Friday, February 11, 2011

help me./ don't help me.

What is the rudest question you can ask a woman?  A friend sent me a great article from The New Yorker "Confessions of a Juggler" by Tina Fey about the dilemmas of being a working mom. In it, she writes about rude questions, and claims it is not  "How old are you?'" or  "How much do you weigh?".  Tina Fey argues the rudest question you can ask a woman is:  "How do you juggle it all?"  In her article, she claims that when someone asks a woman this, they are actually implying:  "You are screwing it all up, aren't you?"

The article is hilarious, smart, and witty, and I agreed with and related to most of what she said.  However, and maybe I'm naive, but I feel like when people ask the question, "how do you do it all?" they aren't being critical, or suggesting you are screwing everything up, instead, they are genuinely curious and searching for a way to compare themselves.  Aren't all of us (women, mothers) curious about the lives, households, schedules, routines of other women and mothers?  I know I am.  We think that everyone else is doing it all, and doing a much better job than we are.  We think other mothers' houses are cleaner, meals are healthier, bodies are more toned, tones of voice more calm and sweet.  The fact that I feel this way about all the other mothers makes me surprised when people sometimes ask me, based on what they see on the blog, I guess:  "how do you do it all?"

And my answer is usually:  "ummmm..."  but internally, it is some version of:  "Me?  I don't!  Don't kid yourself!  You know better!  Nobody does!"  I don't find the question rude, but it does stress me out, a lot.  Because I'm left thinking to myself:  "Oh shoot.  I've left you thinking that I can juggle it all, so therefore, I need to juggle it all!"  I have a bit of a complex about this.  I want to do it all, I really do.

This dichotomy of self-presentation, as a woman and as a blogger, is a common theme in my mind:

See, I don't want to give you the false impression that we have it all together over here, that we sit down in marital bliss for nice meals every night in a clean house and that our children are always witty and obedient.  Most of our meals are not good or pretty enough to photograph.  We sometimes eat cereal at 9:00 because we realize we have nothing else for dinner.  But you knew that, didn't you?

But, neither do I want to give you the false impression that we don't have it all together, that we have a stressful, chaotic household in which we argue and don't have time to sit down or cook because we're too busy, and our kids talk back and don't listen.

Because the truth, as it always does, lies somewhere in the middle.

My attempt to do it all  has definitely been hindered so far this year.  During the week that my mom had surgery, I was in a high state of stress.  I have a bad habit of clenching my jaw when I'm stressed out, and that week, let's just say my jaw was sore.  I wanted and needed to be with my mom as much as possible, and I was also grading midterms, planning my next teaching units, trying to keep things normal for the kids and keep the household running, training for a friggin' marathon, and taking a friggin' graduate class.  Honestly, woman.  No wonder I was teeth-clenching.  Not to mention that I was super worried about my mom, so it wasn't just that my body was tired, my mind was tired too.  And my fingers were tired from googling things like:  "possible complications to watch for after double mastectomy."

In the midst of that week, a very well-meaning friend said to me:  "You are doing a great job keeping it all together.  Because you have to keep it all together."  Yikes.  This gave me an immediate adrenaline rush and scared the hell out of me.  Must do it all.  Must keep it together.  Must not show weakness.

After an especially stressful Monday morning that involved a copy machine breakdown and some tears I tried to quickly wipe away before anyone noticed, I got an email from my running friends (those sole sisters!) that announced they were going to cover my dinners for the next week, and it included a schedule of who was dropping off dinner on which evening.

I can laugh now about my initial reaction when I read that email.  My first thought was:  "No, no!  You guys!   I'm fine!  I don't need dinners!"  But of course, I totally needed help with dinners.  Sam had been working triple time to keep everything going smoothly and was superdad throughout all of it, but he was also teaching and coaching, and yes, having someone else cook for us would be, I hated to admit, very very helpful.  But why was it so hard to accept their dinners without guilt?  Because I wasn't the one with cancer!  Because I know that my friends are all busy moms trying to juggle it all too!  And because I wanted to hold on to the myth that I could indeed do it all. 

A few days later, after I had accidentally been vocal at work about how chaotic my house felt because there was laundry everywhere, Susan and another colleague/friend gave me a card that said:  "We have arranged to have your house professionally cleaned on Tuesday."  And again, my first thought was:  "You guys!  No!  I can clean my house!"  I had this image of myself on all fours on the kitchen floor with a bucket, sweating, scrubbing away, and saying to everyone:  "No no.  I can do this!  I'm fine!"  What is this all about?  I find the qualities of the martyring mother to be very annoying, and yet I find it strangely hard to just accept the help.

But when I thought more about the concept of coming home to my house (on my birthday, no less) to find everything clean, all at once, as if a cleaning fairy came in and waved a wand, I embraced the help.  I was so excited.  And so, on my birthday this year, I got to walk into a sparkly clean and tidy house that smelled like Pine Sol (my favorite!).  I feel the need (of course I do) to tell you here that my house is usually very clean, but in this case every single room was clean at the same time, every corner clean, and even the inside of my microwave sparkled and smelled like lemons.   AND, thanks to my amazing friends,  dinner was sitting on my doorstep.  Ah, the sweet, sweet serenity of being taken care of. 

