Four-letter words flow easily off of my tongue, but one four-letter word eludes me. It always sticks in my throat, rendering me a stuttering fool, kind of like Fonzie when he tries to say “I was wr-wr-wron-wrong.” Though not really an obscenity, it always struck me as one. My personal four-letter hurdle is “h-h-hell-help.”
Asking for help has always been the hardest thing for me to do. I never learned how, and now all of my stubborn refusal has bitten me on the ass.
Growing up, my family never asked anyone for help with anything. We always considered ourselves completely self-sufficient. When we went on vacation, we had the Post Office hold our mail rather than inform our neighbors and ask them to pick it up. If we needed to go to the airport, we’d drive and pay for 10 days’ parking rather than ask someone for a ride. If our air conditioner broke, we’d wait a week for a repairman even though our next-door neighbor was a willing a/c technician. In short, no one was allowed into the inner workings of our family, and we had to keep this wall up during every moment of possible vulnerability.
Even within my family, the message was clear that we were not to ask for help. Kids need help with lots of stuff – homework, problems at school, colds and flu. Because education reigned supreme in my father’s mind, it was ok to ask for homework help. But it soon became apparent that new math and my father’s slide-rule engineering degree proved incongruent. Since he went to college, my dad was the go-to-guy for homework, but my mom read books, so I went to her for English help. But when a sixth-grade crossword puzzle produced an impasse (5-letter word for “tired” ending in “y”) that couldn’t be solved until school the next day and affected my grade (“weary”), I stopped turning to Mom for help with English. Then I made the mistake of asking my dad for help with a paper, and I got a big red slash for using the phrase “the reason being” – his signature phrase, his edit. So I was on my own with homework.
When I was nine years old, one of the neighborhood girls, my friend up until the day before, decided she hated me. To this day, I don’t know why. She was popular in the neighborhood and got all of the neighborhood kids to join her in bullying me. So people would bump into me with their sleds, harass me at the bus stop, make fun of my weight, my clothes, the bag I brought to school – they pulled out all of the typical torture stops. The girl was taking piano lessons from my mom at the time. I told my mom about her intimidation campaign. My mom listened, but she said, “I just don’t see it. She’s so nice when she comes for lessons.” Once I interrupted her lesson and she said “Hi Maria,” like she didn’t hate my guts, and that nailed it for my mother. My mom didn’t know why I made up the story, but she didn’t believe it. So that was the last time I asked her for help in social matters.
And then there were colds and boo-boos. When I was little and I got a boo-boo, my mom came through with the healing kiss, time and again. But that was the alpha and omega of her nurturing skills. If I got a cold, or God forbid, nausea, blame always took precedence over recovery. “It’s because you went out with a wet head yesterday!” she’d scold, or, as I stood over the commode, anticipating the imminent upchuck, she’d grill me, “Well, what did you eat? What did you have for breakfast? What about lunch? Didn’t I see you with some ice cream this afternoon? Milk turns to cheese in your stomach, you know!” Thinking about food sped up the process and I could never answer those questions, even when they continued after I’d flushed. And then she’d give me the appropriate medication and I’d spend the rest of the day in bed, awakened for intermittent temperature checks. Nobody sat with me, or stroked my head or read to me. I just laid there, thankful I didn’t have to hear about all the ways I’d brought this upon myself.
So I stopped asking for help. From anyone. The only exception to this rule kicked in when I got laid off or found myself in otherwise dire financial straits. I hated to ask my father for anything, but he’d consistently provided money throughout my life, and I knew he had plenty and would don a miniskirt and vote Democrat before he spent a penny, so I figured it was my due. And he came through. He complained every step of the way about “subsidizing” me, like I was ethanol, but he did write those checks. I used to explain that he was just investing in Maria futures on the commodities market, and he’d reap the benefits when my value skyrocketed. I stopped asking a long time ago, but so far, he’s received zero return on his initial investment.
But I never asked anyone for help with anything else. People sometimes offered, and I sometimes accepted, and I felt ok about it. I always did something to pay them back – pizza and beer for helping me move, gifts for bartending at a party – because I thought it was incredibly generous of them to offer. I never understood that this is what people do.
Mostly I did stuff myself. When my car was out of commission, I didn’t ask for rides, I took cabs. When Rose was born, terrified of making a fatal parenting mistake, we hired a doula. (Hiring is different than asking and doesn’t count as seeking help.) And when I was sick or had a sprained ankle and needed something around the house, I’d get up and get it. Matt would ask me why I didn’t ask him to get it. The truth was that it never occurred to me. I never asked Matt to help me with anything, until I got really bad morning sickness, and then I asked him to carry my laundry down to the washer, but I’d go down and put the load in myself.
Over the course of pregnancy and motherhood, I realized that sometimes I did need help. And sometimes I’d ask, but I’d been the strong, silent type for so long, that I experienced a kind of reverse “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect. Because they’d never heard me ask for help and I wasn’t very good at doing it, no one took my requests seriously. A couple of weeks ago, while extremely pregnant, I needed help with day-to-day activities but instead of sending a sincere request for help, I posted it on Facebook followed by a punchline. So no one responded, except to say they liked the joke.
So when I had the first preeclampsia scare; when the doctors said to stay in bed and count kicks; I did, but then I got up and had dinner and cleared the table. And when it happened again this past week, I spent all day in bed with a headache, nausea, cramps and sciatica while my in-laws sat in the living room wondering why I was being so “bitchy.” Matt even said they’d talk about me when they got home. I was too sick to care, and besides, it’s inevitable they talk about Matt’s Yankee wife sometime. (“Well she IS from New York, bless her heart. What do y’all expect? Manners and sweet tea?”) When the sick feeling wouldn’t go away by evening, I called the doctor and she sent us to the hospital for monitoring. It was kind of nice. They told me I was having contractions so that made me feel a little more legitimate, and it was the first time Matt and I were alone all week. After a few hours, they said I was ok and let us go home. Now, I thought, now they’ll finally let me lie down.
But the next day it was the same thing. Everyone expected me to take care of them, and when I went to lie down, they’d let Rose come in and jump on the bed, and I’d have to protect myself from her belly flops. (Her flops, my belly.) I had a doctor appointment that afternoon, but that doctor was delivering a baby at the hospital so they approached me in the waiting room and told me to go to Labor and Delivery. Matt, who’d taken Rose to the dentist, picked me up, and again, we headed to the hospital. Rose couldn’t believe her luck – she’d never been allowed to accompany us there before. When we got there, they hooked me up to monitors again and we waited and waited. While I fought back tears from my blinding headache, Matt complained about the cost of this visit, how long we’d waited, and then the pain from a head butt Rose had inflicted.
The doctor finally showed up and again, I was ok. She told me to take it easy. I guess this was finally enough for Matt. He cared for his family for the next two days and then drove them to the airport when I asked him to take the ride in my place. We got a babysitter for Rose and I rested. I saw my doctor that day and she thought it was overwork, not preeclampsia, that put me in the hospital. And then she suggested bed rest, if it was feasible. I said I’d find a way. We got childcare for Rose for the rest of the week, and I’ve been resting. I’m typically only able to maintain about 30 minutes of verticality before I must lie down again. I’m not sure if I was this tired before and I just pushed myself or if it’s a cumulative exhaustion, but I must say I’m enjoying it. And my family is finally taking my requests for help seriously.