Friends Rush In

“Let me know how I can help!” We all say it, and it’s meant well, but not usually very helpful. So let’s real talk — things people have done for us in this and other pregnancies:

  • Brought fresh soap in case the smell bothered me
  • Brought snacks
  • Brought dinner
  • Watched my kids for appointments
  • Sent their big kids to be mother’s helper so I could lie down
  • Sent their husbands who work only part-time to be mother’s helper so I could lie down (my husband insists this isn’t be a mother’s helper but a “dad-in-training”)
  • Taken my kid to preschool or picked him up
  • Sent flowers
  • Left cookies
  • Mailed encouraging notes and prayer cards
  • Walked my dog when it was snowy and John was out of town and we didn’t have a fence
  • Helped me do laundry and straighten up

(My friends and acquaintances, let’s be clear, are awesome, and if I name this child after them, it’ll be about twenty names long.)

A friend was recently saying she felt like she was failing at modeling generosity for her kids because she wasn’t making a lot of time for soup kitchens and other volunteerism. And while those things are definitely important (and an area in which I regularly fail), this same friend has been helping me in big and small ways, from showing up to dinner to helping me lug the toddler around preschool events. No doubt her kids see these acts of friendship and generosity, too. 

A lot of this, of course, applies to more than crippling morning sickness or even newborn babies: to grief and all kinds of hardship. For more really concrete advice, check out Sheryl Sandberg talking about what helped her in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. What have people done for you in tough times that’s helped most?

My Garden, the Mission Field

Well, we’re back from our Superlong Vacation® and so the gardening can officially begin. But I find myself at a loss. I’ve kept tomato bushes and herbs alive, occasionally, and killed African violets with great guilt and inevitability, but my horticultural ignorance is considerable.

I feel inordinately bad when I kill things, and I don’t have the budget for it, anyway. So instead, I’ve been starting out slowly with hand-me-down plants, like the Solomon’s Seal a friend gave me last month, or the mini rose bush we received as a housewarming gift. But I keep hitting roadblocks from ignorance: Is this grassy weed-thing grass or actually some bulb? Is the peony bush supposed to look like that? Can I plant irises, and where?

A couple of weekends ago, some of J’s family came to visit. When they’re in town, we try to entertain them in high style (ha! two little kids! ha! our little town!), but on Sunday morning they materialized after Mass and his grandmother and aunt announced they were going to work on my garden.

Oh, ok, I said perplexedly. Then I noticed the gloves. They had been planning on this.

Grandma Judy rescues the front garden
For the next few hours, I flitted around unhelpfully, ferrying the occasional San Pellegrino, pulling a weed here and there as instructed, putting the baby down for her nap and getting her back up, then keeping her from eating (much) greenery.

And they — well, they revolutionized my yard. With cheerful determination, the two women shaped and tidied, tossing off advice as they went. I scrambled inside for my notebook. They sent J and his uncle to the hardware store with a list: mulch, trowel, more gloves, clippers. (When they had asked for clippers, we, with what I’m sure was charming naïveté,had fished out wire clippers.) In the interim J and his uncle fixed the gutter his keen-eyed real estate agent aunt had noticed needed attention.
The whole thing actually reminded me of the medical mission trip J and I tagged along on when we moved to Uganda as newlyweds. The doctors had drawn up careful lists of supplies and come armed to teach the local surgeon new orthopedic and urological procedures, leaving behind the scope and other tools they’d lugged with them. They’d assisted in surgery, teaching Dr. Frank as they worked, knocking out the most pressing cases in the region for free during their little mission trip. It was amazing.

New! Improved!
This, too, was a mission of mercy for clueless new homeowners. (I didn’t even know anything was wrong with our gutter, for starters.) They graciously sacrificed part of their vacation to work and work hard for our sake, and imparted their wisdom along the way. I’m not sure it’s any less noble, in its own way.

The rescue squad

When Your Life Is Actual Poop

When Pippin was a baby, every Monday, J would get home early from work and there would be a changing of the guard, where I’d fill him in on the day so far while I packed my dinner and work stuff and headed out the door. As I raced around the house gathering library books to return, a cardigan, my supper, we’d exchange information in bullet points. My day was good! It’s getting cold out there! Bonnie’s been fed and walked but didn’t poop! The baby probably needs a new diaper!

And at some point, J pointed out that a lot of these conversations centered around the pooping of various creatures. And that at one point in each of our lives, we only had to be concerned about our own personal pooping.

Fast forward, and now we worry about an aging dog, a (mostly!) potty trained three-year-old, and a baby fast developing a taste for solid foods. I spend a lot of time changing diapers, carrying plastic bags around the park, and removing unsavory stains from articles of clothing.

Let’s just say, it’s not anyone’s favorite part of grown-up life.

And it’s optional, of course. If I’d played my cards differently, I might have gotten another fifty years where my poop and only my poop was my private business. That’s the way a lot of us do it now.

But the way I see it, historically, that’s an anomaly. The world used to be a lot more community-based and a lot more hierarchical. If you weren’t concerned with the nourishment and cleanliness of a whole household, then probably, someone was tasked with worrying about yours. Maybe you lived as a nobleman in a castle and had to worry about the sanitation of, I don’t know, the moat, and keeping everyone fed and plague-free in a siege. Maybe you lived in a little sod hut on the prairie with your five children and your chickens and your cow, Hilda, and things got pretty ripe in the long winter months, you all squeezed in together. (But then, I may just be traumatized by stupid Giants in the Earth.)

Sometimes it’s easy to think I shouldn’t have to deal with all this, well, shit. I MADE GOOD GRADES, I sniff to myself with intolerable snobbishness. I could maybe outsource some of the diapers and cold weather walks to daycare, doggy and otherwise, although I’m coming up short on someone who would tackle the most harrowing of the laundry issues.

We are burdens to each other, and rightfully so, in the beginning and end of our lives, if not, sometimes, in the middle. As an old First Things piece argues, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?”

None of us likes to think of the disgusting, lowly things someone did for us when we were babies, or even worse, the humbling care we might require at the end of our lives. We as a culture want to opt out and pretend we are exempt. But you know, I feel a sort of kinship with all those blessedly crowded folks from long ago, who I’d imagine as I stomped my feet to keep warm while Bonnie took ages to find the perfect pooping spot, out there on the edge of the cold, moonlit New England woods. It is the humblest act of loving someone, a privilege with which I’m entrusted by those little weirdos in my care. I hope I’m up to the task.