“You don’t have to be an island.”
My husband, Jake, steps off the back porch with a plate of burgers for the grill. He looks right into my eyes before speaking again. “You have help. All you have to do is ask for it. I don’t know why you’re trying to do everything alone.”
The words slice through the humid August air.
He proceeds to the grill, and a rush of embarrassment fills me. I look down at the sleeping two-week-old little boy in my arms and replay the last thirty minutes: Jake’s mom shucking sweet corn from a lawn chair in our backyard, his dad sitting a few feet away, and our three older kids playing happily with a rope they found beneath our oak tree.
But me? I neurotically raced around the backyard, sleep-deprived and caffeine-driven. When my one-year-old climbed to the top of the swingset and then refused to go down the slide, I pulled him off with my one free hand, annoyed no one else seemed concerned he might fall off the side. Instead of staying seated when my three-year-old whined to go inside, I stood up and opened the sliding door for her. As a game of tug-of-war neared injury point, I took it upon myself to grab the rope from my five-year-old. I did all this with a sleeping newborn in my arms and a heart full of seething anger that nobody was helping me take care of these kids.
The trouble was, I hadn’t even thought to ask.
When our first baby was born, I slept on the couch with a bassinet beside me the night we came home from the hospital, and Jake slept in our bedroom behind a closed door. Medical boards were fast approaching, and he needed to study fifteen hours a day for the next three weeks. Spending the night with a newborn just wasn’t an option.
Hot tears slipped from my eyes as he left me in the living room that night, loneliness setting in as the sun snuffed out. From my place on the couch, I watched car after car speed down the busy street outside our apartment window. The world moved around me while I sat alone and still. Sleep came in batches, and I woke up the next morning to the light of the sun. With each passing day, I dreaded the coming darkness of night.
Friends and family filtered in and out of our tiny apartment those first weeks. They brought caramel lattes and Greek salads and held my baby girl, but because everything felt so unraveled, all that exists in my memories are fragmented snapshots and soundbites of those interactions. The light pouring in from the single window in the living room. Laughter at the sight of my best friend’s husband figuring out how to hold a baby for the first time. The chopped apples and grapes my dad brought over from a woman in his office.
Every now and then someone would ask me how I was doing, and I would respond with a quick, “Great!” despite the fact that inwardly I was reeling. I gave the chipper response, but what I really should have said was, “Can you come back tonight? Everything is lonely and sad after the sun goes down, and I could really use some company on this couch.”
But I never asked. In fact, asking for help where I needed most never even occurred to me.
I nursed more hours than I slept during the dark hours of that first month, usually with toes clenched to fight against the pain. I changed diapers next to the sliding door, using the light from the streetlight instead of turning on the fluorescent lamp and risk waking my husband. I ate granola bars one-handed and watched Friends reruns through half-open eyes.
I didn’t technically need help nursing or changing the baby or eating. So, without even giving my needs a second thought, I trudged forward, miserably.
Jake’s words snapped me out of my self-inflicted misery.
I had spent thirty minutes running around like a one-handed lunatic that afternoon because I looked into the future and knew I would eventually have to do it all alone once Jake went back to work and all our extra hands traveled back home. I overlooked the help available to me on a ridiculous principle of capability.
I could do it, so I did.
Once Jake’s heedful observation settled in, I handed him the baby, got a cold drink, and took a break.
The very next day, Jake worked a 24-hour shift, and I made a decision to ask for help even if, technically, I didn’t need it. While my in-laws read books with my kids, I took a long shower in the middle of the day. I walked around the block with the three big kids, while Grandma had some time with the baby. I watched my mother-in-law cook us all silver-dollar pancakes for dinner while I sat at the kitchen table, doing nothing but holding my sleeping infant.
I relaxed, thankful for the extra hands that meant mine could rest.
A few months later, Jake went out of town for almost two weeks. A few days before he left, I felt the familiar dread of anticipation start to rise up in my chest. I remembered how sad and lonely it can get after the sun goes down, and I started to feel sorry for myself all over again. But then Jake’s words came to mind: “You don’t have to be an island.”
Yes, I was fully capable of holding down the fort on my own, but this time I knew I didn’t have to. So, I sent out some proactive text messages and was overwhelmed by all the ways our friends and family showed up. My aunt made us multiple dinners, and our neighbor brought over Happy Meals for the kids. A long-distance friend checked-in to see how I was doing, and my mom called daily. One night, in the middle of the stretch, a group of friends crowded around my table. They ate cheese, drank wine, and reminded me that the evening hours don’t have to be lonely.
What I wouldn’t give to go back five years and tell first-time mom me what I know the fourth time around: People want to help.
Those hands that held the Greek salads and awkwardly cradled my new baby for the first time? The moms and mother-in-laws who were only a phone call away? They would have walked up those steps to my apartment every night if they knew I needed them to.
Jake’s comment that day was a gift. A welcomed chance at a do-over. Sure, this is the last baby I’ll bring home from the hospital fresh from my own body, but it won’t be the last opportunity I have to reach out for the help that exists around me. And for all the potential upheaval, pain, transition, or grief that’s bound to impact my life, I won’t be found sitting alone on a couch waiting for someone to magically realize I need help.
Instead, I’ll ask for it.
Guest essay written by Molly Flinkman. A lover of gray t-shirts, hand-written correspondence, and good books, Molly spends her days with four small kids and a husband who works unpredictable hospital hours. In her margins of free time, she is either watching something happy on Netflix or writing about how her faith intersects everything in her life. You can find Molly on Instagram, her website, or through her monthly newsletter.
Photo by Lottie Caiella