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Tramping down the brush and the brambles
Or an argument in favor of asking for and accepting help
My OB delivers almost all the twins in the city of Vancouver and somehow, in her free time, she has put together a Facebook community of parents who swap supplies and offer advice. I rarely post but just lurking through the endless questions and comments has been helpful. But as I scroll, I find myself speculating wildly about the day-to-day logistics of these other families’ lives.
What I want to know is this: How did you do it? How did you take that photo of two infants sitting calmly in clean clothes and simultaneously smiling at the camera? How did you get both children packed, dressed, and into the pool in a remotely reasonable amount of time? How did you fit that insane amount of camping gear into your car? And was it worth it? Any of it? Was it fun for even a single minute?
More than all of that, I want to know: who is helping you? How often? And how much? Do you pay for this help and if so how do you afford it?
I appreciate how honest people are about the unbridled chaos of having two babies at one time, but somehow the larger logistics of caretaking remain opaque. When I click through those adorable photos of triplets (!) camping (!!) on their second (!!!) birthday, I reassure myself that a whole team of people must be hovering just outside the camera’s gaze. But are they?
“If we had triplets we would absolutely have to move in with my mom,” I said to Mark, as I examined the elaborate tent setup required to house three toddlers in the wilderness.
I am obsessed with the logistics of care the same way I was once obsessed with the logistics of writing a book. Of course my new obsession is borne from the hope that I will one day write a book again. Or the fear that I won’t. Both books and babies present enormous problems that no one can solve for you. Because they require so much improvisation. Because the problems themselves are forever evolving. Because no one else’s challenges are quite the same as yours.
When I started this newsletter, I wanted to understand why I felt this vague sense of loneliness. I wasn’t even sure if loneliness was the right word. I had good friends. I was close with my family. I was busy living a life that I really liked—but still there was an absence at the center of things. Only now can I see the problem: I didn’t really need anyone. I didn’t feel needed by anyone. My life was untroubled by obligation; it was smooth like glass.
Now though? Now I have an unsmooth life and an unpayable debt of care.
During the hardest, scariest part of my pregnancy, my friend Katie (who lives in North Carolina) wanted to help. She set up a website where our Vancouver friends could sign up for dog walks and grocery delivery. I could barely get off the couch after my surgery, but there were my people, showing up at our door every day. I knew that we could’ve hired a dog walker and paid someone to deliver our groceries—and occasionally I felt genuine guilt about bothering these friends who had otherwise-busy lives to lead. But I loved seeing their faces at our door.
“People want to help,” Katie reminded me. And they did. And what I wanted—for myself, for the not-yet-humans inside me—was a team. A big one. I wanted to start making it right away. Because of course we needed more than groceries and dog walks. We needed to feel cared for.
There’s a passage in Zoey Leigh Peterson’s novel Next Year for Sure that I think about all the time. (FYI: This book remains such a favorite of mine that I keep it above my desk on a special favorite books shelf.) One of the characters is too sick to do her job, which is to clean people’s houses, so she asks a new friend (an acquaintance, really) to do it for her:
This is how Kathryn ended up at Emily’s housecleaning job with a key around her neck and a list of tasks in Emily’s shaky handwriting.
Emily had called Kathryn the day before and said she hated to ask, but Kathryn was glad to be asked. It was a big favor. An imposition, actually. Kathyrn had her own work to do. But it felt good to be asked, and Kathryn liked the idea of her and Emily being indebted to each other, imposing on each other, back and forth, until they could come to each other with anything, big or small, because they had already tramped down the brush and brambles.
I remember underlining the passage when I first read it. This! This is what I want! Imposition. Debt. A life of owing and being owed.
But the truth is that figuring out when and how to ask for help—and trusting that people really mean it when they offer it—this stuff is not straightforward. I cannot tell you how many times I have smiled and nodded when someone has offered to babysit, knowing I would never take them up on the offer. It’s not that I don’t think they could do it; it’s that I think they’re probably just offering to be nice, or to express how much they love babies, or because it theoretically sounds fun but they haven’t actually thought it through. “Do you like snot?” I want to ask.
In my life, people rarely impose. They rarely ask for help. And I have not always been good at noticing when they need my help or knowing how to provide it.
There is the further problem that, no matter how intentional one might be about creating a community of shared obligation, it’s hard to resist the siren song of self-sufficiency—the idea that needing no one is the best way to live. In the era of Covid, this imperative toward self-sufficiency has only flourished. We have trained ourselves to keep our distance from those we love. Why ask your friend to pick up groceries when you can pay to have them delivered? Why ask for a ride to the airport when you can open an app? It has never been easier to hire babysitters and house cleaners and movers and handymen. Community care can be outsourced. It can be purchased—if you can afford it.
Even if you set aside the problem of potentially exploiting the people who do this work, and the problem that our lives have gotten so busy that avoiding those we love somehow feels kinder than “bothering” them, there is the further problem of what we lose when we turn to strangers instead of each other.
Maybe it’s that we think of a request for help as a single ask, a moment of taking advantage of someone else’s goodwill. But this isn’t the only way to think about it. The other way, the more interesting way, is that a request for help is a step toward community, a way of tramping down the brush and the brambles. But you have to trust that others will also step toward you.
I remember being completely overwhelmed by how people showed up for us in those first few weeks and months the babies were home from the hospital. They sent dinner and texts and cards; they brought over bags of clothes and supplies; they took the dog when we couldn’t handle him and brought him back when we were ready; they helped with bottles and baths and laundry; they flew across the continent to sleep on our couch and be an extra set of arms for a week or two. One friend kept “accidentally” making too much food for her own family and showing up at our door with the extras. It always happened to be my favorite salmon dish.
What I felt, every day, was that I would never be able to pay back the debt we were accruing. But we needed so much help. We couldn’t turn it down. Slowly, though, I started to understand that to obsess about paying it back was to miss the point.
Two friends just had a baby and I have never been more eager to drop everything and appear at someone’s door. Of course I couldn’t actually do this because my beautiful, snotty children had gotten me sick. So instead I sent dinner. I sent clothes, swaddles, toys, texts, nipple cream, Tylenol. For once, I knew how to show up, how to be useful. It felt really good.
And this is the thing I always forget when I have to ask for help: how good it feels to be asked, to be needed, to be capable. If I want to be the kind of person people ask for help, I also have to be good at asking.
All of this is on my mind as I try to fit the work of writing into the puzzle of my life. It feels like one of those elementary algebra problems: There are two babies, one partner, one dog, twenty-five hours of childcare from two different babysitters, three classes, one hundred and seventy five students, thirteen weeks in the semester, three book ideas, and never quite enough sleep. Please arrange these things into a life.
I used to believe that to be a writer, one must minimize obligation. But it occurred to me recently that this is an idea created and celebrated by men whose work I do not read.
The thing about a life of obligation, about needing and being needed, is that, contrary to what I imagined, it is also a life of abundance. My unsmooth life is abundant with warmth and vibrance and good company—even as it is short on time and decidedly not abundant with sleep. And it is full of the kind of friction that makes art.
I am still not as good at community care as I would like to be. Some days it still seems sensible to try and do it all myself. Some days I am so focused on what needs to be done that I barely manage to eat or go pee or drink enough water. But when I look closely at the puzzle of my life, I always end up at the same conclusion. The only way to live (as opposed to merely surviving) is to cultivate relationships of obligation, to tramp down the brush and the brambles. To trust that the abundance of this version of life will, in time, make all the necessary things possible.