We are infinitely better parents when we feel supported, says Addie Hahn.
In my late 20’s, in the weeks following a painful breakup, while living abroad, my mom came to help me pack up boxes in anticipation of my move home. When I wasn’t crying or wondering if my prospects for love were spent, she and I would talk, and one afternoon, we dreamt up a business concept for the newly broken up.
Our business would be staffed by professionals who would swoop into the home of the lovesick and care for them like half a dozen best friends—moving the furniture around in their living rooms; baking them bread; stashing away sensitive photos. In other words, they’d make small, deliberate changes for people who in a state of sadness or inertia, might not feel inclined to even move off the couch.
Beyond providing practical services, team members would act like breakup doulas, coaching clients through sticky dilemmas and rollercoasting emotions. Staffers would be wonderful listeners and wise to the unpredictable ways of the human heart.
If life was a fishbowl, a few visits from the service would assure that all the sand in your world couldn’t help but settle in a different way. You might see one new possibility, or many.
In the first few months after bringing home our brand new baby boy from the hospital two years ago, I felt like we’d had visits from the beloved team my mom and I conjured up all those years ago. This time, though, loved ones’ efforts were aimed at welcoming my son Oslo home, and my husband Andy and me, to the bright and sometimes stormy wilds of parenthood.
Friends, family, and neighbors offered to hold the baby while we showered; they shared their soothing tricks for our new addition; they volunteered to sweep our floors or watch our kid so we could go and stare at the sky if we needed to for half an hour. They delivered hand-me-downs and homemade meals and muffins to our door.
Receiving those gifts in my sleepless, showerless, sometimes disoriented state felt almost like a religious experience.
I never expected to feel a need for the kind of help people were offering. And that isn’t a complete surprise, given the culture we’re immersed in. “We treat our babies as we treat ourselves,” writes anthropology scholar and author Meredith F. Small. In the United States, as she explains, the common goal that guides most of us along our slightly meandering parenting paths is fostering independence in our kids. In contrast, many other countries prioritize the concepts of community, sharing, and collectivity.
It follows that a country that prizes independence in its offspring would also presume that the lion share of parenting duties need to be taken up independently.
Help can be a dirty word in America. It’s no accident that many of the social services we’ve termed “Entitlement Programs” seem eternally at risk of being cut, along with Head Start, a critical service for poor families around the country. With high daycare costs as the standard and meager parental leave, most families here are forced to make some difficult decisions if they choose to have children.
While a nation that stresses independence is undoubtedly good for capitalism, when it comes to living a rich, satisfying life, some sense of collectivity is essential. Parenting can beautifully reveal our mutual needs.
We’re not likely to become a society that looks like Denmark anytime soon, where low-cost or free, high-quality daycare is the standard, and families are given 52 weeks of paid parental leave. Still, as American parents, I think it’s time that we honor our collective needs and celebrate, loudly, our interdependence. Our children will benefit from this commitment and so will the people who care for them.
Experiencing the kindness of others when I was a new mom forced me to acknowledge that I’d not offered up such gifts to those I’d known with young children before. People have babies, I’d assumed, and then they bring them home, and somehow everyone gets by, like I planned to do.
When I first went into labor and was admitted to the hospital because of an alarming amount of blood, my old, simple assumptions about self-sufficiency couldn’t hold. I clung, with everything I had, to the calm of Andy and reached for the hand of my nurse, a stranger to me just hours before I’d entered the room.
At home with our baby, post C-Section a week later, Andy, newly graduated from nursing school, went to start his first R.N. job on a busy, critical care floor in a hospital. Beyond the normal strains of such a new position, his was a night shift, which meant that he needed to rest during the daytime. We didn’t have family close by who could help with childcare on a regular basis and planned for me to stay home with our baby for the first year. Finances were stretched uncomfortably thin.
Early mornings all over my neighborhood, wheeling my son along in his stroller or carrying him in a front pack, I’d run into other parents in their pajama bottoms packing their infants and toddlers. Sometimes we’d talk; other times, we’d only nod, but the sight of them was always a comfort to me—a reminder that I was far from alone.
In new parents class and on the playground and in the doctor’s office, I hoarded people’s tricks for how to get a kid to accept a toothbrush. I put calls in to my neighbor who, mercifully, was a lactation consultant. I dropped my son off at my mom’s jewelry studio, where she introduced him to files and hammers while I took some precious time to write. My father brought us groceries galore. My in-laws drove three hours each way so they could see their grandson and so that my husband and I could take showers and go on a verifiable date. I’d never felt so grown up before.
When Andy or I were refreshed by the help and kindness of other people, we brought that energy right back to our son. That continues to be the case—we are infinitely better parents when we feel supported, too.
Even as a quiet person who has always cherished time alone, I feel emboldened by the understanding that my husband and I can’t do the job of parenting alone, all of the time. No parent can, and that’s a truth we should each proudly claim.
Addie Hahn parents, writes and grows an abundance of kale and peonies in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.A. in English and certification in Child Life.