Help! Help!

This semester has been probably the hardest few months of my adult life.  Between the craziness of parenting a toddler, attempting to finish TWSNBN, preparing for and being under review, nurturing Spousal Unit as he taught a college course for the first time, and trying to make sure everybody has clean underwear in which to teach, be reviewed, and toddle, it’s been a rough, rough few months.

Things are starting to ease up just a little because Spousal Unit’s semester is ending, but also because I broke down and finally asked for help. 

There are many reasons why asking for help is so deeply terrifying to me, mostly due to my situational identity as an oldest child, graduate student, professor, and wife.   Oldest children never ask for help because that would reveal a potentially exploitable weakness to the underling siblings and therefore result in the loss of top dog status in the pack heirarchy.  Graduate students never ask for help because it would reveal a potentially exploitable weakness to the fear-sniffing, rabid, theory-bound compatriots and therefore result in the loss of status in the pack heirarchy.  Professors never ask for help because it would reveal a potentially exploitable weakness to the ravening pack of drooling teenagers who are lurking in every classroom just waiting for a trip-up and therefore result in the loss of status in the pack heirarchy.  Oh, and if as a wife you admit you need help, well, you might as well admit you were wrong. Admitting that you were wrong means that you automatically forefit the marriage game, handing 10,000 marriage points and therefore victory to the husband.  

As for my other identity as a mother, well, that’s still pretty new to me, and while I’m sure there’s a pitfall in there somewhere in asking for help, it is as a mother that I finally learned to do it in the past few weeks.

It all started with the Gadlet, really.  If you’re a longtime reader here, you’ll know that the Gadlet is a genius with the Baby Sign Language.  She knows about 50 signs for things in her world, from “love” to “potty” to “banana” to “elephant.”   She’s also starting to use them in sentences.  “More raisins” is a favorite.  Yesterday when I went to pick her up from her nap, she singed “out all-done” which I took to mean she was done with her nap and wanted out.  Nope.  She was NOT all done, and so was saying “no out.”  (She seems to use all done for no.)  While all of this is pretty cool, it was downright amazing when last weekend this 14 month-old-kid walked up to the couch where Spousal Unit was grabbing a nap (he’s averaging 3-4 hours of sleep a night these days) and signed “sleepy.”  She then gently patted him on the leg, and tiptoed away.  

The Gadlet  learns these signs pretty fast, usually within a day or two of introduction.  But the other day, she was struggling with putting some flash-cards into a box (her favorite activity with said cards).  I asked her if she wanted help, and showed her the sign:  

As I watched, a little light went off in her head.  She enthusiastically put her two hands together and shook them up and down repeatedly.  It was absolutely immediate.  It was like she had just been dying to have a sign for this concept that she seemed to need so desperately.  She gave me the sign, and so I helped her with the card.  She looked so satisfied and proud.  Since then it has become her new favorite sign.  When she wants out of her carseat: help!  When a puzzle piece won’t fit: help! help!  When she wants to open the jar of jam she took out of the fridge when I wasn’t looking: help! help!  It is so precious and wonderful and trusting — that she wants help from me and knows without a doubt that she will get it.  And when she gets the help she’s asking for, she’s calm, happy and proud. 

Watching all of this made me think that maybe, just maybe, I could be calm and happy and proud if I got some help too.  

Add to this the fact that we all got horribly sick, with my cold turning into the PINK EYE (which is about the single nastiest thing ever.  What could be grosser than suppurating eyeballs???), and the Gadlet’s into 2 ear infections, (We’re on our second now…) and really, we were all just barely hanging on by a very thin thread.

So I broke down and asked for help.  I sent out a cosmic enthusiastic double hand lift to the universe.  Then, I called Grandma Unit, who unlike Nana Gad is retired, and asked if after Thanksgiving she could come to our house and help us. 

And, wow.  She is a marvel.  She has spent the week cleaning, doing every stitch of laundry in our house, and organizing stuff. Plus, she hemmed the curtains in our living room which have been dragging 3 feet of fabric on the floor gathering tumblebunnies for the 5 years since we brought them home from Ikea and hung them up.  Hallelujah! 

The other thing I did was to hire cleaning help.  

