How can I help?

Our family attracts a lot of attention when we travel. My husband usually boards an airplane first, carrying Eirik. As he walks down the aisle I hear passengers murmur… How sweet… How cute. They are charmed to see dad carrying our baby instead of mom. Then Avery passes by, and me, and finally Toren on my back. The ripple shifts to surprise… Oh! they say. There are two!

We are a family of unicorns. This is what I call, showing off just by showing up.

Can I help? The simple answer is, Yes, of course. But it’s not that simple.

I often need five minutes of help; like getting through airport security, running late, with one baby in a carrier on my front, the other on my back, and all of the important documents in my four-year-old’s backpack. I would gladly materialize another adult out of thin air in these moments if I could but I can’t. Hopefully the TSA agents are feeling friendly.

Many strangers have seen me coming and offered to help me make it from point A to point B. I understand: I look like this and you are a good person. In one way, I have an extreme set of life’s circumstances. In another way, I got this. I don’t need you to bump our luggage cart over the curb. And to the airport stranger, who picked up my wallet and coffee from where I set them while I strapped a baby onto my back, I hate to be unpleasant, but stop that. Often, the times when I look like a walking train wreck are the times I most want to be left alone.

If my kids are about to run into traffic then please scoop them up and out of harm’s way. But if our greatest danger is a toddler kicking off his boots, then thank-you for asking, but no. There’s nothing you can do.

Everyone has an invisible struggle; yet it’s hard to know what any of us can do for another. Small tasks done reliably are always good. Empathy, or a well-timed “me too” are always good. Little cards are always good. Childcare is always good.

I am stubborn but I ask for help all the time. My parents hosted us for months while we waited for the twins to be born. A stranger held Eirik as a lap baby on a 30-minute flight to save me the price of another fare. Grandma took the twins every afternoon for a month so I could teach Avery to swim.

Sometimes help shows up in unexpected ways. During the first year of my twins’ lives a friend sent flat-rate boxes of individually wrapped books for Avery to earn. My co-mama homeschooled my daughter with her child during the second year of Covid. Someone gave me a double stroller worth as much as my first car. People I barely know have covered bases I didn’t know I had.

Even when I know I need help I don’t necessarily understand what to ask for. One long, hard day, when the twins were a few months old, Avery was in a mood and dumped a blender full of wild strawberry purée into the dog bowl and my patience ran out. My brain flatlined; I couldn’t remember how to sooth children. I no longer cared to know.

I yelled until all three kids were crying then I put Avery down for a nap. I rocked the babies in their car seats until they fell asleep, and then I sat down on the kitchen floor and asked myself, What do I need right now? Who can I call?

I didn’t want someone to talk to because I couldn’t explain. I needed someone to sit with me – in silence if need be – without thinking me fragile or unfit. Someone who would believe in me, care for me, hold me accountable as I got through this day, and then never bring it up again.

A person finally came to mind whose footsteps steady the wobbling Earth. She knows hardship but makes a point of light-heartedness. She refrains from gossip. She brought me dinner a few times when my husband was out of town. So I called her.

Just having a witness helped. When Avery woke up I apologized and set her up with a cartoon and snacks. I cleaned the house. My friend arrived and we sat on the floor until everything was okay again.

I do more than one person should; I keep the balls in the air but only just. The question of help triggers a deep current of vulnerability in me because I can’t afford momentary lapses in vigilance. People look out for me – I can catch a break now and then – but I almost prefer not to. When I sit down, it is very hard to get back up again.

Theoretically, I would welcome a second adult soul with whom to tag team and share all of this with but I don’t have time for it. My walk yesterday with two other women was cut short because of a twin throw-down. I left half-running down the trail while they wailed.

Alone, I can feed and diaper two babies, throw in a load of laundry, and make a muffin. I can play with my kids or spend the hour more interested in a podcast and that is fine. Isolation is how I do it all. I’m happy to see you, but when you come around I get behind on podcasting. My chores linger and I forget to prep dinner. I semi-ignore my children, and they act accordingly. No one gets what they need.

When you’re here, I feel pressured to be the kind of good mom who cares for others to her own detriment. I guess I rather like pulling all the shifts. In this role, where I give everything I have and expect nothing in return, I am enough.

I know this isn’t healthy. I want to let go a little, let other people into our life, and make some friends before I become a dried-up husk of a woman.

It’s just that adults come with their own needs. There exists a standard for adult company whereby the house is clean, there’s something real for dinner, and crying is quickly and easily solved. Even my husband’s comings and goings must be accommodated. By myself, I just roll with the kiddies.

I like the idea of teamwork, but in practice roles are rarely well defined and it is almost impossible to carry out without things getting lopsided.

Say I’m with a high-achiever. She slings snacks and deep-cleans the kitchen while the kids fold origami. She works like the children are paying her and never stops to do anything for herself. There is an air of superiority about her as she judges my housekeeping failures. She is more than happy to help, but loath to receive help on her own behalf. Indeed my acceptance of help proves my weakness to both of us. I get a little depressed. As Ellen DeGeneres says, help “is the sunny-side of control.”

In the best case scenario, extra adults distract me with wine and interesting conversation. In the worst case scenario, responsibilities diffuse until supervision becomes paper-thin. Let’s say someone is in the living room with the kids while I’m cooking dinner. I think he is paying attention to them, but actually he’s on his phone. The kids are unsupervised but I don’t know that until I hear the sound of breaking glass.

I’m looking for another type of teamwork; one cut from a fabric of patience and sewn together with an unspoken understanding that these little kids have us maxed out. Everyone is doing their best.

My husband usually builds houses and earns a paycheck while I teach our children to share and take turns. Our life functions well enough but my brains are turning into peanut butter and jelly while M doesn’t get enough opportunity to know his kids. At least he rarely has time to notice what he’s missing.

Every so often I get a real-life glimpse of the family fantasy. This weekend, M slowed down and built a birthday piñata with Avery. Then she broke a string on our mini-blind and he calmly got a zip tie and fixed it; including her in the repair. “You know,” he said. “I think I’m getting better at being present with the kids.”

In the evening, M makes a quick meal while I run emotional interference for the kids. After dinner, I look at my husband through tired eyes. “I’ll clean up tomorrow,” I say. He doesn’t object.

Without speaking we both know what needs to happen next. I get everyone into pajamas and diapers while he pours milk into three cups with tippy lids. I lay down on the bed and he lays down next to me. Our children tackle us, and for a few minutes we lay there in a happy heap.

Parenting is often lonely. The help I need most is usually simple validation and friendship. A companion who isn’t trying to fix me or my family; someone who falls in line with my rhythms instead of jerking us into his. Someone who makes life more fun by virtue of his company.

Thanks,” I say to my husband. “It’s really nice to have you here.”

***

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