Because We Need Them: Changing the Narrative of Care

February 25, 2014

I haven’t slept well in four months. I don’t get to shower every day. My dishes get washed maybe twice a week. There’s an unpacked suitcase sitting in my hall from a trip I took a month ago. Our clean clothes lay in the hamper unfolded. Empty mugs and burping cloths and teething toys and blankets litter the bedroom where I now sit writing this.

I am the nursing mother of a beautiful, happy, funny infant, and the great bulk of my life is now given over to her.

The narrative of motherhood as we typically perceive it tends to be fairly straightforward. Infants are helpless: they can’t sit up, they can’t feed themselves, they can’t change themselves, they can’t crawl or walk, and they often don’t even sleep without first being rocked or held or sung to. Because of this helplessness, they need us constantly. You can’t just set an infant down indefinitely when you need to take a break. They won’t just play quietly while you take a nap.

It’s tempting in the face of that unrelenting infant need to elect to see myself as a martyr. After particularly long days, there are times when my husband comes home to find me walking the halls like a disheveled actress from an Elizabethan tragedy, all but wringing my hands and wailing, “Woe is me.” There’s no denying it’s hard—brutally hard—some days. But I’ve found that it helps me to reframe this traditional “I am the helper, she is the helpless” narrative.

Because the truth is, I don’t just feed my daughter or wake in the night with her because she needs me. I give to my daughter because I need her. I need to hear what only she has been brought into this world to say. I need to hear her particular laughter. I need to see the way only she will look at magnolia blossoms or at slugs crawling across sidewalks or at the insides of half-bitten strawberries. I need to know her opinions about New York City or football or Vietnamese soup or Harry Potter. I need to see the way her long eyelashes begin to fall and then settle as she falls asleep now in my arms. I need to see that childhood sleeping echoed in the adult she will become. She is necessary to me. She is necessary in the world, and that’s why she was born. I am receiving whatever I am giving back to me in dividends, pressed down, shaken together, and spilling over into my lap.

It occurred to me the other day that this deceptively small shift might also prove radically liberating to those in the frontlines of the helping professions. It occurs to me that as we think about the urgent need to care for the children at Palmer Home, we would be well served to remember that we are not just helping kids because it’s a good thing to do or because the dictates of faith or conscience bid us to. We are not just helping kids because they need help. We are helping kids because we need them.

We don’t just need them generally.

We need them specifically.

We need to know what Alex thinks about John Eldredge. Whether or not Samantha likes green beans. What Bubba feels when he wins a pick up game of basketball. We need to know all these and a million other particulars about these particular people. I mean that “we” not only narrowly but broadly. The world needs these particular people with their particular joys and interests and strengths and foibles and loves. We need them.

The reason this is an essential shift is because it’s all too easy when you are focused upon your own role as helper to allow the ego to crush any delight in the relationship. You become so much more easily burnt out. Fears of scarcity and lack of resources begin to crowd in—after all, you are the helper and they are completely helpless and it will always be this way.

But I wonder what it would look like today if we changed the narrative a bit—not only for those of us with involvement at Palmer Home, but with our families, with any one who depends upon us. We help because we need the people we are helping to be alive and thriving in this world and because without them, the world would be dreadfully empty and cold.

Reframing the narrative makes the need for intervention no less urgent. Last year in the state of Mississippi alone, nearly 30,000 children were suspected of being abused or neglected. Only 19,000 of those cases were actually investigated.

Something must be done and soon to help. We cannot afford for that many hearts to grow hard, for that much wonder to be squelched, for so many voices to be silenced before they’ve even begun to speak. Help is necessary and the need is urgent.

But as we seek to help and as we seek to support Palmer Home as it helps, let us remember why we are doing so. We need these children. The world needs these children. That’s why they were born.