This has been a secret desire of mine for a long time.  I mean, how amazing would it be to have help (help! help!) with this task that consumes so much time that I just don’t have?  But there have been a number of weirdnesses with it.  First, there is that whole social class thing.  I mean, don’t only the very richest evil upper class corporate Republicans with SUVs and flying monkeys have housecleaning help?  I aspire to bona-fide middle class hippy liberal feminist status, and surely those folks don’t pay other people to clean up their crap. They do it themselves because they believe that the shit you put out into the universe you better deal with on your own.   And shouldn’t I be responsible for my own universal shit? 

Plus, I tried it once and this did absolutely nothing to ease this anxiety.  When I was VERY pregnant and exhausted and sick and going through a “nesting” phase, I found somebody on Craigslist who advertised “green cleaning.”  She was great — my age, cool, artistic, an interesting.  She came over one weekday and then she and I spent 5 hours cleaning my house.   My house was her first job. And, I’m pretty sure it was her very last.  I think that the Terrible Trauma of cleaning my house put her off of the whole thing forever.  I have no real evidence for this, but she had left one of her cleaning utensils, and I called and told her it would be on our porch and she could pick it up whenever.  She never called back and six months later that spray bottle of vinegar was still there.  (Although, now that I think about it, maybe cleaning our house actually just killed her, so being dead was the reason she never got that spray bottle.)

Anyway, this experience did absolutely nothing to assuage my guilt about the whole cleaning-help thing.  Not only had I been so awful I put her off of her job, but I’d been so bad (and my shit had been so nasty) she never wanted to get anywhere near my house again.  

Then, over the summer, getting ready for a class I was teaching, I read a Jane Smiley essay called “It All Begins With Housework.”   In this essay, she seems to argue that with modern technology, housework is easy.  Handled readily in a matter of minutes in the morning before the kids rush off to school.  So easy she even has time to take care of her horses. (!)  Well, shit.  If she can do it and write brilliant novels, then shouldn’t I be able to do it too?  Maybe I even have  moral obligation as a feminist to take advantages of my technological privileges. Technological privileges that as a woman’s historian, I know women in the past did not have.  Hell, even just  washing one’s hands in the past involved a trip to the back yard.  So, shouldn’t I be grateful that I don’t have to do that and just happily vacuum away?

Add to all of my internal doubts the fact that Spousal Unit is morally opposed to spending money.  That is at all, let alone on something that he feels we could very well do ourselves. 

But the problem is, we WEREN’T doing it ourselves.  Seriously, my kitchen floor had not been mopped since last Christmas.  And before that, it was that day in the summer when I killed that poor green housecleaner.  Mopping a kitchen floor 2 times in 2 years doesn’t seem like an indication that your life is under control.  Not to mention the whole “sanitary” thing…

It got to the point where every time I went to somebody’s house that was clean and organized, I’d get this surge of envy and hatred.  How dare they have time to have such a perfect house?   It was clearly a personal affront designed to make me feel shitty about myself.  

Finally one day, when I complimented a friend on how great her house looked, (through the gritted teeth of envy)  she let me in on this huge, vitally important secret.  She had help.  Once a week, someone came to her house and cleaned it.  It blew me away.  Suddenly, I started asking all of my friends.  It turns out most of them had help, especially those where both partners worked.   A huge AHA went off in my brain.  Maybe it wasn’t the fact that I’m so much less responsible and so much less of a worthy person than all of those folks with clean houses.  I just didn’t have any help.  

My kind friend slipped me her housecleaner’s name and phone number, and finally, this week I called her.  She came and cleaned my house on Wednesday.  And it was a revelation.  It was so amazing to come home and have a clean house.  And, I mean clean!  She even wiped down our trash can!!  It felt like a burden lifted.  I’ve booked her to come every two weeks for the next three months.  It’s going to cost us $75.  A brilliant bargain.

So three cheers for help.  I’m so so grateful for that help from Grandmas, from Professionals, and from Friends.  So grateful, I may have to rethink my position on asking for help in general.  Perhaps it doesn’t send you to the back of the pack.  Maybe, just maybe, it can enable you to transcend the pack and walk away proud and happy and relieved.

10 responses to “Help! Help!

  1. You are so right in the way you parse oldest child, graduate student, prof, wife, etc. I’m struggling with these same issues (okay, so maybe not the prof identity yet, but the rest? yes) so I’ll happily offer up three cheers for help if help helps! And say I’m trying to work on asking for some for myself, too.

