The drive to hyper-perform is basically a DNA strand of Americans. But that doesn't mean it's healthy... or sustainable.
I lived on my own and traveled the world mostly by myself for most of my 20s. When my husband and I got married just on the cusp of 30, I was faced with a natural merging of lives and navigating a life WITH someone instead of on my own with a side of someone.
It was a major paradigm shift. The letting go of obstinate independence. The reliance and acceptance of support and need for another person.
It was disorienting.
Later, when we had our first child, people would often offer to help me. It was another major paradigm shift.
"What can we do?"
"Do you need a sitter?"
"Let me bring you dinner."
All of those kind offers for help resulted in an almost automatic rejection of help. We decided to have a baby, right? So, we should be responsible for it. We should be responsible for the baby's care and caring for ourselves. We only allowed a tiny handful of people to help us. And we rarely asked for help.
I've asked myself over the years why it was so hard to receive help and almost impossible to ask for it. Is it a matter of pride? Maybe. Is it part of my family heritage? Probably. Is that all there is to it?
I think it's deeper than that. We have been conditioned, as Americans, to be very self sufficient. There are few things that our culture holds higher than independence. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a thing we just do, and if we don't we face ridicule. We are taught to push through difficult times, which isn't always a bad thing.
But we have taken it so far that our culture demands that women come back to work before their bodies are healed from childbirth, we push through sickness and keep working when we should be in bed, we go into monumental debt to avoid looking as though we are struggling, and we automatically default to doing all the hard things by ourselves because being a burden is basically like being a human cancerous leech on society.
But I'm going to tell you something: I can't do this on my own. This life thing, this parenting thing, this figuring out how to make it all work thing? Yeah, those things. I can't. And what's more is I don't think any of us are meant to.
Back in the day when our ancestors were part of a tribe, there were an average of 18 caregivers to one child. 18:1. This included aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and older siblings in addition to the parents. Eighteen people looking out for feeding your baby, protecting you both as you recover, helping you move your dwelling, and enriching your child's development. Granted, you did have to worry about starvation, famine, wild beasts, and rampant disease with no real medical care. However, that 18:1 statistic remained mostly unchanged until the last century or two.
Somehow, we have divorced our culture from the need to connect in helpful ways. We have traded the ancient tapestry of village life for a modern, isolated, overloaded independence that is sucking the life out of us.
It has sucked the life out of me.
So, here are a few ways to build your village, even in a modern age.
1. Offer help in specific ways when you can.
Instead of saying "How can I help?" look for the ways you can. Be presumptuous. Example: "What can I bring you for dinner this week?" Or, "What day can I come over and do some housework?" Or, "You haven't had a night off in a long time. I would love to watch your kids so you can have fun and relax for a few hours with your partner. Send me some dates that work." Be insistent about helping.
2. Say yes.
When people offer help, SAY YES. You will want to refuse because it's the polite thing to do. (Side note: Why did that become a thing? Stupidest unspoken etiquette rule ever.) But say yes anyway. And feel no shame in needing help, or even wanting help. Because it's normal and we all need it at some point anyway.
3. Ask for help when you need it, and cast your net wide.
Think the 18:1 ratio. People will show up or they won't, although they are much more likely to when you show up for them when they need help.
4. Throw away the scorecard.
This is the hardest part for most of us. But really, stop keeping a tally of how much you owe people and how much they owe you. Adopt a pay-it-forward attitude and seek out others who are actively walking out that philosophy. There is no need to ingratiate yourself to someone, or to hold a working debt over someone else's head in order to get what you need. If things feel out of balance, adjust the scales. Otherwise, just keep showing up when and how you can, and trust that the help you need will show up for you, too.
So, in just a little over two months, I'm going to come back to these words and remind myself of them. When my arms are full with a tiny newborn and pre-schooler and I have to fight my instinct to overfunction instead of asking for and receiving help, I will remember my village is here. They are waiting. They are joyful helpers. They are a vast resource that my babies need, and it is enough.