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To the Bold Woman in the Locker Room Who Taught Me It’s OK to Ask for Help

It can sometimes only be in retrospect that we realize how poorly we were coping during a certain period of our lives. I was keenly aware that my stress level was high in the summer of 2010. What I failed to appreciate, however, was that I was not effectively handling my strain.

Our third baby had arrived right in the middle of a health crisis for our toddler. Our son, who had been medically fragile since he was born, was now being nourished almost exclusively through a feeding tube, a method that took hours to complete and caused daily vomiting. Our oldest, a preschooler, was a healthy and energetic boy who was suffering the effects of his parents’ divided attention. My husband’s demanding job meant he was often gone before we awakened and was not home until the boys were in bed. I was in the early years of motherhood and, though I could not recognize that at the time, still operated under the assumption that admitting struggle or asking for help was a sign that I was not “mom” enough. An idle remark such as, “You’ve got your hands full!” I took as an irritating criticism of my public performance.

Despite some warning signs from my toddler’s chronic stomach problems and recent potty-training reversals, I decided that the best thing to do one day was to take the three boys to our local pool. It was only after I’d heaved a huge pool bag, an unwieldy stroller containing a fussy 2-month-old and two straggling kids the endless distance from the car onto the pool deck in face-melting heat and humidity that I realized I had no swim diaper for my toddler. “He was potty-trained up until his brother was born,” I reassured myself, “And we will only be here a few hours.” Operating under my guiding principle of proving to the oblivious world that I was “mom” enough, I naturally decided it would inconvenience others far more to ask to borrow a swim diaper than it would if my child had an accident in the pool. Which is, of course, what happened in fairly short order.

I can blame what happened next only on my extreme horror and humiliation that my son had shut down the entire pool. Moments later, I found myself in the middle of the ladies’ shower room with a soiled toddler, a squirming and screaming newborn and no stroller or car seat or even a towel on which to lay him. Not knowing what else to do, I began a futile one-handed struggle to remove the bathing suit, streaming with poop, while my baby screamed and attempted newborn back-dives in my other arm. My stroller may as well have been back at home it was so impossibly far away. As I was desperately wishing someone would just hold my baby, this woman suddenly appeared in front of us. “You need help,” was all she said, in a beautiful German accent.

She was everything you imagine when you think of a 50-years-young, strong, tall German matron. I swear she was even topless. I’d caught her mid some act of practicality and purpose, but when she saw something more urgent, she wasted no time on the extraneous. She removed my son’s suit, then picked up — bare-handed — the poop that had fallen onto the floor and disposed of it as if it were just any ordinary thing to toss away. Next, she washed out my son’s messy little bottom with her bare hand and soap from a dispenser. She then attacked his filthy suit, washing it out in the sink with hand soap until it dripped with fresh-and-cleanness. Before I knew it my little boy was wearing his suit once again, ready to face the now-closed baby pool. She did it all in about three minutes and without any chit-chat or advice, like it was nothing. She was wonderful, and I wanted to cry with gratitude. I wished she was a permanent character in my life, but I just got her for those few minutes. Then, she was gone. Maybe her radar picked up someone choking somewhere.

We went back to the pool where I pretended that my son’s swim diaper had simply leaked rather than admit it had not existed. The rest of the day was unremarkable, and all I could think about was that wonderful lady and what she had said. “You need help.” But her remark was devoid of judgment or condescension. It was simply fact, and a fact that drove her to action. I did need help, and not just in those minutes in the pool bathroom but during that period of my life. Pretending otherwise only made everything harder on the people I loved the most, in service only to a self-defeating form of pride. I had been elevating my own need to feel like I could do it alone above all else, including the effectiveness of my single-handed efforts or the psychological toll it took on me.

I could have gotten my son cleaned up while my baby revolted in my other arm, but it would have been much more difficult, far more unpleasant for all three of us and would have yielded a lesser end result in terms of how clean my toddler and suit would have been. In other words, I could have managed, but I would not have managed well.

There is a difference between continuing to breathe during these times of stress and strain and actually surviving those times. Surviving signifies an overcoming. I was breathing, but I was not surviving. Sometimes during motherhood our hands truly are full, and we ought to recognize that not as a sign of weakness or ineffectuality but as an indicator that we need to accept the extra ones reaching out or that would if we sought them. Our loads are too precious to risk dropping.

It has been five years since that day. Today, my son is a healthy, perfect first-grader and an older brother to three younger siblings. When I find myself struggling to manage my beloved burdens, I reach out for help to get us all through as best we can. When my hands are freer, I try to seek out opportunities to lift others through their swamps of hardship. And someday, I want to be that permanent Fraulein for other people, swooping in out of the blue with nonjudgmental aid. Except for the bare-handed poop disposal, part. Surely getting a paper towel wouldn’t have been too extraneous. Though, I suppose, she would have lost points for style. I have long-wished I could have sent her a thank-you card, if only to let her know how much her kindness meant to me, how she recalibrated my thinking in a way that aided my entire family for years and how she provided an example of something to aspire to.

Fraulein, if you read this, thank you. I would send you hand sanitizer if I only could.

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