A few days ago I went to pick James up to carry him up a flight of stairs in our house. He would have none of this. He held his arms tightly at his sides and bent at the knees while yelling an emphatic "NO!" He's perfected a body stance that makes it almost impossible for me to pick him up when he's not in the mood. In no particular rush, I assured him that a simple "no thank you" would have sufficed and promptly opened the baby gate for him to begin the climb upwards. With agonizing slowness he took the steps one at a time with all manner of strategies - on hands and knees, sitting backwards, pulling himself by the railing and dragging his feet behind him. All the while he stopped frequently to glare at me if I was spotting him too closely or obviously. His stubbornness gave way to giddy pride when he reached the top and gave me a look as close as an 18 month old can get to "I told you so." I looked down at him and saw . . . me.
Tales of my stubbornness far exceed painstakingly slow stair-climbing. My husband Bill's favorite story of my inflexible focus is the day he watched me enter second grade vocabulary words one by one into a Word document, numbering them up to 180 or so manually, realizing I had missed a few and watching me go back without hesitation to renumber each one. "You can do that automatically, you know!" he admonished. I didn't. He showed me how, and I remembered, but the fact that I had been doing it this way for so long clearly stupefied him. I don't mind manually alphabetizing them either. And I've been known to wash dozens of dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher. I will even attempt to carry eight suitcases up the stairs at once to avoid a second trip. I have no problem doing things the slow way. My problem is that I do it because I will NOT accept help.
Cue arrival of James. Watching the world's most stubbornly independent person try to care for a colicky newborn probably would have been hilarious had it not in fact been so depressing. I insisted on cooking full dinners, hosting brunches, and contracting some time with a nonprofit. All the while I barely allowed anyone to help, until a few months later I realized that I was sleep-deprived, unpleasant, and unhappy. During a Trader Joe's grocery run around this time, the cashier asked me if I'd like help out. Help out? As if I couldn't handle the baby, 8 bags of groceries, and a cart myself? Carry-outs were clearly meant for little old ladies. But wait. I might as well have been a little old lady . . . I was tired and weak and overwhelmed. I smiled awkwardly, and with deep resignation, and a crisis of self identity, I accepted.
An eager, tall, curly-haired bagger confirmed "carry-out?" and upon my slight nod followed me out the door. "I've never done this before," I confessed with the embarrassment of a craigslist personal ad writer. He laughed, "why not? We're happy to help . . . it's like a break getting to go out for a few minutes." "Seriously?!" I asked, shocked that I hadn't just sentenced him to an odious and inane errand. We chatted about the overcast weather on the way to my car, where he dutifully loaded the groceries into the trunk while I buckled James into his carseat. I thanked him and drove off, grateful for the help and surprised that after reluctantly accepting help I felt better off than when I started. Actually, a few moments of chit-chat with someone who doesn't count their age in months was equally as rewarding.
It turns out that accepting help from others is one of the ultimate ways to connect. It also turns out that a lot of people legitimately do want to help. I should know - I love giving help (and advice) to others, and delight when I've made something easier on someone else. I can pinpoint specific times in my memory when I shared a finals study guide with a classmate or picked up strep throat antibiotics for my ever-sick friend. I've even gone so far as to help myself - prepping chores way earlier than I have to, sometimes so much so that I forget what I've done and arrive upstairs for breakfast with a full place setting and James' bowl of cereal pre-poured and shake my head in gratitude/embarrassment for Past Rebecca who did this for me. It's actually as if I'm connecting with a past version of myself who was really thoughtful. It can be amusing.
James is ecstatic when he gets to help me. He seems to know when he's being genuinely helpful - wiping up water from the floor, throwing trash in the bin, passing utensils to me as I unload the dishwasher - and we share a mutual satisfaction. Strangers don't squeal with joy the same way James does when they lend a hand, but I know that for a moment we're lifted above the haze of the daily grind when someone less vertically challenged than myself helps hand me the cereal boxes I just couldn't reach. We smile and joke about James' refusal to assist. And friends, who we take for granted constantly and feel like we burden with favors already, somehow light up with purpose and affection when we finally accept their repeated offers of dinners or grocery runs or fresh backyard-grown fruit. Once, stricken with a stomach virus and truly helpless, a facebook post begging for electrolytes netted me offers of 15+ mile delivery drives and, ultimately, the arrival of a Mexican version of pedialyte by a new friend who thereafter became a great friend. People really do want to help.
I can't believe how hung up I still am on my own sense of self-sufficiency and independence. I am certainly no better than James, and, in some ways, worse. I know how good accepting help can be for both parties involved, yet I still feel like I'm winning a competition if I can do absolutely everything myself. With James older now I need less help than I did before, but then this week after five straight days of rain I found myself feeling much like late-2010 Rebecca, stuck in Trader Joe's with bags of groceries, perilously close to naptime, and feeling overwhelmed. As the cashier rung me up, I asked, "do you guys still do carry-outs?" "Oh sure, let me get someone to help you." Shouts of "carry-out!" rang out across the checkstands and at least three people relayed the message across the store. In the past I would have been mortified but I was confident - I knew I could do it myself if I had to, but help was available, and I was taking it.
Appropriately, a short, exuberant Hawaiian-shirt-clad man with the nametag "Bobby" bounded over and pretended to start packing up James instead of the groceries. James giggled. I admonished Bobby for leading the way outside without a raincoat, and he joked with James about not understanding stickers. We ran through puddles across the parking lot and I took care to notice how differently I felt without worrying about how to unload groceries and buckle in James simultaneously, or how I was going to get rid of the cart. Bobby kept saying how glad he was to be able to lend a hand. I was so grateful for the help.
As errand-burdened adults, we spend most of our time in grocery stores stepping around each other, waiting for others to move out of our way, standing behind them in line or checking our cell phones in silence as we wait. The random and seemingly inconsequential moments of mutual understanding, helpfulness, and connection, have become more rare. But I think we miss them and crave them and feel less human with their loss. So, my unsolicited advice? Ask someone for help. Ask them where they found those dark chocolate peanut butter cups or if they want to cut ahead because they're only carrying a basket and are toddler-free. You can't go wrong. And with friends or spouses or even (gasp) your mother, let them do something for you every so often, whether you could very well do it yourself or not. Allow those moments to happen.
Accept the proverbial "carry-out" every so often, and, like me, your Trader Joe's trips may result in more satisfaction than just what's provided by a box of dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Although the peanut butter cups can't hurt. Seriously.