When my children were young, my husband and I often used a trick to get them to accomplish a task that was important to us but somehow distasteful to them. The trick (stop me if you’ve used this one) went something like this: “Do you want me to help you put on your coat, or do you want to do it by yourself?” To my now adult children’s embarrassment, this double-bind ruse always worked like a charm.
So did timeouts initiated while riding in a car seat, by the way. I think my kids were a little slow on the uptake.
The double-bind trick worked because toddlers, as a group, possess a strong independence streak, an often annoying but developmentally appropriate attitude that assists them in accomplishing the startlingly large amount of learning presented to them during their early years.
“I CAN DO IT MYSELF!”
Parents of any child in or beyond the toddler stage will be familiar with this assertion of independence. And, if we are honest, we will also admit that we too are sometimes guilty of insisting, with the same indignant attitude, that we do not need help, thank you very much.
I was reacquainted with my own inner toddler in a very surprising moment last December. I had just received a new sewing machine for Christmas and wanted to explore it a bit while my mother, an experienced costume designer and seamstress, was there for a visit. So I took it out of the box and began reading the instructions while poking around at the various buttons and levers. My mom stood just behind me, looking over my shoulder and offering suggestions now and then.
No big deal, right? So I thought. But to my total surprise and embarrassment, I found the experience excruciating! Even in my late 40s, even though I had asked for her help, every pore of my body was secreting an almost overwhelming urge to scream to my mother to, “GET BACK AND LET ME DO IT MYSELF!”
Thankfully, I stifled the tantrum and made it through the moment with both my ego and my relationship with my mother intact.
Many of us seem to believe that it is our job to take care of everything in our lives by ourselves – including healing. This is not really very surprising, given that in the United States we live in a do-it-yourself culture where people take pride in mastering all of the various aspects of their lives without assistance.
We grow up believing that if we don’t do it ourselves, it won’t get done, or it won’t get done right. And we also believe that an unaided accomplishment is somehow more valuable than one achieved with a little help from our friends.
Unfortunately, if this describes you and you are in need of healing, then you’re in trouble. Because sometimes we just can’t do it all by ourselves. Sometimes, it makes more sense, reveals greater strength, and results in a more profoundly positive outcome, to accept help from someone else.
Shortly after our move to the East Coast ten years ago, my family experienced a devastating personal tragedy when my husband’s sweet brother – who was also my good friend and my children’s beloved uncle – died by suicide.
Our subsequent week back in Omaha was a messy blur of activity, connections and feelings, all overlaid by a hazy, but almost unbearably heavy, mantle of shock and grief. Practical tasks, time with family, the concern of friends, the bittersweet wake and, finally, the funeral – there was a lot to get through, a lot to soak up, a lot to remember and sort through later.
Primary through it all was our worry for our two young children, who had been really struggling with the upheaval of our recent move and now had to suffer through this new loss. It was all my husband and I could do to keep our own needs at bay so that we could take care of theirs, but we sucked it up and gave it our best effort.
Effort being the operative word here. In our profound grief, we were barely able to put on our own oxygen masks, much less help our kids with theirs.
In retrospect, the most significant experience of the week for me occurred during the funeral when, having tried (and spectacularly failed) to hold my seams together one last time, I looked down through copious tears to see my 9-year-old son offering me a clean, white handkerchief, the one he had, unbeknownst to us, so thoughtfully and carefully packed in his small suitcase, and then placed in his pocket before the funeral, so that he would be ready to offer it in the event that someone in his family should need his help.
We were ravaged by our grief, all of us. And my husband and I were trying desperately to stay strong so that we could be there for our children and help them through this tragedy, as we felt our parental roles demanded.
But my little boy turned the tables on all of that. He helped me.
And, in doing so, he learned that he could, even as he worked to manage his own grief, be strong and kind, and offer real adult-type assistance to the mother he still turned to for so many things in his young life. And I was reminded that I didn’t always have to be strong, that it’s okay to accept help when I need it. Even from my youngest child.
My son’s thoughtfulness and strength at this moment just slayed me. I was so proud of him. And I was, and still am, so grateful for his help. Because, at that moment, despite extraordinary resolve and effort, I just couldn’t do it by myself.
What about you? Have there been times in your life when it was difficult to accept help but you did it anyway? Tell us about it in a comment below.
If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Beyond Brokenness – Living With Disability and Every Fall Makes You A Better Rider.
Thank you for sharing this moment and message. I am so guilty of trying to do it all. I am a work in progress and learning. I hope you are enjoying you location. You were a delight to work with.
Thanks for checking in, Julia! The pleasure was all mine, actually.
I just found your site, via Tamara Suttle (Thank you again, Tamara!). This post brought so many memories for me. I lost my own beloved brother to suicide in 1975. I experienced the shock and grief you wrote about. I had two little ones at that time. My son was six and my daughter was three-years-old. I did not know how to help them. It was at this time that I turned towards a church and a relationship with God and with other people who made it their mission to care for others. They cared for me as if I was a baby chick in an incubator…and I let them. It was the first time in my life I was able to just “let go,” and let others help. Both events changed who I was in a profound way. Thanks Anne.
Thanks so much, Linda, for checking in here, and especially for offering your personal thoughts about letting go and letting others help. I feel for you and your family, as I believe I can understand at least some of what you might have experienced during this very difficult time. But I am very happy to hear that you turned to, and then found hope and support from, an entity outside of yourself and have no doubt that, like you said, you were changed profoundly by the experience. Bravo to you for looking out for yourself and your family, and for being willing to let others step in when you needed a leg up.
Anne, thank you for sharing such a personal story. It’s one that resonates loudly with me for sure. It reminds me of 1993 when my life partner died unexpectedly. At 33 years of age (and extremely closeted at the time), I was completely unprepared on so many levels to be (1) experiencing profound grief and (2) to be presented with so much support from acquaintances, friends, neighbors, clients, and colleagues. Kathy’s death resulted in a huge series of life-lessons for me . . . the biggest of which is that “sometimes gifts come in ugly packages.” It seems you got that lesson, too.
By the way, for therapists who have encountered suicide in their personal or professional lives, you / they may want to know about the email discussion list hosted by the American Association of Suicidology http://www.suicidology.org/about-aas. It is specifically for clinicians who have survived the suicide of someone else. Great place to find support.
Blessings to you on your journey!
Really good to hear from you, Tamara, although very sorry to hear about your profound loss. Yes, you’re right. Gifts do sometimes come to us in ways that at first seem very ugly indeed. Thanks for sharing your story, and the link for therapists. Very helpful resource, and one that I will pass on to others.