Last week was one of the hardest parenting weeks I can remember. My 14-month-old was breaking four molars and three incisors at once, which I figured could explain the endless screaming and fevers. That is until the 3-year-old started in with the fevers, and screaming, and saying his mouth hurt. After finding his mouth full of sores, I noticed the baby’s hands were also covered in sores and realized they both had Coxsackievirus (more commonly known as Hand, Foot and Mouth disease).
So with my husband out of town on business, I was house-bound for an entire week of rushing between two beds of screaming children all night, giving endless hugs and popsicles, and managing my own pregnancy-induced nausea.
At one point I stole away a minute to pee and as I passed the defeated shell of a woman looking back at me in the mirror I thought, “This is so hard, I wish I had help.” I was eating Ramen noodles because making a full meal for myself when my kids were surviving on Jell-O seemed ridiculous (and time consuming). I wouldn’t dare ask a friend to enter my home and risk bringing this hell back to their own child, but even if someone tossed me a hamburger from the driveway, at least it would be a hot meal that I didn’t have to make myself.
But how do you ask for help on a mundane Wednesday afternoon when all of your friends are busy juggling their own children, jobs, problems, and lives? Worse yet, how do you admit defeat in the very job you’ve chosen for yourself, one that everyone else you know appears to be handling just fine?
“Why am I failing at this?” I asked myself. “These two tiny people need more of me than I have to give.”
So I did what I always do when things are hard; I searched for joy. I prayed out loud that I would find a glimmer of redemption in my day to carry me through their sickness and my own exhaustion. And I did find it, in a small moment when I asked my 3-year-old to sit and read me a story while I bathed his brother. His little voice recited whatever words he had committed to memory with purpose and inflection. It was adorable and I was proud of him.
But I still needed help. I mentally cursed my husband for being out of town, and thought about the Mamas I know who have family close by who could give them even a shred of the respite I so desperately needed. And for a moment, one fleeting moment, I thought to myself, “How am I going to handle another baby when I can’t even take care of the two that I have?”
When it is just you, your thoughts, and your children, there is no one patting you on the back telling you that you are a good mama. No one sees you rush to cup your hands as your child vomits red Jell-O into your palms while you calmly assure him, “It’s OK, sweetheart, you’re doing great.” No one else’s heart races as you lift a burning hot baby from his crib. There is no one to rescue you from their simultaneous wails of pain and discomfort.
This is the hour of motherhood that you look back on and realize your own mother did with such grace. These are the moments that feel infinitely longer than they will look in memories. And this is the struggle that is soon forgotten when your children are healthy and smiling. It is glossed over, understated, and even joked about, because it has to be. That is how mothers cope, thrive, and go on to manage the next sickness, injury, or heartache.
And I was taking care of them the best I knew how. I was loving them and staying calm for them and pouring every shred of my energy into helping them feel better. I cut cinnamon sugar toast into stars, and laid still in an uncomfortable position under two fiery hot bodies who needed an hour-long snuggle. I gave Tylenol, and baths, and rubbed lotion on their backs. One night before bed my sweet boy said, “Thank you for taking care of me, Mama.” And I knew I wasn’t failing, it was just really hard.
So when a friend texted me, “Do you need anything tomorrow?” I stared at that message for a long while. My pride told me to type, “No, I’ve got this.” But my exhausted spirit texted back that I hadn’t left the house since Monday and if she could leave some food, ANYTHING, on my doorstep, I’d repay her in one thousand cupcakes.
And there it was: I asked for help.
Later that evening another friend checked in on me. She asked if I had groceries. And I replied honestly, “We’re out of popsicles and soy milk.” Without hesitation, my friend went to the grocery store with my list and brought popsicles, soymilk, and the potato chips I have been craving to my door at 11 p.m.
Those two women saved me last week. Their kindness overwhelmed me with gratitude. To send a thank you note or bring a meal after a baby is born is indeed kind. But to bring groceries to my door while your own family sleeps is without a doubt gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). To make time in your busy day to schlep over to my house with a meal in the middle of the week is a mitzvah. And when I started to feel guilty for asking for help, and an immediate urgency to express gratitude for such profound acts of kindness, I remembered why these women helped me. They helped me because they are mothers and have been that shell of a woman looking back in the mirror amidst screams and exhaustion and they wanted to reach in and pull me out. They wanted to help me.
I will write thank you notes and pay it forward to another mama in her hour of need but most importantly, I will never forget that meal or those groceries. Motherhood was never meant to be done alone and swallowing your pride can reveal a sisterhood of women whose kindness will bring you to tears. I am not alone, and asking for help reminded me of that.