When helping means staying out of the way

Staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of all the times that my kids have asked to help me cook or move heavy furniture and I’ve had to say no. I’d assure them, “If you really want to help me, the best way to help right now is to stay out of the way.” I worried that if I allowed them to help me the way they wanted to, they might get hurt.

Or I might accidentally drop heavy furniture on them.

Or they might get burned by popping cooking oil.

Or I might trip over them and spill a pot of boiling water on them.

Sometimes it takes more work for me to let them help me. Sometimes it is a distraction if I am trying to move quickly or concentrate on something. It isn’t always a good idea to let them help me.

It also reminds me of the time Hurricane Harvey hit and caused massive flooding in the Houston and surrounding areas. Our family of 5 stayed in a hotel during the storm and for almost a week after, thanks to the generosity of a few friends and family.

Back during Harvey, I got stir-crazy. I wanted to help too! I wanted to be a part of the community and serve others. As a someone who is used to serving and taking care of others, it was hard to sit back and watch others go to work rescuing people, working at shelters, and mucking out houses while I just stayed confined in the four walls of a tiny hotel room with my three also-stir-crazy children.

And it wasn’t very glorious. Or appreciated. Or recognized. Or noticed. And it most certainly didn’t seem very helpful to just be sitting there. Doing nothing. Trying to keep myself and my children from going insane.

But I had to remind myself that by staying out of the way, I would be one less person that needed to be rescued by the professionals. Sometimes amateur rescuers got themselves in trouble rescuing others and made more work for the people trained to fish people out of flooded buildings and rushing flood waters. I was not skilled in doing that, so I helped by staying out of the way.

I was one less person that needed to be taught how to work at the overcrowded shelters. I was one less body taking up space. Plus I needed to make sure that someone was able to watch my children. They wanted mama, and mama was there. So I helped by staying out of the way.

I also did not have the skills to muck out houses. I probably would have hurt myself trying to do things better-suited to people like my husband. It also would have required, again, that someone watch my kids for me. And while I could have asked someone to watch my kids for me, and perhaps they would have gladly done so, I felt that I would have been the best help by staying out of the way.

So I served my family behind the scenes. I watched other peoples’ kids so that they could go muck out houses. I provided a home base where people could return and check on their kids, sit and take a breather, talk out their day, and always have some cold water available. There was no glory or recognition. There were no newspaper articles written about me. There was nothing life-changing about the help that I offered during that time.

I consoled myself by saying I would “be the tortoise.” Everyone wanted to be the hare, to jump in quickly after the crisis and lend a helping hand. But what about a year later when people were still trying to rebuild after the flood? Maybe they would need a listening ear or dinner brought to them a year later, when most people have already gone back to life as usual.

I remember the previous year, my hometown of Denham Springs had flooded, and people were still rebuilding even a year later. It takes a long time to recover from losing everything. So I reminded myself that I could serve later. I would help the most by staying out of the way. For now.

But I felt grumpy because my ego wanted to be fed. I wanted to be recognized that I, too, was doing good work! I was helping too!

I had to release my desire to be recognized.

I had to release my desire to feel useful.

I had to let go of my desire to make a difference.

I had to release my definition of what it meant to be helpful.

It kind of stinks to stay out of the way when you really want to be doing something meaningful.

So it is with this stay-at-home order and social distancing that we are trying to practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. It doesn’t seem very helpful to just stay home and watch Netflix all day. Or in my case, reading books all day. Our family has just been watching movies, playing board games, reading books, and having an extended Spring Break. We are pretty much experiencing life as usual, which is such a tremendous blessing.

I’m thankful that my life looks like nothing is happening because it means that I’m not sick. It means that no one in my family is sick. And it means that we are not making anyone else sick. It means that I am one less person to flood the overloaded hospitals. That leaves one more bed available to someone who really needs it- because I am not in it. That is one less car in the ridiculously long lines at the testing sites.

And no one will never know how I helped. There will be no glory. But perhaps it will be a favorite memory for my family because of all the time we were able to spend together.

I told a friend that it reminds me of a honeymoon. It is a time in which our family has been separated from the world, just bonding together as a family.

And like just about everything tends to do, this time reminds me of birth. So many people long to be helpful to people giving birth. As doulas, we want to help. As midwives, OBs, nurses, childbirth educators, family members, photographers, and friends, we want to be of use to people as they are welcoming new life into the world. But sometimes that help can mean getting in the way of a process that usually does not need much help to work perfectly. Sometimes, in our efforts to help the process run smoothly, we can inadvertently become meddlesome. Sometimes the best way to be helpful is to stay out of the way. I work really hard as a doula to find that fine balance of being helpful and not meddlesome.

And so it is during this uncertain time, I am helping the best way I know how- by staying out of the way.

 

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