this is the real reason I don't ask for help.

Rather, the reason is pride.

After all, if I ask for help I come across as someone who doesn't have their act together. Asking my mother or husband is different, as they know I don't have everything together, but to ask a new friend, or even an old one, is tantamount to saying that I NEED the help of others, and that takes me out of my comfort zone. Somehow in my mind it's ok to ask family, but somehow not ok to ask other friends, even other Christian friends who share my beliefs. I see myself as a leader, a rescuer, a helper, a woman who those in trouble can turn to and ask for advice or help. How can I be this woman and then need other people to help me?

I always complain about the lack of community in our individualistic suburban society. Every man or family for himself. Back in the day, when your barn burned down and caused a burden too heavy for one family to shoulder, the community chipped in and re-built the barn. Today we have fire insurance, and a culture where each family (or each person) is expected to shoulder their own burdens--or pay someone to do it for them. Asking a neighbor or friend to help is somehow less than ideal. But it is this very interdependence that makes a real community. We have to need one another.

In the past, I was a person always willing to offer help--and I felt that, by offering, I was somehow working towards building a real sense of community in our church and town. And I am. But community isn't just about offering and giving, it is also about receiving, and doing so graciously. I can't have "real" relationships with people if I am giving, giving, giving, but not also opening myself up to asking and receiving.

And that brings me back to my new friend. By asking for help she started a real relationship with me and did more to build community than the 50 unaccepted offers of help I have given out in the past several months. And that is an important lesson for all of us type-A mommies!

My new friend recently invited me to a get together at her home. I politely declined the invitation, as we have a very busy week. I explained in an e-mail how busy our family was this week, and she immediately responded by asking if she could watch the kids for me so that I could run some errands. My gut reaction was, "no, I don't need her to inconvenience herself and watch my children, besides, I would be leaving her two kids and she only left me one." And then I realized that if I don't take her up on her offer, she will be hesitant to ask anything of me in the future, and I will put a stop to the great community web that I desperately want to be a part of building. And besides, I really can use the help!


Katherine said...

I think part of it comes down to independence. It is generally regarded that everyone is supposed to be completely independent by the age of 18 or at least once they finish college. If a college graduate moves back home, it is somehow an embarrassment. I know I've been told that, even as a stay-at-home mom, I should be prepared to be independent should, God forbid, anything happen to my husband or, for the cynics, I get divorced (yeah, right).

I think independence has become an American pride such that anyone depending on anyone for anything is considered weak, poor, needy or a failure. It boggles my mind considering family, friends and community used to live together and help each other throughout human history in a very intimate way, up until recently. An adult daughter lived at home until she was married. Adult children took care of their aging parents. Cousins or neighborhood children orphaned were simply taken in as a member of the family. Not nearly so much anymore.

Personally I think the issue of independence really comes down to control. We like to try to control everything from how our day will go to the weather and being independent means we control more in our lives - supposedly. And control comes down to a lack of faith and trust in God or in some cases, even worse, atheism.

And for the record, I'm much worse than you. I've only let two people ever babysit my kids and those are my parents (not counting husband of course). But my big issue isn't asking for help nearly so much as being concerned about influences and the proper care of my children. There are so many dangers now for kids and so many different parenting philosophies on what is good for them and what isn't.

Sorry this got so long.

B-Mama said...

Great thoughts, Red... I often find myself in a similar boat with friends who are more than generous to lend a hand. I usually feel like I'm inconveniencing people or causing an unnecessary burden by taking them up on their offers for assistance.

But on the flip side, it's only fair to consider how GREAT it makes me feel to help someone else--make a meal for them, watch children while they go on an errand... These types of sacrifices bolster my faith and well-being so much.

So why do I deprive others of doing the same for me? Of experiencing the same grace in helping??
I need to do a better job of humbling myself and allowing God's grace from others to flow more freely in our lives.

This is an excellent topic for pondering, prayer, and further meditation!! It is obviously one that we struggle with here in Gasperini-Ville as well! ;)

Mary Alice said...

