Elizabeth Elizardi M.Ed., MAPP

Parent Pulse

Parenting with Major Help

Parents who reach goals tend to reach out.

Posted Jan 12, 2012

Pick up a piece of paper and write down three things you've accomplished so far today.  Next to your three tasks or goals write down whether or not you had to ask someone for help.  Believe it or not, you are motivated by goals all day long.  Some are automatic, like getting out of bed, showering or driving kids to and from school.  Others are more pronounced and require greater personal agency and changes in habit, like deciding to lose fifty pounds, run a marathon or write a book. One thing is certain-parents who reach out to strong support networks and ask for help with goals will be cradled by the support of others, increasing the likelihood of accomplishment - one of the key elements of Well-Being.

If asking for help leaves you feeling incapable or weak, perhaps you can learn something from a person who magnifies the strengths of bravery and courage.   Major Risa Riepma, a Nutritional Medicine Flight Commander with Craig Joint Theater Hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, was called to duty overseas.  She recently left her three children and husband for a six-month deployment in Afghanistan and I reached out to her to understand how letting others help has contributed to her Well-Being. 

Elizabeth: How has the support and help from your friends and family contributed to your Well-Being since you have been deployed?

Major Riepma: Since I am deployed on the other side of the world and separated from my family for 6 months, receiving help from others has taken on a new meaning. Usually I am the organizer, the do-er, and the nurturing one in my marriage. My husband is a wonderful provider and father but there are many things I feel more comfortable doing myself. Now that it is physically impossible for me to do these things for my family, I've had to rely more on a number of people to help me -  my husband, my close friends, my housekeeper, my kids' teachers. Their help has been a blessing because it has given me peace of mind to focus on my job while knowing those I love most are being taken care of. 

Elizabeth: What was it like to ask others for help in preparation for deployment?

Major Riepma: Once I realized that I was going to be deployed, it was not hard for me to reach out for help. This had a lot to do with the sincere offers to help that I received from just about everyone I told I was being deployed. I was more open to help from others because I knew in my heart I would do the same thing for others in their time of need.   

Elizabeth: When you think about the people who are helping you and your family now, what are your thoughts/emotions?

Major Riepma: When I think about the friends who are playing with my kids in my absence and giving my husband some alone time or when I think about the older woman who is cooking and doing my family's laundry, I feel incredibly appreciative. It's one thing to have friends who are there for you when it's convenient for them, but friends who will help you and expect nothing in return, are friends I feel I can really count on. Real friends.

Elizabeth: Was there another option? What would it have been like to be deployed without help?

Major Riepma: Of course I had the option to not accept or ask for help and expect my husband to carry all the load. But I really did not consider that to be an option. Being separated is hard enough and I knew if he was overly stressed, our phone conversations and his interactions with our kids would not be as meaningful. Ultimately our relationships would suffer if he did not receive some help. Being deployed without my support system would be much more of a hardship mentally. I am a Type A person who likes to be in control. I enjoy having many things going on at one time but over time, it wears me down. Letting others help me has caused me to accept that I do not need to do everything. Accepting help from others and providing help to others has strengthened many of my relationships which has definitely enhanced the quality of my life.

Major Riepma's goal is to serve our country and help others in need, which means being away from her family for six months, but the heartache is softened by the knowledge of the strong social network that sustains her family in her absence.  Accepting help has sparked the positive emotions of gratitude, peace and generosity that will feed her soul for the next six months and it has fortified her personal relationships with friends and family. 

Major Riepma did not hesitate to ask for help reaching her goal, but what makes asking for help so uncomfortable for others?  For some people, asking for help is a sign of weakness, incompetence and dependency on others.  They may be hindered by others' perception of them and their abilities and they may be wary of what the person will want in return.  People may feel like they are imposing or bothering someone by seeking a favor.  True, asking for and receiving help has social and psychological costs, posing a threat to self-esteem and autonomy.  But for parents, asking for help also has tremendous benefits for the help-receiver, the help-giver and the children.  Parents who accept help are less burdened by the pressure to do it all themselves.  They create ample time to accomplish goals and they also spend important time socializing with other people.  There are also myriad benefits for children: They gain exposure to a variety of people, they learn about what is and isn't acceptable behavior in our very social world, and they see that mommy and daddy can't do it all - and that is okay. 

Among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari, babies are held by a father, grandmother, older sibling or other adult 25% of the time. Among the Efe foragers of Central Africa, babies spend 60 percent of their daylight hours being toted around by somebody other than their mother.  From our primal ancestors to modern-day parents, cooperative parenting in groups and relying on support from others has been an effective survival strategy. 

So, if asking for help is difficult for you, try some of these strategies based on research from Brown and Levinson:

  1. Use openings and markers to be used to clarify the situation: "You see", "So", "I was wondering if perhaps", "I was wondering if you would consider". 
  2. Provide reasons or constraints: "My husband can't pick them up and I've also tried my sitter", "You're the only person I can count on", "I have a long meeting that I can't get out of". 
  3. Give anticipatory thanks, promises, and compliments: "You're the best", "What would I do without you". 
  4. If being direct still makes you uncomfortable, try being indirect and insinuating the need for help.  "Getting the kids from school every day and to their activities is really difficult."   - in hopes that the other person will offer help. 
  5. Seek out peers who are available to provide help when needed.  People are more likely to ask peers, as opposed to people with "higher ranks" when help is needed.  Make a lateral move!
  6. Make the task or goal routine.  Having set carpool schedules, play dates or sleepovers will minimize the need to ask for help multiple times. 

The ability to ask for help is a sign of strength and acceptance that you can't be everything to everyone.   Psychologist and researcher Ed Diener writes that because we are social creatures, we need social relationships to thrive.  When we thrive we build stronger social bonds and avoid the loneliness trap that leads to poorer physical health and many other health risks.   If greater Well-Being is your goal this year, then reach out to your social networks to seek Major Help!

 Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521313551