When you stay at home with your kids, lots of things are different than if you work outside the home. There’s the obvious stuff: your job follows you 24/7 (including on vacation), you rarely get to use the bathroom by yourself, the concept of a coffee break is foreign to you, and you get to work in your pajamas. Also, you truly become the CEO of your household. You can manage your kids, your home, the errands, and the dog, all at the same time, and all by yourself for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day. So, when someone shows up and offers to “help”, however well meaning, it often doesn’t work. It’s not because you’re controlling or because you’re overly particular. It’s because you can juggle everything by yourself, so having a novice step in and try to help you just doesn’t: it messes up your regular rhythm and requires extra accommodation on your part (showing them what to do, explaining why, working around what they’re doing).
Maybe this isn’t specific to stay-at-home-moms: maybe this is just something that happens with whichever member of the family is the one who calls most of the shots and executes most of the plays (I just know it didn’t really show up in my life until I became a stay-at-home-mom).
Whether it’s friends or family, people want to help, which I can appreciate. They want to help around the house, or help with the kids, but 99% of the time, they’re doing a job you don’t mind doing (because no one offers to help with the ones you’d really rather not be doing), they aren’t doing it as well as you would on your own and often, they’re unintentionally creating additional collateral damage that you’ll just have to rectify at some point. I get that they want to help anyway, and it often is actually helpful, but sometimes it isn’t, particularly when they’re insistent on helping with a particular thing or in a particular way. There’s usually no graceful way to turn down even the worst “help”, so you suck it up and accept it anyway and fix everything later. But then they’re offended that you didn’t appreciate their help enough. Why don’t people understand this?
I actually think I know. My dad used to be a professional house painter. I’ve helped him paint before, and when you start, you start with the inside of a closet. Why? Because your mistakes won’t show, you won’t be in his way and he won’t have to redo your work. Instead of being a stay at home mom, imagine I was a cook at a busy restaurant. Would anyone unfamiliar with that business, or even with that particular restaurant, assume they could walk in and actually take some of my load off on the first day? Or would they understand that maybe, after a few weeks of training, they could begin to actually be helpful? The first few days would inevitably be more work for me — telling them what to do and how we do it, explaining my methods and demonstrating my rhythm. What if I were a brain surgeon? Or an air traffic controller? Would just anyone think they could come in and help me do my job that I do every day without their help?
I don’t think they would. I think that, sadly, when people believe they can “help” a stay-at-home-mom without any training or experience, it’s really a form of condescension. (And by “experience”, I don’t mean just having kids, I mean being a stay-at-home-primary-caregiver.) They would never assume to be able to help a “professional” with their work without any training or practice, but they think they can help “just” a mom. It’s an overt demonstration of an internal feeling that a mom’s job is actually so easy that anyone can do it.
Well, it isn’t. I’m good at what I do, and it took years of sweat, tears and exhaustion to learn what works, what doesn’t, and the best way to take care of everyone and get everything done. If you want to help, sincerely, ask me what you can do and actually listen to the answers. You may not understand, but there is a method to my madness and a reason for everything I do. I’m happy to explain it, when I have the time. You may have to paint in the closet at the beginning — try not to be offended. This job is harder than it looks.