I don't mean to stereotype, but I have found that members of some other Christian churches are better about this than most Catholic women I know.

I think that Katherine makes some great points about both independence and control. After a year in which I needed serious help with my children when the baby was sick and hospitalized for a few days, I found how blessed I was to have a MIL who was willing to clear her calendar and come to my rescue. I also rememebered that it can be pretty annoying to have someone (anyone, really, but especially a MIL) staying with you and caring for your children for more than a few hours.

Then, I made the crazy decision to move so that I would be close to my in laws. The thing was, I came to realize that the help was worth so much more than the cost of the trying of my patience from time to time, and that the generous way in which the help was given should make me try hard to move towards genuine, natural love for the people in my life who are willing to help me with my children.

This is something that I am really still working on, but I think that there is a cheezy old song that says "people who need people are the luckiest people of all."

For me, this is true. If I need to call for help because pregnancy makes me nauseous, I need to thank God that I am able to be pregnant and that I have someone to call for help, and I need to swallow my pride.

Also, not being from a large family, I think that a mom of many, especially a homeschooling one, becomes a bit defensive or feels that she has a lot to prove. I am worried that if I ask for help someone will say, why did she have all these kids if she can't take care of them?

Lastly, this may sound vain, but I also think that as moms we might think of our kids as huge burdens to "dump" on someone, when in fact they could be giving great joy. If you have a 4 year old girl, another 4 year old to play with makes for a happy afternoon that is actually easier on mom then the child alone would be. If you are a grandma whose grandchildren live in another state, a morning with your neices and nephews is a chance to get some baby love that you might not have coming soon otherwise. If you are young woman thinking about having more children, the chance to spend a nice morning with a friend's kids might make you think that you could manage more than one after all.

Right Said Red said...

Katherine, I think you make some great points about independence and what an important American value it is these days.

B-mama, glad to know I'm not alone in my struggles ;-)

MaryAlice, I couldn't agree more about the point you make in regards to pride. I think anytime we have a larger family, or choose to homeschool or parent in a way outside the "norm" we tend to get defensive about our choices, and then to admit that we need help is almost like saying our parenting choices are "failing." This is especially true, considering that we live in a society where nobody else is asking for help!

Bethany said...

Burdening other people with my children is the reason I don't ask for help; but it goes beyond just thinking that others will see them as burdens. In a society that largely devalues children, my sense (and this is even from friends and family) is that other people feel that we were the ones who chose to have the children so that makes them our responsibility to figure out how to take care of even when times are really tough. If we can't be responsible for our own children even when things go wrong then we shouldn't have had them to begin with. Just as mary alice said, "I am worried that if I ask for help someone will say, why did she have all these kids if she can't take care of them?"

I think this a horrible way to view children and people who have children (the person asking the question, not Mary Alice), but I get this feeling from a lot of people including my parents and my friends. Because of this feeling, I don't tend to ask for help, especially since I tend to have more children than the average household (3 and possibly one on the way, I find out today) Even the people who would probably be more than willing to help watch my kids in an emergency, when I need to run errands or just for fun I shy away from because I have internalized this sentiment. The children are my and my husband's responsibilities alone; no one else is supposed to take on my burdens just because things got tough.

And that's really it. The last statement there. No matter how much I love my children and no matter how many I want to have, when I view my children in a societal view they become my burdens for me to bear alone, or with my husband. I hate that. They are not burdens- troublesome at times, energetic, sometimes obnoxious, sometimes defiant, mostly lovable and sweet- but they are not burdens.

Woe to the society who treats their young with contempt. It makes me nervous.

B-Mama said...

Bethany, prayers for the potential new life!!

Your thoughts are poignant and bring to mind the need for larger families to find community with other larger families (hopefully other Catholic ones too!) Just having the sense of "I've been there and I know what you're going through" amongst friends is VITAL! I will pray for strong communities to support all of us, especially those who are having many and homeschooling as well!

texas mommy said...

