When her father was dying of cancer, Kathy Hill Kremer leaned hard on her friends: "They brought me food when I forgot to eat, and wine when I just couldn't take it anymore. They drove my mom back and forth to the hospital. Best of all, they invited my daughter Aubrey for playdates so she could escape all the sadness. That meant I could focus on helping my parents, and my husband could concentrate on being there for me," says the Tennessee mom.
Recently Lucy Marks's* marriage fell apart, leaving her caring for two young children alone while trying to revive very rusty job skills. "But I've had so much help from my friends," says the Prosper, Texas, mom. "They take care of the kids while I go to job interviews, and they're constantly inviting us over for dinner."
Whatever the crisis, we all get by with a little help from our friends. But we may need to lean a little harder on them when we have kids. A mom who's on the verge of falling apart still has to pull herself together for her children.
And to make things more difficult, kids tend to get even needier during crunch time: The reduced attention, the change in routine, and an atmosphere of anguish can make them clingiest just when Mom needs some space. So how can you lend a hand? Here's what moms say has been most appreciated.
A sympathetic ear
"The best emotional support I received was from friends who really let me talk about how I was feeling," says Cathy O'Shaughnessy, a Glenview, Illinois, mom whose son Kyle, 8, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 2. "No matter how sad or angry I was on any given day, they didn't act uncomfortable or judgmental. Talking to them helped me reach a point of acceptance about Kyle's illness, which in turn helped me get proactive about his care."
Just listening to a friend is especially important when the crisis affects more than one parent, and each one is trying to be strong for the other. To be a good listener:
Give her time. The desire to talk often extends well past the height of the crisis. Jinny Breedlove of Katy, Texas, needed to talk about her stillborn second son long after his death. "Many of my friends, without saying so directly, let me know that it was time to stop talking about him," says Breedlove. "But I had one friend who kept calling for months after our son died -- ostensibly to chat but really to listen to me. It meant so much that she called for so long, and that all she did was listen."
Don't try to solve the problem. "We all have a tendency to want to rescue someone we love, but charging in just makes people feel incompetent and overwhelmed," says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., a research associate at the Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping With Mothering Stress, Depression, and Burnout.
Focus on what your friend is feeling now. Three years ago, when her 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, became blind as a consequence of bacterial meningitis, Christine Shirley of rural Tennessee was furious at the number of people who implied that blindness wasn't so bad anymore. "I wasn't ready to admit that my daughter was never going to see again, and they had already moved on to the wonderful adaptive equipment available to her," says Shirley.
Respect her privacy. You don't need to know exactly how much child support your friend's divorce attorney is demanding or what type of cancer treatment she's getting. Very personal questions may make her feel her privacy is being invaded, says Leah Klungness, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Locust Valley, New York, and coauthor of The Complete Single Mother. Nonspecific expressions of concern -- "Oh, that sounds so hard!" or "You must feel so frustrated!" -- are much better ways to show genuine interest.
Whether or not your friend opens up to you, you can still bolster her strength to get her through a tough time. A few possibilities to try:
Send loving notes. A card or even an e-mail saying "I'm thinking of you" is always welcome. If you can include a compliment -- "You're doing such a good job dealing with this; it must be so hard to do it all!" -- it's even better. A kind reminder of the courage your friend is showing can end up helping her feel empowered.
Offer to be a companion at difficult appointments. Women who've suffered a miscarriage can find it excruciating to keep appointments with the ob-gyn, whose waiting rooms are always filled with pregnant women. Someone with a seriously ill relative may be daunted by the medical jargon. A divorcing mom can feel outgunned at court appearances. An offer to go along at such times can be a great gift.
Make a point of remembering the dead. When a friend has lost a loved one, a phone call on that person's birthday or other significant anniversary will be a comfort when the rest of the world has moved on.
A helping hand
Forget the phrase "If there's anything I can do, please let me know." Many people don't feel comfortable asking for help, others simply don't have time to call around until they find someone available, and still others are too disoriented to remember what actually needs to be done. "You just can't think straight when something huge is going on in your life," says Kremer. So make your offers as specific as possible:
Keep an eye on her kids. "When my mother died several years ago, what helped the most were offers to take the kids to the movies, for a visit, anything that gave them some respite from the problems at home," says San Antonio mom Luanna Crow. "The friends who extended kindnesses to my children helped me cope as well."
With very small kids, who often don't like changes in routine, the best help is an offer to go over while your friend gets out, rather than an invitation to keep them at your own house, says Rebecca Brooks, a mother of two young sons in South Orange, New Jersey. Last year Brooks's mother was fighting a long battle with brain cancer, and "whenever there was an emergency with her care, a friend would be at my house in an instant to watch my kids," Brooks remembers.
Fill her fridge. There's no end to the number of ways you can make sure no one misses a meal while Mom's dealing with a crisis. Organize volunteers to take turns bringing kid-friendly meals or stock your friend's freezer with nutritious heat-and-eat entrees. Easiest of all, you could give her gift certificates to takeout services that cover more than one restaurant, or buy her a supply of paper plates and plastic cutlery. When you're heading to the grocery store, call to see if you can pick up any staples like bread, milk, or diapers. Parenting.com: heat and eat recipes
Lighten her load. Every mom's calendar is overflowing with family responsibilities. Try taking some chores off her list -- take her place in the carpool, lend a hand at birthday parties, or offer to help with kids' homework. Parenting.com: Coupons for Mom
Help with the house. Few women will feel comfortable letting you come in and clean their house or cut their grass. But they may welcome a gift certificate (try going in on it together with friends) for a cleaning person or a lawn service. Susan Wilson, a mother of two in Newton, Iowa, has also found that an offer of help that's phrased as a social visit -- "I was thinking of coming over to catch up with you. Why don't we fold some laundry while we talk?" -- can put a friend in need at ease.
If she's truly unwilling to accept practical help, don't push it. You don't want to make her feel like a charity case.
On the other hand, sometimes all it takes to nudge someone into accepting a gift is to make her realize that it would make you feel better if she did: Say, "I've been feeling so frustrated that I can't make this sad situation any better for you. Won't you let me come over and watch the kids for a couple of hours while you go to the movies or go grab a coffee?"
Putting it that way may help your friend see that sometimes one of the greatest gifts we give each other is the opportunity to lend a hand. Chances are good that your friend will be able to return the favor -- if not directly to you, then to someone else -- at some point down the road.
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Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor to Parenting.