I’m not sure who came up with the favorite saying, but among three dear friends we took it to heart. I think Julie invented it, but she likes to credit Annie or me since her children are the youngest of the lot.
In the early 1990s I was mothering two boys under three and trying to work full time. My husband, Bruce, was in law school, so finances and time together were limited. I would work during the day and he would attend classes in the evenings. Crossing paths at the front door, we’d often hand a hungry, dirty-diapered baby to the one now on duty. We were thankfully young enough to power through these crazy times since on every level we were just barely “pulling it off.” I’m still amazed that Bruce graduated and I was able to start a career.
My friends Annie and Julie were in the same boat. With seven kids and three jobs between us, we’d meet monthly at our self-fashioned book club. Somehow we adopted the mantra, “You need people.” We used this tag line to justify getting a cleaning service to muck out our homes. It made it sort of all right that we needed childcare to sneak away a few times a year to get a manicure. What I didn’t realize at the time, “I need a team” was the underlying truth of why I not only I should buy support services, but it was why I deeply needed these friends to survive early parenthood.
Recognizing we needed help was hard to admit since we also believed that as American women, we were supposed to pull off mothering and working on our own. Not long out of college in the 1980s we each considered being successful grownups meant figuring out how to be as independent as possible.
Living in Washington D.C. we were all far from family. So, to Julie and Annie I went if we needed help. Julie and her husband appeared at 4 a.m. to watch over our eldest when the second was born. When we wanted to build a deck, Annie’s husband was found wildly digging behind our house for hours in a rainstorm. It clearly took a team to keep Bruce and me afloat even if I couldn’t fully admit it.
Now, almost twenty years later, with my children about grown, our motherhood mantra keeps circling through my head. As I research global approaches to overcoming difficult times, “It takes a team,” is the resounding wisdom. When the going gets rough, community is supposed to be at our sides.
For example, cross-culturally during times of major loss we would not be expected to grieve alone. People are expected to stop by and check on the mourners. African ritualist Malidoma Somé adds, “Dagara people don’t comprehend the idea of private grief.” From the Jewish tradition we learn the practice of sitting shiva where friends provide constant company and support to the mourners for seven days. In the Iroquois culture, this same practice continues for eleven days.
Even as a person dies, in many, many cultures, he or she is kept company through the last breath and is not left alone until days after. In Japan, loved ones will bathe and sleep near the corpse, speaking to their departed loved one until internment. We are to be sung to, guided, and comforted through this greatest transition.
This wisdom transcends into our everyday. In the years after writing When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner has asked thousands what got them through a life crisis. The answer to his question was a single word, “community.”
We weren’t dealing with physical death thankfully as newly minted mothers. Yet, our old footloose and free lives were ending as we were initiated into motherhood. We needed a team, and thank goodness we adopted this truth — no matter who invented it.