A few weeks shy of giving birth to my middle child, I went to what I thought was a routine ultrasound appointment near my local hospital. Later that afternoon, my son was born and whisked away to the newborn intensive care unit.
My husband and I were shocked to learn that he weighed less than 3 pounds, was sick and would have disabilities.
My life felt like it was spiraling out of control. My husband and I were in our early ’30s, juggling a toddler and two full-time corporate careers. Suddenly, we were dropping our 2-year-old at day care each morning before racing to visit our son at the hospital. We braced for another day of on-the-spot decisions regarding medications and transfusions.
“Let me know what I can do,” many of our loved ones said.
I wanted to let people help but didn’t know what to say. I was uncomfortable being direct, and I thought small favors wouldn’t be useful when we were dealing with such large issues.
Instead of reaching out, I withdrew and struggled to manage everything on my plate. Why did it feel awkward being on the receiving end of assistance? I had always been willing to help others. Now, almost 10 years later, I wonder how I could have accepted help and made the situation easier on my family and me.
‘We worry about being a burden’
“Being uncomfortable asking for help is an almost universal experience,” said Heidi Grant, a social psychologist, speaker and author of “Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.” “We worry about how embarrassing it will be if someone says no. We worry about how guilty we will feel if they say yes. We worry that people will think less of us. We worry about being a burden.”
Do you think less of someone who asks for support or do you see that person as a burden? “No, of course not,” Grant said. “In fact, helping is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have.”
Her words resonated with me. I was raised to be independent and to help others – something I’ve always enjoyed. I wanted to be comfortable receiving help when I needed it so badly.
Even though I couldn’t ask directly, many friends and neighbors knew we were dealing with a crisis and took the initiative to lessen our load. The director of the day care brought my daughter to her home the day my son was born. We often had a hot meal waiting on our doorstep from members of my book club.
I felt funny relying on people outside our inner circle. I thought leaning on my closest family and friends would be easiest and most comfortable. But they lived almost an hour or more away and had hectic work schedules, young families or both. A 2021 study suggests it’s common to rely solely on close friends when seeking help.
“We underestimate how much those that aren’t super close to us are willing to do for us. And we minimize the circle of support we potentially have in a situation like that,” said Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think.”
“If you expand your circle a little, more people are willing to help than we think and that unburdens those closest to us,” Bohns said. “It also makes you feel like you have more support out there and maybe gets you linked up with people who are better able to help. Individuals who are a step removed sometimes have more time or more experience than close friends or family.”
A point person takes off some of the pressure
Those favors made me feel loved and supported. With others often taking care of meals and other areas of our lives, it was easier to focus and take in news from doctors.
As my son’s hospital stay lingered through most of the summer, I felt drained from repeating upsetting and inconclusive medical updates to extended family and friends. I asked a close relative to be a central person others could go to when they wanted to check in with us. That also made a big difference.
“A point person can take the psychological burden off you, but it also takes the psychological burden off people who don’t want to invade your privacy,” Bohns said.
We discussed how our point person or another helper could have managed offers of support by gathering names on a list, letting them know that we would get back to them when I had a better idea of how they could help.
“When you are in crisis, there is often a lot of awkwardness to figuring out what people can do,” Bohns said. “It’s a lot easier to ask for something on behalf of someone else than to ask for it yourself. Knowing that you can get little bits of support (from many different people) instead of being so dependent on a few individuals gives reassurance without the baggage of feeling dependent or guilty.”
Relying on the rich resources of a community
Our need for support has been long term. Knowing who might have more time or more willingness to lend a hand now and then would have been a big plus, especially since many offers faded after my son was discharged from the hospital. Why didn’t people step in when I explained the constant rotation of doctor and therapy appointments?
“We all wish people could read our minds, know what we need and volunteer it,” said Grant, the social psychologist. “People have to understand that you both need help and want it, and they need to know what kind you want them to give – that means you really do have to ask.”
After a decade of parenting three children, I’m a pro at asking for help. When I’m out with my son, who uses a wheelchair, I don’t hesitate to accept a hand opening a door or finding the accessible entrance. Most people are more than happy to assist.
If I’m having a tough week with extra appointments, I find a friend who can listen or go for a walk with me to clear my head. I’m vocal about my challenges and prefer to bring people into the loop. And I don’t only rely on my inner circle. I have a large community of resources – which benefits all of us.
A guide to asking for help
Jaclyn Greenberg writes about her experiences parenting her three young children. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Wired, Parents and other places.