I have a neighborhood friend who I used to go to dinners with, our kids would play in the street, and we’d spend hours venting about how hard motherhood was. We were both stay-at-home-moms when our kids were young and we were thankful for each other.
She’d always offer her help to me, as well as others — I heard her say it often. I never took her up on it until I was pregnant with my third child. I felt like I might go into labor any minute and was trying to get a plan into place if I felt him crowning in the middle of the night since I was known to have fast labors.
I asked her if she would be available to come over for a half hour until my sister arrived to take care of my two toddlers, should I go into labor and feel like I couldn’t wait for my sister to get there.
She looked at me and hesitated, then came up with every excuse in the book as to why she wouldn’t be able to do that even though she stayed at home with her kids who got along great with my kids, and she lived two doors down from me.
I figured it was too big of an ask and I went for Plan B, asking another neighbor who said, “Of course!” I never needed the backup, but it was nice to know I had it.
Then years later, when my husband and I decided to separate, that friend said the same thing, “Is there anything I can do to help? Let me know!” I didn’t feel I needed any help until a year after he’d moved out when I was unable to get to a class meeting for our kids, who were in the same grade. I asked if she could give my daughter a ride to the meeting so I could go to my son’s game.
She couldn’t do it, which was fine, of course. I didn’t ask her why, but I did feel kind of weird when — after skipping my son’s lacrosse game so I could race back home and get my daughter after dropping him off so we could make the meeting — I saw her and her son exiting her driveway and going to the meeting from their house.
Maybe she just didn’t feel like having an extra kid in the car, or was too busy, or wanted to run errands after, I thought, and it escaped my mind.
And just the other day, one year after I’d asked her for the last favor, I was in a bind again. So, as much as I hated to do it, I asked her for help. She didn’t even respond to my text. That’s when I knew her offer of “help” wasn’t sincere and she didn’t really want to help out at all. Third time is a charm, and I’ve learned my lesson.
“Let me know what I can do to help.”
The phrase rolls off people’s tongues as easily as “How are you?”
The thing is, most of the time when we’re asked how we are, no one really cares. They aren’t expecting to hear about how we had to put our cat down, how our favorite jeans didn’t fit that morning, or how we’re so constipated we can’t sit down.
It’s rare people have time to listen to how you truly are, so we just nod our head, say the predictable,”I’m great, how are you?” then talk about the weather and shit like that.
But when we do talk about the road bumps in life — a sick parent, divorce, a flooded basement, or how were struggling with anxiety — too many respond with, “Hey, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” because you’re an asshole if you don’t say this even if they have no intention of ever lending a hand, right?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest we stop saying this if we don’t mean it. It’s a shitty thing to do to people who take you seriously, and save your offer in their back pocket until they can’t hang on alone any longer and do need help.
Because the woman who just gave birth and is hobbling around with sore breasts, hasn’t slept in days, and desperately wants a shower and a nap who finally gets the courage to ask for that help from the person who offered to help but gets shot down because it really wasn’t what they had in mind, might not ask for it again.
Instead, she’ll keep plugging along until she reaches a really bad place and feels hopeless.
And the person who’s been struggling with trying to pick up the pieces after a divorce, and finally reaches out to ask for help moving or organizing their finances, needs a sitter so they can go on a date or invest in some self-care, or just needs their kids dropped off at school, and they are denied by the same person who said, “Let me know what I can do,” will feel pretty damn alone.
We should think before we look someone in the eyes and say, “Let me know what I can do to help you.” Especially if our thoughts are,”I’d like to help because I feel bad but only if it’s convenient and works for me and doesn’t make me too uncomfortable, thanks.”
If that’s the case, don’t say, “Let me know what I can do.” Don’t worry about feeling like an asshole because you didn’t offer help that you have no intention of giving anyway. Because believe me, when your help is needed and asked for, the people who are asking remember your offer, and when you can’t manage that favor, that’s when you look like a shining asshat.
People who summon the courage to ask for help, no matter what that looks like, actually need help, and it takes a lot for most to express what they need.
I’m not talking about being a doormat and letting yourself get taken advantage of. And we all know there are times when you just can’t help because your kids need you, you are sick, or you feel it won’t be the most effective way to help but would like to offer another option.
I’m talking about blatantly saying you’d like to help when really, that’s not your intention at all.
Instead, take a moment before you blurt out that you’ll be around to assist them in any way they need. Because when someone who is struggling reaches out to ask for something you said you could provide, it’s much more damaging when you deny them than if you never offered yourself up in the first place.