The last two months have been among the hardest in my life. My father collapsed while I was on my first business trip in two years, and then my mother, his full-time caregiver, had a stroke. They live two-and-a-half hours away and require near constant help for the time being.
Meanwhile, my two older sons informed my husband and I that they didn’t want to go back to college in the spring, but have no other plans. And then there’s my full-time job and trying to close deals and performance reviews before people disappear for the holidays.
I needed some holiday magic, but all I saw was a giant to-do list with the clock ticking away.
Ever a doer, I take great pride in getting things done. Renovate part of the house so mom can be in the first floor bedroom? Sure, I can work from a home construction zone and get that knocked out in five days before she’s discharged. Lead client calls from the parking lot of the rehab hospital when it’s 32 degrees? No problem.
Or so I thought.
Back home for a couple of nights (thanks to my brother staying with the folks), I had a bit of a breakdown. I was so exhausted I became physically ill. My mother is loved by all who know her, and people were coming out of the woodwork with offers of help. “Let me know if you need anything,” they said. “I’m just a call away,” they reminded me. But I was so overwhelmed I had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know what kind of help I needed.
And that’s when my dear friend Jessica took me aside and said, “if you’ll allow me, I can do all of your Christmas shopping for you.” Was this girl for real? And could I cede control to someone else for something so dear to me, the magic of Christmas morning? Yes I know my children are teenagers and the holidays aren’t the 6 a.m. melee of joy they once were, but this was still important to me.
There was something in the way she asked. “If you will allow me;” it gave me pause, and I said yes. Instantly a huge weight fell from my shoulders. Jessica made a spreadsheet with links to gifts for every member of my family so I could quickly approve and buy. She came by, collected the gifts, and returned them a few days later expertly wrapped and tagged.
And once I got over the hump of accepting help, the flood gates really opened. A friend who just happened to be in the general region of my son’s campus offered to drive 90 minutes out of her way to pick him up, move him out of his dorm room, and drop him with me at my parents’ house.
My parent’s neighbor, the mother of one of my oldest friends, informed me she would be dropping off a complete dinner in a disposable tray for Thanksgiving Eve, I simply said “thank you.”
Rather than attempting to control what I can control, I simply let it be. I said “yes” when anyone offered a specific piece of assistance, and wasn’t afraid to cry uncle when I needed help.
I learned that I could be out of town at my parents house and things would go along fine at my own home. I didn’t need to know if my 9th grader remembered his gym uniform or if one of the other boys left a gas tank empty.
When I walked in the door after a very stressful few days at my parents’ house, I was filled with tears. I saw a perfect tree that my boys had picked out for us, and presents bought and wrapped by my dear friend.
When I recounted this story to her sister, also a close friend, she said, “you allowing us to help is a gift.” That stopped me in my tracks. I had always thought of asking for help as something bad, an imposition, a debt I would have to repay. Is there a way to flip the script that could make asking for help more palatable for me, and for many other overstretched women?
I asked Nora Bouchard, executive coach and author of “MAYDAY! Asking for Help in Times of Need,” why many (most?) women have such a hard time asking for help. “The whole subject is discomfiting, men and women are encouraged to be independent and doing things on their own,” says Bouchard. “Everyone struggles with asking for help, but women are particularly concerned about seeming needy,” she added. “But we need to show that vulnerability to strengthen our relationships.”
If you’re overwhelmed and struggling this holiday season, here are some tips to keep in mind:
How to Ask for Help
1. People should remember how people feel when asked for help. It’s almost always a yes, you want to be a helper, so those in your life that people are full of compassion and want to help.
2. See this as a conversation, not just a yes or no question about what you really need. You may need someone to take the kids for an afternoon, but you might also need something more long-term. The conversation approach allows the other party to feel like they are part of solving the problem and contributing in a way that works for everyone.
3. Your relationships are revealed when you ask for help. The vast majority of the time, relationships become deeper because you are able to show that vulnerability.
How to Offer Help
1. There is always something to do, even a small thing, like dragging the trash bins back to the house on collection day, as I saw my parents’ neighbors do. Find a thing, then do it. Don’t ask. Just Do.
2. Everyone has to eat. Sure there are dietary restrictions and fridges do fill up, but no one turns down a GrubHub gift card, and a box of warm Krispy Kremes delivered to the front porch never fails to bring a smile.
3. Be specific. Jessica asked if she could spend an evening or two shopping and wrapping for me. She had the time and energy and knows my family well enough to shop for presents they will love. She didn’t say, “call if you need me,” because she knew I wouldn’t.
We’re in a good rhythm of caregivers and physical therapy for my parents, and we’ve decided to dial this holiday season way back, choosing instead to simply celebrate time together. And I’ve really thought about how I ask for- and offer- help to others, and how it’s part of a much larger journey of human connection.
As Bouchard reminded me, “people don’t want to be transactional in relationships, they want you to show vulnerability so that relationships can grow.” Finally, she added, “allowing someone to give of themselves is sometimes the greatest gift of all.”
Jennifer Folsom is vice president of growth at ICF Next. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three teenage sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.