The witching hour began around 5 p.m. each day. I had two hands and three babies: twin 18-month-old boys and an infant daughter, all of whom were perpetually in the throes of a crisis, fall, or unpredictable bowel movement. My husband would be coming home from a new job and a three-hour round-trip commute, and my stepdaughter would be rolling in from middle school with teenage needs. They were always walking into a war zone.
I didn’t need to chitchat and be asked, "How was your day?" I didn't need "I love you" either, or even "Thanks for all you're doing." I needed the person to walk through the door, roll up their sleeves, survey the situation, and pitch in. I needed help, stat.
So how could I get my fellow soldiers up to speed quickly and help me where the crisis was most intense? I needed them to be ready, and I needed to communicate the plan. So I asked my husband and stepdaughter to ask me the following as soon as they walked through the door: "How can I help?"
Four small, powerful words. They moved us immediately into collaboration, into a place of teamwork. It was the fastest way to integrate them into the moment and get the help I needed. They were no longer observers of crisis; they were EMTs, and we were moving to the next step, side by side.
Soldiers, emergency room doctors, and anyone else who deals in crisis has a shorthand for "I'm here; put me to work where you need me most." I had spent years working in restaurants, and I knew what it felt like to be deep in the weeds—and more importantly, how to help a fellow chef out of the weeds. I had regularly appeared on live TV, and I had seen network crews do a form of this as well.
Now that I was in caregiver mode, I was always responding to what everyone else needed—or anticipating the needs of those who couldn't speak. What I needed was someone to help me.
As soon as my husband and stepdaughter started using the mantra (and following up on the request that was made), that pile of dishes in the sink, that dirty diaper that needed to be changed, that hungry child who wanted a snack—suddenly, those to-do items were crossed off my list, lightening my mental load. I had less weight to carry.
In the spring of 2017, a cartoonist named Emma wrote an illustrated story about the "mental load," the implicit project management work that lands in the lap of (typically female) primary caregivers. This resonated globally, and soon the phrase "mental load" was plastered across social media, everywhere.
"How can I help?" doesn’t solve the mental load, but it acknowledges the role of the caregiver as team leader and the other adults in the home as part of the team. Someone's gotta quarterback the logistics of children. But the same person can't be the quarterback and the receiver. "How can I help?" enables you to quarterback and creates a domestic culture of receivers ready for the pass, prepared to complete the play.
It's never too early to start delegating work to others. Kelli DeFlora, owner of Montclair B.A.B.Y., a birth, advocacy, breastfeeding, and yoga center in Montclair, New Jersey, recommends having a list on the fridge as soon as the baby is born. "There's always laundry to do, dishes to wash, and meals to make. When well-intentioned friends and relatives come through the door, you can say that the best way they can help is to take an item from the list and cross it off when it's done," says DeFlora.
"I see too many parents these days who try to do everything for their child, and disable them in the process," says Peter Della Bella, M.D., a psychiatrist and New York University child psychiatry professor. Dr. Della Bella supports the "How can I help?" approach to family problem-solving. "Younger children, especially, are put in the position of being active participants, having to reflect, and having to work with someone to identify and solve problems. Arguably, problem-solving skills are the best skills parents can engender in a child."
If you'd like to implement "How can I help?" in your home, try these techniques to make it part of your family fabric:
- Connect with your partner purposefully about roles in the home. Clarify who is taking primary responsibility for home care, childcare, finances, food, etc. Get clear about who is the lead on what.
- Share this article with your partner. Confirm that you're both interested in using this technique.
- Have each project lead identify the trouble spots (or witching hours) in their role. When do they feel like they're getting pulled into the weeds? Are there specific times of day, of the month, of the year, when the responsibility starts to get stressful?
- Role model "How can I help?" Now that you know where your partner needs help, say the words. Role model this behavior for your children if they are old enough. Find opportunities to use it on a daily basis: navigating out of traffic, spilled milk, sharing the laundry folding, etc. "How can I help?" can fast be applied in almost any tense scenario or moment of conflict.
- If help isn't coming, ask for it directly. Say, "I need your help." Pause for positive response, connect for a second, then delegate. Have a follow-up, and give positive feedback if it worked.
Can you imagine your partner, family, and friends walking through the door during the witching hour, asking what needs to be done, and then doing it? On the regular?
It's the greatest phrase since "I love you," and I say greater because the "I love you" is implied. And to it is an added "I got your back," "We're in this together," and of course, "This is our family."
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