“I’m not being ridiculous," she said, as she pulled one napkin after another out of the box. “I have four children at my table. We need all these.”
“Take your time,” I said. “I’ve got nine kids. I get it.”
She stopped her hurried napkin-pulling and turned to look at me.
“You have nine kids? And you survived? How do you do it? I mean, I know we can’t have a long conversation, but just tell me one thing. One piece of advice. How do I do it?”
She was so earnest, there in the restaurant in Charlottesville, her husband and children waiting. Glancing at the table, I saw a child in a soccer uniform other than the ones local to the area. Her youngest was about kindergarten age. Her oldest, about 13.
“You’re in the thick of it now,” I replied. “Everyone needs you to get anywhere. No one is really old enough to be left on her own or to drive by herself, but they are all old enough to have their own circles of activity and interest that need you. It’s exhausting. The one thing I wish I’d done more is ask for help. You can’t be pulled in four directions all day every day without time to re-charge. Ask for help in order to be able to take care of yourself. “
“Yes,” she said. “That’s it exactly. I have no help. It’s all me. I work fulltime teaching school and then I come home and face more needy children. Everyone needs and needs and needs, and there’s no time for me to recharge. No space, either really.”
“Find some. Find time and space. That’s key. Can you trade off with another mom, maybe?” I encouraged her.
“I’m not from around here. I live outside Washington. Everybody’s busy. Everybody keeps their heads down and just plows through. I don’t have anyone else to ask.”
“Yep, I know. I live in Northern Virginia.”
“I live in suburban Maryland,” she said, beginning to notice the cluster of people behind her waiting for napkins. She thanked me and hurried off to her family.
I sat down with my own little brood of whichever of my children were with me that day and I pondered all the pieces of the hurried conversation. She was right. I’ve noticed the head-down-and-barrel-through posture that comes in neighborhoods where people work long days and then commute long hours.
We are meant to live in community. We are meant to bear one another’s burdens and to connect in meaningful ways. Clearly, this lady was so starved for emotional connection with another woman that she would allow herself to be vulnerable in a restaurant in a town away from home. And I really believe that if we weren’t both far from our usual stomping grounds, I would have offered to be that leg up for her. What I hope is that she tucked my words into her heart and she thought about how to share that same vulnerability with a neighbor or a co-worker. Maybe it’s harder to express a need to someone nearby than it is to express it to a stranger far from home.
I’ve thought about her often in the month or so since we met. And I look for her — or rather, the mom like her — in all my own familiar places now. I’ve thought about all the times I felt the way she did and all the times I still do. I’ve resolved to take my own advice: to seek someone else and to ask for help, to allow myself to be vulnerable. At the same time, I’m looking other women in the eyes and praying that they will let me into the places where they need shoring up.
Because we really do need one another.