When my younger son was a toddler, his personal motto was “Self-Self-Self.” Anytime my husband or I tried to help him put on his shoes or eat a bowl of oatmeal or get into his car seat, he pushed us a way, snapping at us: “Self-Self-Self.”
Which was basically toddler-ese for “Leave me the hell alone. I got this.”
While his independence was understandable and his determination was endearing, it was also absolutely maddening for everyone. He would cry. He’d throw a fit. He’d pout. Anything to avoid accepting a little help.
Independence was the be-all and end-all of the toddler world.
And it isn’t just toddlers either; many people consider independence a virtue, a noble characteristic. We are, after all, a nation of self-starters and overachievers. A place of pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps success stories. Independence, freedom, and autonomy are the cornerstones of the American Dream.
Independence is also killing us.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who was in the throes of parenting mayhem. I offered to help. I suggested she ask others for help. I reminded her that she wasn’t alone.
“I know,” she said. “But I feel like I should be able to handle this on my own.”
What she was essentially saying was self-self-self — and running herself ragged in the process.
I’ve been in the running-yourself-ragged place. I am still in that place sometimes. I am a proud, independent woman. I don’t like to ask for help. I have a hard time accepting help. I feel like I should be able to do it myself-self-self.
But what I — and so many other parents — forget is that independence and support are not mutually exclusive. Self-sufficiency does not mean going it alone. Autonomy does not hinder camaraderie.
Parenting wasn’t meant to value independence at the expense of mutual support. We weren’t meant to go it alone. We weren’t meant to grin and bear it, especially on those days that are such a struggle it takes every ounce of strength not to scream “Fuck this shit!” and walk out the door.
There’s a reason the phrase “it takes a village” is such a cliché — like most clichés, it’s true. It really does take a village to raise a child, to parent, to live a life.
Once upon a time, parents shared in the obligation of raising up the next generation. Parents protected each other. Parents helped each other. Parents supported each other. If you had a doctor’s appointment or were having a shitty morning, you could call up Patty from around the corner and say, “Girl, I am having a shit-ass day! Can you take my brats — er, kids — for a couple of hours?”
And Patty from around the corner would say, “Sure! Can you bring me a couple diapers when you come? I’m fresh out, and Junior has been sitting in his own shit for an hour because I can’t bear to take my loudmouth kids to the store.”
No judgment. No shaming. No tsk-tsking. You wouldn’t gossip to your other friend, saying, “I’d never let my kid sit in a dirty diaper.” And Patty from around the corner wouldn’t say, “Can you believe she just dropped her kids off because she couldn’t handle being a mom for the morning?”
Nope. Because you and Patty from around the corner had each other’s backs, as did many other neighbors and friends and families. You would have dropped off your loud kids to play with Patty’s loud kids, bringing a few diapers with you. You would have taken a nap or run some errands or just chilled the eff out for a few minutes. And then, later that day, you and Patty would have enjoyed a few gin and tonics or cans of Tab while bitching about your kids together. Because parenting is tough, and we shouldn’t have to go it alone.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, an implicit assumption that parenting requires independence was born. Parents — single parents and couples alike — are expected to handle their business, keep their problems to themselves, and take care of their own. We see it in our public policies, with America as one of the only developed countries that doesn’t offer paid parental leave and subsidized child care. We see it in the way people are quick to look down their noses at a parent or family who is struggling. We see it in the way we are hesitant to ask for help and scared to admit that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing most of the time.
Parenting is serious business. It is hard work. Our insistence on self-self-self is killing us, or at a minimum, making us all incredibly unhappy. And for what? There’s no badge of honor for “independent parenting.” There is no prize at the end of the day for going it alone and never asking for help. You don’t get to wear a crown for enduring the most shit.
So why don’t we ditch the Self-Self-Self style of parenting and try the Got-Each-Other’s-Back style of parenting for a while?
Eventually my son grew out of his self-self-self phase. He realized that even though he could do it by himself, he didn’t need to. He did some things on his own, accepted help once in a while, and we all were a whole lot happier.
Now if only we parents could do the same thing.