“You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.”
― César Chávez
There is a little corner of the Internet that is all a flutter. Some might say that it’s just another Mommy War, a new script on an age-old battle. Other people – kinder, more practical people – might call it a Peace Treaty, a show of solidarity between fellow moms.
But, here’s the thing: it isn’t really a motherhood thing at all. It’s not even a parenting thing, for that matter. It’s a human thing. It’s a dealing-with-life kind of thing. It’s a let’s-take-care-of-each-other thing.
But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, here’s a little back story…
A few weeks ago, a woman wrote an article describing all the ways that her experience as a new mother differed from all of the “warnings” she was given. The baby weight melted off; she grew closer to her husband; she enjoyed a relatively natural and easy transition into motherhood.
She shared her truth (or what I trust is her truth) and, you know me, I am ALL about truth-telling.
But if you have read this or this, you also know that her story is not even a little bit close to mine. Motherhood did NOT come naturally – or easily – to me. On the good days, adjusting to motherhood was uncomfortable; on the bad days, it was downright brutal. Unlike some women who slide into motherhood like pulling on a pair of well-worn yoga pants, motherhood for me felt more like trying to squeeze into a pair of size-too-small skinny jeans. I pulled and twisted, held my breath, bent and contorted, and still ended up in a puddle of tears on my bed.
A few days after that first article, my friend Stephanie Sprenger wrote an honest and respectful response piece in which she criticized society’s “archaic view of motherhood” and called out the need for better support and help. Let’s just say that when I read her response, I wanted to both weep and applaud. Support and help? Yes, more of both please. In order to garner that support, she created a campaign called #sogladtheytoldme asking moms to share the pieces of truth and wisdom they have received. In the blogging world, the #sogladtheytoldme campaign has caught on like wildfire.
And for that, I am thrilled. This is exactly the kind of thing that parents (not just mothers, but all parents) need – an honest and real look at parenthood, a depiction of the beautiful and the brutal, the joyful and the heartbreaking, the everyday and the big-picture. It’s all in there. Whether you’re a mom or about to become a mom or know a mom, I encourage you to check it out. It is a remarkable movement, to say the least.
Nonetheless, I will not be participating in it.
Instead, I will stand by and applaud. I will support, but I will not participate.
Why not?, you ask. Well, for one reason, as I have written here, here, and in Open Boxes, I struggled with postpartum depression after my first son was born and, while the grittiness of that experience is far behind me, it is still a potential trigger. I have recovered, though I may not be fully healed, and it can still rekindle painful memories and tear open old wounds. The healing, for me, comes through talking and writing about my postpartum experiences – but in my own way and on my own terms.
The other, and perhaps more relevant, reason that I am not participating is because I don’t really have anything to offer. I have no nuggets of advice that I can pass on, no words of wisdom that I can share. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t get any advice. On the contrary. As any parent will tell you, nothing sparks unsolicited advice like a new baby. Or a toddler. Or a preschooler. Or a teenager.
So yes, the advice was there. I just didn’t hear it. Or it wasn’t what I needed.
You see, after Jackson was born, I found myself caught in this strange and debilitating limbo. On the one hand, I knew I had no idea what I was doing. I was paralyzed by doubt and insecurity. How did I become responsible for another human being? And what, in God’s name, qualified me for such a monumental task?
But at the same time, I didn’t trust anyone else to help me or think that anyone was capable of understanding what I was going through. What did they know? How could they possibly understand? And if they did know how I was feeling, how much I was struggling, what would they think of me?
So I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t accept help. I didn’t share my truth or talk about how I was really feeling. Instead, I shut down and pretended I was happy. It wasn’t until I stopped shutting myself off, admitted that I needed help, and shared the truth of my story that people were able to offer the encouragement and support that I needed. It wasn’t until I showed love that I received love. It wasn’t until I let myself be seen and heard that I really felt seen and heard.