We had a friend and mother of 7 who called another friend who just had a baby and offered to make dinner. She initially refused and the mom of 7 got so frustrated and said, "Everyone assumes we are so busy homeschooling lots of kids that I have no opportunities to teach our kids about corporal works of mercy. We are bringing you dinner!"

It was an interesting thought for me since I am always worried about imposing on others. But I agree with Red and B-Mama that it is really a joy to help someone and our pride shouldn't allow us to deprive someone else of that!

Peggy Collins said...

Wow! I found this blog fascinating because I've identified a self-defeating behavior I call The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome and it's keeping many of us "stuck" in self-sufficiency. As a result, we aren't able to realize our full potential through the third stage of human development - Interdependence

As Katherine said, much of this is cultural - we've been taught it's a weakness to ask for help but some of us also did not learn to trust as children so it's been helpful to hide out behind this cultural value.

Here's the frightening part. As a country we're becoming MUCH MORE self-sufficient. High tech creates more opportunities to "do it all, all by ourselves". Security issues add the other reason as parents have to teach their children to ignore anyone they don't know - thus breeding more and more self-sufficiency.

We'll need to make a personal decision. Asking for help IS a strength!! Wish companies would add it to their performance appraisals. It certainly would eliminate much of the separateness.
Peggy Colins
Author of
Help Is Not a Four-Letter Word:
Why Doing It All Is Doing You In
published by McGraw Hill

Ellie Raduns said...

I have been amazed at the idea of "true community." The kind of community where you know it is okay to drop your children off unexpectedly, to stop by without prior notice, or to ask for a meal when times are rough. I am also even more amazed by the Lord working and teaching through it.

We recently got to experience this when my son was hospitalized for seizures. My husband and I just couldn't do it. We felt so overwhelmed by the whole circumstance. Then our phones started ringing. It was as if our small church body had read our minds.
Most all of them had kids and could imagine what the circumstance was like. More than anything we just needed some families to come and sit with us, When we expressed the need, that is what we got. The Body of Christ answered. And in our case it was immediate. One of the families who has three young children immediatley dropped everything they were doing, had their neighbor watch their kids, and they came to be a support to us at the hospital.
I struggled with feelings of innconvienience and guilt (like b-mama said) feeling like we should be strong enough to get through this without them having to turn their lives upside down. But when they arrived, I was so glad for our expressed weakness.
In the week to come we had more responses from our church body. They were bringing us meals, coming to our house to keep us company and bring us encouragment. I have to say many of the visits were unprompted, but so timely.

Getting past the struggle of pride, and being weak was a wonderful blessing. Being weak in spirit allows you to be part of the body of christ. After all no body part can function alone.

There were many blessings to be gained and lessons to be learned from our son's experience. Overall, the body of Christ helped us come through it stronger than before it, and I am so thankful for them all.

Right Said Red said...

Thank you Peggy for your comments. Looks like you make a living on this topic ;-)

Bethany said...

Just to update:

We are not having another baby, yet.
Though I am a little disappointed, it is better this way, since we, as a family of five, just bought and moved into a 3 bedroom 1 1/2 bath home. We're hoping to get a good 5 to 7 years out of this place. And while I fully expect another child or two during those 5 to seven years, finding out we would be expecting after being here a week and half would have caused anxiety about crowding for the next 5 years. "Happy Anxiety", but anxiety none-the-less. I am such a worry-wort.

Mary Alice said...

I have learned a really tough and important lesson this year, which is also to take the help that you can get and be thankful for it. What I want more than anything else in the world is for my mother to help alot with my kids. My mother is very loving, but this is just not her interest at the moment. She has helped some, but she has also made it very clear that regular helping is not something that interests her. For a while, I assumed that this meant that no one wanted to help, or that the people who did needed to "get a life" or they would become too entangled in mine. I need to let other people help instead, not just because I need the help but also because I need to let my mother off the hook. It is okay that not everyone wants to babysit a lot, perhaps they help in other ways or just have other interests. My mother has been basically my birth doula for five children, for which she has had to sacrifice alot since I often have lived in a different state, and for one of them I labored at her home, and I am no picnic while in labor!

