(I'm so glad my friend Suzanne can come on Tuesdays to help me out!)
Independence. Independence is one of the most cherished and celebrated values of our modern life. And I don't mean the United States's independence from England. No, I am referring to that romantic ideal of making our way in the world with individual industriousness.
Unfortunately, that romantic ideal is not always very practical, especially when it comes to parenting and family life. The nuclear family set-up in the United States tends to make everything about the household and children depend on two people - Mom and Dad - who often have other (i.e., work) responsibilities outside the home as well.
I have already written about the imperfections of parenting situations. We seem destined to failure by the very nature of the demands placed upon parents living in isolated, nuclear families, and yet, these imperfect situations can also become an opportunity for our growth in holiness, particularly by offering up the difficult sacrifices occasioned by these imperfect situations, including when they seem detrimental to our children as well as our own sanity. This is definitely an opportunity for parenting mortification - death to self in order to grow closer to God through suffering and sacrifice.
But there is another mortifying aspect of these imperfect situations, namely, the practicality of asking for help or accepting help when we'd prefer not to do so. There are many reasons that we do NOT want to ask for help. First among these reasons is the ideal of independence. We want to believe - as our society seems to communicate - that parenting is something we should either do entirely on our own or with the help of contractually hired and well-paid assistance, e.g. in a daycare setting. We seem to be surrounded by examples of parents who are able to do it all with ease. When we compare ourselves to these perfect families that have it all together, we can mistakenly think "If they can do it alone, we should be able to do it too!"
Related to this sense that we can and ought to do all the parenting and household work by ourselves is the notion that we are exhibiting weakness by asking for help and that it will change people's perceptions of us. No one wants to be seen as the lazy and dependent parent who can't get by without leaning on unwilling acquaintances. Asking for or even easily accepting help seems to imply that we are incapable of proper parenting.
Moreover, we don't want to inconvenience people, and it can be hard to trust that offers to assist us are genuine. We don't want to transfer our difficulties to others or put them in a position of having to feel bad about saying no to our requests. Nor do we want eagerly to accept help if we don't know when we will be able to return the favor. We want to be able to reciprocate equally and sometimes, knowing that is not possible, we'd rather decline the assistance.
This concern about appearing weak or dependent on others can be a particularly sensitive area as a family grows larger. There is always that lingering fear that if we accept help, people will whisper behind our backs, wondering why we had another child if we can't take care of raising them and running a household. There is a possibility that others will complain about having to take up our parenting slack. The potential judgment will not simply mean weakness, laziness, or dependence, but also irresponsibility.
One final reason to avoid asking for or accepting help is simply because we want always to be in control of every situation, seeing ourselves as the center of the universe for our kids and household. Sometimes, we would rather do things badly than relinquish our control. We'd rather secure safety for our kids than allow them an opportunity for growth and independence and learning from others.
Because of these reasons, asking for and accepting help can be embarrassing! It's just not something that we want to do. Despite, or even because of the difficulty, I suggest that asking for and accepting help are valuable opportunities for parenting mortification. There is always a risk of humiliation, but embracing that risk is part of the mortification, the dying to self and letting go of our ego. Allowing help from others is in fact a testament to an important Christian tenant: we rely on each other in this whole project of life. We can't do it all on our own... or perhaps, better said, we shouldn't do it all on our own. It is an error of pride to act as though everything depends on us when it comes to our children and household.
It can be challenging to admit to ourselves that both we and our children benefit from the help of others. Moreover, we often forget the benefit that comes to others from helping us. If asking for or accepting help can require sacrifice on our part, providing that help also requires sacrifice in a way that can be naturally and spiritually beneficial to those willing to help.
All of this was brought home for me recently with the birth of my fifth child. I admit I tend toward the controlling side when it comes to running my household and parenting. I also value my independence and dislike appearing weak or needy. And, given that this is our fifth child, I am sensitive to criticisms of our desire for a large family.
The generosity of others during this time illustrated to me the wonderful gift of asking for and accepting help. From my parents to my prayer group, there are too many people to name. Our family benefited enormously from help with dishes and laundry, dinners dropped off at our house each night, and visitors who entertained our other children. Accepting this help was not easy for me, but it was good for me, both naturally and supernaturally. Four weeks out, we continue to benefit enormously from friends assisting with school drop-offs and pick-ups. It continues to be an opportunity for me to admit both my own weaknesses and the imperfection of the situation and to embrace the sacrifice of relying on others' generosity in order for me, my family...and hopefully my benefactors (!) to grow closer to God.
Edited on 2.3.15 to incorporate the comments from Gail Egan.