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On asking for (and getting) help
Here we are, two weeks in: another school year underway. In L.A., we get going way too early, so I know that many of you are still wandering through the woods of Vermont. Or maybe you’re vacationing at the cabin, flying in from Europe? You probably want to avert your eyes. Maybe just consider this a missive from the future.
I’ve moved past the middle-of-the-night panic attacks onto lists — lists and schedules and plans and schemes, documented in various colors all over my planner. “The arrangements,” as my grandfather used to call them, making sure every morning drop-off and weekday afternoon is accounted for. I don’t mean stuffed with activities for the kid; I just mean: whose warm body will be at the gate to pick her up? How will we account for the many, many hours that follow the school day? How will we now deal with actual homework?
This has always been my job, and I’ve done it happily, and/or somewhat — sometimes — resentfully, cutting my own thinking off at 1:25pm or 2:25pm (yes, two days a week the kid’s day ends at 1:45pm). Our afternoons together have meant a lot to me, that languid time we sometimes fill with ice cream or dance class or trips to the beach or to Target, and sometimes just with cuddles on the couch in front of Diary of a Future President. (I fucking HATE the homework part of it, but our new philosophy, stolen from my sister is: step away, let her handle it—or not, and let her learn/suffer the consequences.) Now that she’s 9, I am all too aware that she won’t want to spend these afternoons with me for long.
But I’ve also, of course, often longed for more time to myself, to write or think or read or prep for class, or honestly, just to stop for a moment before the last shift of the day: homework, dinner, cleanup, reading, bed. I have never asked for it, though, in all these years, even as my work life has gotten busier and busier. It’s fine! seemed to be my somewhat angry/somewhat grateful mantra. I can do it, so I should! Right?
During lockdown, there was, of course, none of this separation, everything was together, so I started napping midday as a sort of fuck you to, well—all of it, really, but mostly to the idea that I should (or could!?) singlehandedly be teacher (for my own students and my 2nd grader), mother, writer, cook, cleaning person, planner, worrier, wife, and not just collapse or storm out in a fit of rage and never return.
As we all stumble into this 4th pandemic school year (!!) and pretend all is normal (!?) — LAUSD’s mantra is WE ARE NOT LETTING OUR GUARD DOWN, but it has instituted zero Covid rules — this is something I am determined to not lose: a midday rest. A reminder that I am allowed to take it. I don’t necessarily see it these days as a nap (but I sure as shit would like it to be, those are my very favorite), but…something. A chance to briefly close my eyes. Twenty minutes with a book. A brief walk around the block, or simply a lunch I don’t eat standing at the counter, scrolling through evil Instagram. A chance to stop, momentarily, without shame. Haven’t we learned these last few years that slowing down is not only okay, but vital?
In one of my middle-of-the-night panics, it became clear that I could not handle the afternoon childcare on my own anymore. With a more demanding work schedule, it was obvious that while it might be possible, it would perhaps not be sustainable for my well-being and/or the well-being of our family and/or the advancement of my career. And maybe, for once, I didn’t want or need to sacrifice myself on the alter of our family anymore? I did not need to stomp around with all the stress and resentment about the second shift, spewing it all over everyone?
(Anyone else with me? Hi? Hi?)
For the first time ever, my mother-in-law can take on a tiny bit of the after-school load, which is something I know so many, many people don’t have. (We had none of this in Vienna and not here either, until this year.) I’m sure many of us could talk for hours about how we cobble together our schedules (color-coded, I’d guess, for those with many kids) and who takes on the bulk of the labor (financial, familial) and who feels what about it and what it all means for our senses of ourselves as women and mothers and feminists and partners and what is a family unit anyway — but this isn’t really about that.
It’s about the fact that asking my mother-in-law for help felt, well, hard. (She lives an hour away. It’s not nothing for her.) Do I really need it? I kept asking my husband (not a question he ever asks! Yes! He needs it! He wants it! He can’t do it and needs someone else to and has no trouble getting the help!), when it had become abundantly clear that we did, and that she was willing and able to step up, one afternoon a week. (All this musing over one afternoon a week, FFS.)
And yet every week, I know I will feel this tiny rumbling voice deep down say, do I really need it? Like, really? Is what else I’m doing more important than picking up my kid from school?
Why and where did I internalized this sense that I should be able to handle it all, when everything I know cognitively and everything we’ve experienced over the last million weeks has proven us wrong again and again? During the height of the pandemic, we were the only ones who came to our own rescue: our pods, our neighbors, public spaces where children could run and parents could rest and talk far apart on blankets, not the government (no, not really), not our jobs (demanding more and more or cutting us out entirely), not our incomes (that is if we could keep our jobs; for the most start, incomes stayed the same while inflation soared).
Why, then, is it hard for so many of us, in the face of the last many years, to accept even a little bit more help?
I wrote the bulk of this on the floor of the public library while my mother-in-law was with my kid. I hadn’t managed to find any other time all week. Then I got myself a coffee and read a chapter from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain to prep for class. When I texted my mother-in-law to tell her I was coming home to make dinner (for everyone, including her, this is part of the lovely arrangement), she said, “All is well. Her dad is home and they are going over her homework,” which was maybe the best text I have ever gotten. More adults. More adults around! More help! More hands!
When my kid was a baby and a toddler, and I was one of the only people I knew who had a babysitter (this was uncommon in Vienna because maternity leave lasts at least a year), I often “justified” it to judging parents by saying a) I’m a better, saner human when I have a few hours a week to write and swim, and b) the baby learns that she has more adults who love and care for her — and she has more people to love, too — and that’s only ever a wonderful thing.
So where did that impulse in me go? Is it the pandemic? Is it some sort of American notion of motherhood or wifehood or division of labor? Is it that everything here is so much more expensive so hiring a babysitter is a bigger consideration? Is it the fleeting sense of my kid’s childhood? Of there only being so many more afternoons she’d actually want to spend with me? Is it the feeling that my work doesn’t really matter enough to warrant more time of the day? Is it just…inertia? Some attachment to the status quo? It’s just easier to…do it myself?
Anyone else out there feeling any of this? I’d love to hear.
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