My mother-in-law has the best parenting stories, and by “best” I mean painfully entertaining. I appreciate these stories, because they remind me that life is hard for any parent when their children are small. It’s easy to forget this when I visit my well-rested inlaws in their perfectly kept home and chat with them about how they’re going to enjoy their retirement in a few years. Once upon a time, they did not have it so easy.

What is interesting about these stories is how much the culture surrounding parenting has changed. A while back at Christmas dinner, my MIL told us the story of how her my husband’s little sister caught a duckling with her bare hands. He was probably about 11 and she was 7, and they were playing by a pond. I have heard this story several times before, but my ears perked up when a never-before mentioned detail surfaced:  said duck was captured while my MIL was inside, periodically watching her children through a window as they played outside. Alone. Next to a pond.

Oh, and the reason she had left them alone outside to play next to a pond is that she was on a college campus taking an exam in a nearby building. <<<RECORD SCRATCH>>>

Um, what?

I think she was a bit put off by my look of incredulity. She first noted that her one friend who sometimes babysat for her during the day was unavailable, and obviously her husband was at work. Ok, fair enough. But, this was a prescheduled college exam (she went back to school in her 30s), not an unexpected emergency. Surely she couldn’t have planned ahead to figure something out?

Yeah, I suppose I was a bit judgmental in that moment. I get nervous about my kids (admittedly much younger at 5 and 3 respectively) playing in our own backyard without me hovering over them. But still, really? MIL just laughed about how she probably would not get away with that today, and it was over. Um, yeah? I mean, what if the little one had a meltdown? Or fell into the pond? The exam would have been ruined for her anyway. What was she thinking?

On the car ride home, my husband noted something else about the story that had not occurred to me:  his grandfather (MIL’s father-in-law) lived a few towns away during the time of the duck-snatching incident. He laughed about how she probably didn’t feel comfortable making him go out of his way to baby-sit, although knowing him, he would have been more than happy to do so.

So that was it:  then, as now, so many mothers, including my MIL, felt so uncomfortable asking for help that they preferred to make their own lives more difficult rather than daring to inconvenience someone – even a famly member who cared deeply about them and their children. What is up with that?

I will be the first to admit that I have felt similarly. And there are times when I figure it would actually be less convenience for me to get a babysitter or whatever other kind of help I need related to my kids. For example, I can see how driving out of her way to drop the kids off (assuming Grandpa was not coming over) could have added a layer of complication to exam day. But wait, not really – I mean, isn’t worrying about your children playing by a pond outside a school facility while you’re taking a final exam even MORE complicated and burdensome than driving your kids to a babysitter?

And this comes back to the real problem here: some of us are convinced that being a good parent means doing everything ourselves when it comes to our kids. For this reason, we get really uncomfortable asking even those close to us, those who would do just about anything for us and our kids, to do even the most basic of tasks needed to take care of our children. My MIL wasn’t booking off to the spa or something (and even if she was, that would still be ok!) — she was sitting for a final exam to get the college degree she didn’t have the opportunity to obtain right after high school. I mean, that is huge! Everything worked out beautifully in the end, but I feel so sorry for her. Whether it was our culture, or the way she was raised, or some kind of internalized belief she held about her responsibilities as a mother, my MIL really believed that she had no choice but to let her kids play outside by a pond, unsupervised, during a task that required her full attention and focus under a time constraint.

Hearing stories like this, my gut reaction is “What were you thinking?” But I already know what she was thinking. The real question, for the next time a scenario like this arises, should be “How can I help?” Or maybe, rather than a question, we need to make a statement. Here’s what I came up with:  “I know you are uncomfortable asking for help. Please, I want to do this for you. Allow me to help.” And if that doesn’t work, just show up and don’t let Mom give you a no for an answer. After all, some of us are so afraid of the guilt or imagined rejection that we not only refrain from asking for help, but forget how to ask in the first place.

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