In 2021, I’d like to rely more on others for help when I need it, rather than thinking I can do everything myself. I learned this the hard way in 2020.
In its earliest days, the Coronavirus pandemic dropped a monsoon of responsibilities on me. I was already working from home, when my two grade-school kids began at-home schooling—at the same time my planned-for childcare for my baby disappeared into thin air. My husband’s work came to a standstill as well, and since he’s a contractor paid per client, I felt no option to take a break from my work, since we needed to pay the bills. As our lockdown started, I felt like I was in survival mode that I couldn’t escape.
I wrote about the challenges I experienced in Verily’s “Consider This” column in April, while I was still in the thick of it: “My husband helps with the kids when he’s available at home, but we both feel very pushed to the brink. The most neglected items are sleep and tidying—the lack of which both unfortunately compound stress. Between tripping over things in the house or struggling with dishes, it can feel like constant survival mode with no breaks, with a nagging feeling that I’m still not doing enough—while I know I’m doing the best I can. Which is what makes it feel as much a physical struggle as a mental one.”
A single friend told me she felt touch-deprived a month into the pandemic; I couldn’t have felt more opposite. I had children reaching out to me around the clock with the added emotional mom obligations to explain and help them navigate all the changes we were experiencing. Then there were all the normal everyday obligations of work and running a household. I felt an ever-present state of obligations with no opportunity for rest. I ultimately needed to work in the evenings to not go crazy in the daytime with the kids, and there was no room for fun to be had.
Months into the unsustainable juggle, I spoke with Laura Vanderkam, author of the work-from-home staple The New Corner Office, who reminded me that as I am looking for ways to take care of the people around me, I need to also take care of myself; and working without childcare was doing the opposite.
But at that time, the benefit of help around the house did not seem to me to outweigh the attendant risks of bringing another person into our household on a regular basis. As many family members of mine work in healthcare, I was all too aware of the real health complications people are experiencing from COVID-19. Even without the lockdown, it seemed wise to limit social contact to protect the health of my family members and the lives of others, and this reinforced my physical constraints in the home. This made asking for help difficult to envision.
But the balance on that scale was beginning to tip the other way. One day I remembered a friend who I knew was unlikely to be going out to large group events these days and who was looking for nanny work. I reached out to her, and she was very interested.
After a couple days of help, I felt I could start to breathe again.
After getting some of my life back, I couldn’t believe how long I had gone without getting help. Sure, COVID had made it a risky decision, but then again my sanity and my work could be at risk if I didn’t find some solution.
Looking back, I think I had fallen into some kind of self-criticism spiral—a swirling torrent of negative self-talk, critiquing myself for the messy house around me, for forgetting about the start time of a work meeting, for even feeling overwhelmed to begin with. Clearly it’s unproductive to turn on yourself during a time when you need all the support you can get, but that’s what I did.
A talk I listened to a month ago countered that self-critic in me in a novel way. It urged listeners to make time for rest and to stop thinking we are the only ones who can do every task that confronts us. While I was falling into lower and lower self-regard for all my apparent failings around the house, the real problem was that I was expecting I could do everything in the first place, so when I dropped a ball, it was also my fault. It’s stunning how having such a high opinion of oneself (expecting you can do everything on your own is quite a lofty expectation) can also make you feel so remarkably crummy.
Since the pandemic onslaught of responsibilities, I dove into audiobooks like Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin, I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam, and Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo. Along the way, I realized that relying on others isn’t an admission of defeat, it’s a necessary step toward better habits, any semblance of work-life balance, and reaching my highest goals. Getting groceries delivered, hiring help with my kids at home, and signing up for a premade meal service to take the weight off certain evenings, and accepting house-cleaning help—these weren’t flakey selfish choices but things that were assisting me in maintaining my sanity and best serving my family! I had long resisted many of these forms of assistance because I thought the cost was prohibitive, but it turns out I could afford them if I made intentional choices elsewhere in my budget. I just had to get over a sense of shame and guilt for needing help to begin with.
Being kinder to myself and accepting help has also made me more sensitive to the needs of others and ways that I can give help as well. It’s reminded me that everyone needs help, that it isn’t only me, that it’s a universal experience.
For example, it pierced my heart this year when I learned one of my medical professional sisters will be working over the holiday and will miss Christmas morning with her husband and kids. Hospitalizations are up, vacation days have disappeared, and she and her coworkers are working around the clock to help those suffering from COVID. Hearing that coming months would be the hardest for healthcare professionals, I tried to brainstorm ways to help, but I felt sad and powerless. Then one day she told me about a project she was making for her kids but that she couldn’t finish herself, due to her schedule. I jumped at the chance to help, and how much joy I got taking on the project! (Truly, ICU nurses everywhere deserve some kind of bonus; they are the closest to the action helping those with symptoms agonizing to experience and to witness. Physical and emotional burnout is real.)
My sister’s positive attitude remains an inspiration to me. While sacrificing so much and missing Christmas, she has an uplifting word whenever I see her. We get together weekly with our other sister (who is also a healthcare worker) for outdoor or virtual happy hours. We talk about how it’s going and hear what’s going on in each others’ lives; and when we can’t physically ease the burden of the other, we at least offer validation for the challenge she is carrying, so none of us are carrying our burdens alone.