I have learned that there are times in our lives when it is just not possible to do it all.  Okay fine.   It's never possible to do it all--at least not as well as we all think we need to--nor should we try, and it's not an attractive quality to think that you should never accept help lest you show some weakness. We should all give ourselves a break. We should all have friends like mine, who instead of saying:  "let me know if you need any help," say:  "I'm doing this thing for you, and here is what time it will happen, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."  It feels good to get help.  In fact, maybe I shouldn't be so afraid to ask for it sometimes, unless of course, that would be seen as rude.
note:  the link to the New Yorker article is just the abstract.  You'll have to find it in print (Feb 14) in order to read the whole thing.


Mary IronMatron said...

You have great friends! )
When people ask me that question I always assume they mean I must be neglecting my children...
I wonder if our reaction to the question just drudges up our worst fears? For you that you must keep it together if it appears that you already have it together, for me that I am a neglectful parent--my worst fear.

Leigh Marotta said...

Yes, when I ask others "how do you do it all", it is because I am fishing for tips on how to get my household more together. As a single mom of two kids and two large dogs, I have learned to let some things go, unclutter our house, and accept the helping hands of my friends. Sure, sometimes I will wipe down the counters real quick with PineSol (love that smell too) to give the illusion that they are freshly scrubbed and if the kids want lasagna for dinner it is frozen and made by Stouffers. Our friends and our motto "KEEP IT SIMPLE" is what keeps us sane but I am always on the lookout to have it ALL.

Carly said...

Very interesting post. I think you're right - we do have a tendency to not want to accept help when really, sometimes, we should. And I agree about your take on people asking how someone does it all. I've recently come to realization that people will make time for anything they want or want to do bad enough.

mcanirlinh said...

honestly, this post almost brought me to tears just because - "someone else gets it". I think we all (especially we multi-taskin' mamas) feel this desire to manage it all and have "must-not-appear-weakitus" but we don't talk how dang hard it is sometimes.
Thank you.

Anne-Marie said...

I'm usually fishing for tips, too. :)
This is a tough one-- I have been thinking a lot about it lately because it was almost exactly 2 years ago that Ben moved up to Maine a couple months ahead of me and the kids-- so I did the temporary-working-solo-parent-trying-to-sell-house thing. And I totally needed help... and it was there for me. But I had to ask for it. I still tear up thinking of the good friends who helped paint, care for the kids, and so many little things. It is so hard to ask for help-- but so worth it, for everyone involved.

rebekah said...

I just love this post. I think we are all there. I also think we'd been sold a bill of well meaning goods, our generation, that we can have it all. And we all know, after trying for some 30 years or so, that it's bunk.

When people ask me how I do it 'all' I say, sort of wink wink, well, you know I don't think I am. Balls get dropped left and right. Case in point, there is cat hair stuck to the grease on the side of my tea kettle. I use that tea kettle every single morning. Once I glanced at it and wondered if the stove flame would burn the cat hair off and leave a terrible smell. But it didn't, and so it's still there.

My take on what your friend meant when she said you were keeping it together because you had to is that we are all that strong. Especially when it's something so critical, like family. And I also understand that you seem to want to be able to not keep it together - this is your mother after all. There is nothing that shakes our foundations more than our parents lack of invincibility. Which brings us right back to how we do it all - because we know we have to for our kids, right?

Enjoy those dinners and that clean house - do not feel like you needed help. We all do - all the time - it's just a question of how open we are to receive it.

Erin said...

Big goose bumps. You are loved.

Brooke said...

I can so identify with this post, Emilie! It has always been impossible for me to accept help when offered. It makes me feel embarrassed that someone would alter their day for little 'ole me.

You are blessed to have the circle of friends you do. And, it is telling of the wonderful person you are!

Elizabeth said...

so related to this. one of the hardest things for me to do is to accept help when it is offered, but what's even harder for me is to actually ask for help when it is needed.

ann said...

And I say---giving others the chance to serve is a very important part of friendship. Nothing makes me happier than when I can help a friend. What a wonderful feeling it is! So Em, in a way you have given those wonderful friends of yours a gift too. And, they know you would do the same for them. That is very, very cool!

Christopher said...

Speaking as your big brother who loves you very much– may your every morning of 2011 begin with a sparkling microwave that smells of lemons. If I could wave a wand and bestow such a gift I would. Perhaps I will embroider this mantra on a dish towel for your kitchen. In the meantime I will rest easy knowing you start each day focused on bigger endeavors. xo - christopher.

sarah said...

I read this the other day but didn't get the chance to write back until now. What a great post!! For me, how I take that type of comment depends on who it comes from... are they truly wondering/looking for inspiration, or are they saying it to judge! What wonderful friends you have. It's so hard to take help, but good friends are those who won't take no for an answer when the help is truly needed. I hope that your mom is doing well. Take care!! -Sarah

ps I just signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon in Oct... yikes!! I had lots of anxiety around the sign-up time but have now pushed that out of my mind until the training gets closer! At that point, I'll take any advice that you have:) Take care. xo

Frederique said...

I do have to admit, that I tend not share too much or too much deepness into my life with others! I am not sure really as to the reason, but I just rather have people not know! I also think that I would have a hard time accepting help, but then again, I have yet to experience a true crisis (not that I want to), so maybe I would accept it! thanks for sharing your thoughts Em!

Anonymous said...

The more honest your writing, the more excellent the blog! Thinking of you and your family.

Carver Fam said...

Awesome post Em. Way to keep it real to allow other moms to have some wiggle room, accept some help, have permission to have it be a really hard sometimes and credit for keeping all those balls juggling in the air.