I came to a breaking point where I really needed help with the children, and my husband called his mother. She came for a week and cared for our children, did about 25 loads of laundry, I don't know what else.

Another day, when I was totally ill, he called my aunt, who had offered often, but whom I had never asked for help. She spent a nice day with two of my kids and from there started a tradition of her having "dates" with each of our kids, one at a time.

This brings me to another good thing to think about -- divide and conquer. If it feels like too much to drop your 4 kids off at someones home, let them care for the baby while you hire a teen sitter for the toddlers and have a date night. Let them take two older kids and spend some quality one on one time with your little one, and then rest while he naps.

I have to admit, I find the whole post-partum dinner thing a bit awkward. We are picky eaters, and also casseroles get old fast, so when our twins were born we had some meals from the community that we just didn't eat. Much better for me was the friend who brought awesome carrot health muffins, she could drop them off spontaneously and we could snack on them anytime, and nursing moms do need to eat!

Katherine said...

I wasn't going to post this but thought I should just in case it helps anyone else:

I said my big issue wasn't so much asking for help because DH and I are constantly receiving help from both our parents. They are helping pay all our bills and DH's tuition until he finishes his degrees. It took me a bit of time to adjust to the idea despite knowing we needed the help. Here is what I came up with though:

EVERYTHING comes from God. To some he gives more of some things and to others more of other things. When anyone gives you something they had more of and you less, it gives them the chance to be charitable and generous but it also gives them the chance to spend whatever it is God gave them more of in the way he intended it to be spent - with love.

My parents have more money than we do and maybe God is using us to help them spend their money well, namely, on the lives and love of children and grandchildren rather than on expensive cars, etc.

In other circumstances, it could be time or talent or skill or a host of other things. If all comes from God, then just as what we have is not ours, neither is what they have theirs.

Mary Alice said...

Katherine, thanks for your open sharing. It is tough to be married in grad school and great if parents can help. I do think, though, that you have to really know the relationships. Some parents can help with no strings attached and others can't. Some kids can take the support without feeling awkward obligations and others can't. I have found that it is much better if my husband deals with these matters, he treats them as business transactions whereas I would get way too personal.

We are dealing with this pretty intensely as we are buying a house from my in laws, and I have to say I have been amazed at how smoothly it has all gone, but right now it is clear that we are all trying our best to be kind, accomodating and charitable -- I hope it lasts!

Kimberly Hahn refers to "leaving and cleaving", making sure that we are establishing the married relationship as one that is seperate from, but respectful of, our relationships with our parents. This is an interesting dance, sometimes a heartwrenching one for young couples and their parents, and everyone is different, sometimes even within the same family it may be different for siblings.

BTW, the mindfulness that is neccessary in taking help from parents when you are married does not just apply to finances but also to childcare, meals out, travel expenses (especially paying for you to come home for holidays, maybe one set of parents can afford this and another can't, so how does that complicate your decision of where to go for Christmas) or vacations, etc.

I am not trying to be negative, and I do try to remember what a blessing it is to have this problem, to have parents and in laws who want to help and are able to do so.

k said...

I had a similar experience to Red, a neighbor who we had been a little social with was driving to the hospital with her toddler, right at bedtime. Her husband was out of town and she had sliced open her hand. She just pulled over and hopped out of the car and asked if we could take her daughter. I happily gathered her up, took her home and tried to keep her happy and got her to bed (thankfully my husband was home to do the same with my little guy).

What was so nice was she had been away the week before and had a schedule out for her mom...I noticed it and it had all the info on bedtime, pj's, routine etc. This is totally worth making up and updating, just the basics, because it does make those last minute emergencies easier to handle.

Now we are much closer neighbors, we call each other for little and big things, our children are friends. I think it is amazing how these exchanges of help can bring people closer to each other and to the community in general. I know I am now more likely to call not only her, but any one of our neighbors if I need help, because I know how happy I was to provide it.

Great post Red!