Despite all of the progress we have made with the women’s movement and feminism, we still seem stuck in a culture of myths. Moms are supposed to have this “mothers’ instinct” thing. Dads are supposed to, well, defer to the mothers. And we are all somehow supposed to be able to do everything and be everything – parent, spouse, employee, friend. All of it. All the time. These myths are, of course, complete bullshit. Moms don’t necessarily have any idea what they are doing; dads want to and should be equal partners; and no one can do everything or be everything.
We also live in a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency, stoicism and resilience, privacy and autonomy. There is nothing inherently wrong with independence and resilience and privacy; these are good and honorable traits to have. The trouble comes in when we over-inflate the importance of these values and forget that we can’t do anything alone. When we forget that we’re all in this together. When we forget that we need each other.
Silence is golden, they say, but it can also be dangerous. Silence can breed contempt and misunderstandings and the perpetual cycle of inauthenticity and never-enough-ness that haunts so many of us. Silence can dig holes and push us into them. Silence can hinder support and connection.
Silence is what makes us feel so alone. Silence is what keeps the help we so desperately need at bay, and what prevents us from receiving support even when it is thrown at our feet.
Like I said, this isn’t really a motherhood thing, but a HUMAN thing. Whoever we are, at some point or another, we will find ourselves venturing into new or rocky terrain. It might be job stress or a new baby or marital problems. Maybe it’s the death of a parent or the loss of a friendship. It could be addiction or depression or loneliness. Whatever it is, there are times when we can get caught in the limbo between uncertainty and pride, between vulnerability and fear. We don’t know what to do, but we’re pretty sure that no one else could possibly know either. No one else could possibly understand. What could they know about my situation?, we think to ourselves.
So we keep quiet. We pretend that everything is fine.
Maybe no one could understand. Maybe no one can offer helpful advice. But if we keep silent, how will we ever know? If we keep pretending, how can we ever really be seen or heard? If we don’t ask for the help, how can we expect anyone to know what we need?
If I have learned anything in the past decade or so, it is this: Openness leads to opportunity. Vulnerability leads to intimacy. Truth-telling leads to connection. And help leads to hope.
I have also learned that some of the most meaningful things in life are a lot of work and some of the most beautiful things in life – parenting, marriage, friendship, or any close relationship for that matter – have a less pretty side and carry a certain grittiness to them. And it does no one any good to pretend that they don’t. We don’t diminish their meaning or beauty by talking about the hard and gritty and less pretty parts. We don’t disrupt their sanctity by sharing what is in our heart, honestly and openly and respectfully. We don’t diminish the worth of these beautiful and meaningful things by acknowledging their inherent struggle, and we certainly don’t diminish our own worth by asking for help now and then.
Obviously, not everyone is comfortable sharing things as openly and publicly as I do. And Lord knows, there is a big difference between knowing a truth and living a truth. I still struggle to live out the values that I promote in my writing, including the truth-telling and flaw-loving parts. It is hard to say the things that I’m scared to say, hard to have the awkward conversations, and hard to live in a wide-open kind of way – as much as I believe in all of those things.
But what if we started by sharing just a little bit more of ourselves with one person – maybe our spouse or a sibling or a friend? What if we stopped pretending we had all the answers and asked for help now and then? What if we stopped being silent about what we’re going through, and opened up to the possibility that we might get the support that we need? What would that be like? What would that feel like?
Vulnerable and scary? Of course.
Difficult? You bet.
But not nearly as difficult, I suspect, than going it alone. Not nearly as difficult as pretending to have all the answers. Not nearly as difficult as moving through life without really being seen or heard, without really being known.
So, no, I am not participating in #sogladtheytoldme – at least not in the typical way. I won’t be holding a sign with words of wisdom that I received, nor will I pass on any parenting advice that I was told. Heck, most days I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing (except now I’m willing to admit it).
I may not have any advice, but I do have a wish. A prayer of sorts and a hope for all of us.
Let us have the courage to be honest, the strength to ask for help, and the grace to accept it.
Let us be kind and take care of each other.
Let us remember we’re all in this together.
Let us know that we are never alone.