  2. Woohoo!!!!

    I also love that the Gadlet signed “sleepy” and tapped SU on gently on the leg, as if she were saying “you go ahead and rest now and I’ll see you later…” :>

  3. Love, love your blog article. Don’t be surprised if I share it with audiences. I’m a professional speaker – speaking on an epidemic in this country – The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome. There are soooo many of us who can’t ask for help, do everything all by ourselves, can’t delegate because no one else can do it as well and we’re headed to burnout, depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks….well, you get it.

    I talk about all this in my McGraw Hill published book Help Is Not a Four-Letter Word: Why Doing It All Is Doing You In.

    I think it’s wonderful that the saying, “out of the mouths of babes “has advanced to “from babes sign-language we learn!”
    Thank you!
    Peggy Collins
    Speaker, Trainer, Author

    • Thanks so much, Peggy! I appreciate the shout-out! Feel free to share the story, but please do give the blog credit when you do so that I can retain my rights to the intellectual property. (not to be all protective and stuff… Plus, it would be nice to expand the blog’s audience a bit!) 🙂

      I’ll look forward to reading your book with all of my new free time generated by all of the help I’m getting!! 🙂

      Thanks again –

  4. Hey! Oldest child professor here, and we hired a cleaning service in the fall. THANK GOD. We were in the same boat as you. But you know? We pay her $30/hour and I’m happy and she’s happy and the HOUSE IS CLEAN.

    Ah, the stuff we learn from our kids. (The Gadlet, btw, sounds like a Baby Genius! And very cute, too, obvs.)

  5. I’m so glad to see a new post from you. I am also an oldest child/former grad student/former postdoc/professor and the stereotype you describe is spot on. When at a friend’s house for dinner, I always put my dishes and those of the people sitting near to me in the dishwasher and help clean up the kitchen, but I feel guilty when friends come to my house and do the same. Go figure.

    My revelation came when one of my best friends, a colleague at my previous school who is an econ prof, explained to me about “comparative advantage.” Yes, I can clean my own bathrooms (though I don’t, or not nearly as often as I would like to have them cleaned), but it is WELL worth $35 every other week to have someone else do them. It is the happiest check I write. I don’t care so much about getting someone else to clean the rest of the house, though that may change when the Snarkling comes along in March (I actually plan to get my same service to do the whole house a few times in the weeks before and after the birth of our child), but the bathrooms just never get enough attention and I am always scrambling to make them presentable before people come over, which currently happens pretty often.

    I am also perfectly willing to let my husband pay to have his shirts laundered and pressed at the cleaners’. I do not enjoy ironing enough to make it worth $2.50/shirt (which, as slowly as I iron, comes out to $7.50-10/hour if I do it myself). That said, I still pretend I am going to iron my own shirts while in fact leaving them hanging, clean and wrinkled, on the ironing board for three months at a time before spending a rainy saturday morning ironing the whole pile and watching Buffy.

  6. Using sign language with babies (and toddlers) is a wonderful thing to do! Thanks for sharing!

    Sara Bingham, WeeHands Founder
    Author of The Baby Signing Book

    “There are no hands so small that they cannot make a difference in the world.” – Author Unknown

  7. Good for you! It is extremely hard to seek help, but such a relief when we do and receive it.

  8. Dear Stewgad,
    Speaking of helping, I wanted to take a moment to tell you how much your blog has meant to me.

    This Wednesday, after 8 painful and joyful years, I’m driving to my university to drop off my dissertation to Graduate Student Services, thus ending a graduate career that (I am sure) my friends and family thought at times would be ‘the degree that never ends’.

    At my lowest points, it meant the world to me to be able to look up your blog, for both laugh-out-loud moments and sympathetic cringes. I would save up and use your blog as my reward for even managing to work for 10 minutes on my worst days. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us.

    All the best on your defense – I am as sure as a person who has never met you in person can be that you will blow them out of the water.

    Jessica (Ph.D.!)

  9. Jessica S, Ph.D. (horay!)
    My warmest congratulations to you on the completion of your degree! I’m completely thrilled for you that you made it through and finished your pretty hard degree!

    And thank you so much for your incredibly kind comments. I really appreciate them. While I often just write these for me, I do harbor a tiny secret hope that out there somewhere someone else is reading them and that it helps them too. How wonderfully heartening to have that secret hope affirmed.

    Congrats, again. Horay!

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