When my son was born, it was a packed house. No less than ten people were on hand when, after almost fifty hours of labor in the hospital, he was vacuum-suctioned out of his mother. Nurses, the midwife, the on-call vacuum-specialist (a woman who seemed to swoop in out of nowhere, making the last-minute birthing hail Mary) and a few doctors were all on hand. Outside in the waiting room were all the members of my wife’s side of the family (mine live far away, but were sitting by the phone, waiting to hear the outcome).
My son had to stay in the hospital, Bellevue, a few extra days, suffering from a difficult delivery and high bilirubin scores. My wife was laid up for three more days. All the family was around us, and one of the uncles, in a moment of enlightened selflessness, brought us a full meal on the second day. Something the both of us, my wife especially, desperately needed. A few days later, after time under the tanning lights, our son’s jaundice had receded and we took him home. The experience was heart-warming: it felt as if all hands were on deck, and help would be close by.
After a hastily organized bris on the traditional eighth day the family went their own ways. My wife’s father went back to Los Angeles. The uncles went back to their homes in the same borough as us, close enough that a phone call could have them at our apartment in minutes. But little did I know that once the baby was home, the concept of help would become more hypothesis than reality, a contentious notion that created a serious family schism.
Being first-time parents, we weren’t quite sure what to expect from our relatives. But it was just an assumption that aunts and uncles would pitch in, and that in fact, they would want to pitch in: perhaps bring a meal over every once in a while, or offer to do a little house cleaning, or even babysit a few hours here and there. About this, we were dead wrong.
My mother-in-law stayed for the first three months. Her help was enormous, not only lending a hand and waking up through the night, but also sharing her experiences raising three children with us. But she couldn’t stay forever and left for the West Coast after the third month.
My wife and I took the reins and things went as well as they could have as we developed our own patterns of parenting. After about six months, we realized that there was a scarcity of calls from the uncles and aunts: even the grandfather back in Los Angeles seemed over it all. Neither a “How is everythin?” call was received, nor were even the simplest of text messages sent. We began to feel hurt from what we perceived as a void of caring from my wife’s immediate relatives. We would hear about these two couples having brunches together and wonder, why couldn’t we be invited? We’re totally morning people now! We would be invited for dinner, but because of the challenging schedules of a young baby, attending these was next-to-impossible. Turning down these invitations was perceived from their perspective as a slight, but they couldn’t possibly understand the physical and psychological exhaustion we were going through.
This was the beginning of our estrangement from the uncles and aunts – four people who lived ridiculously close to us.
We cycled through a myriad of feelings. We were afraid to call to ask for help for fear of rejectio or that we would come across as too demanding. We also thought – though this was unspoken – that perhaps asking for too much help would be seen as a sign of weakness. As if we were saying, no, we can’t raise this child on our own: we need help.
So we created a mantra: we don’t need the help, but we would like it. And then the vortex of miscommunication hit, and over the next few months, accusations from both sides of the aisle flew back and forth, which boiled down to two prescient points: from our side, “You never offer to help,” and from theirs, “If you don’t ask for help, you don’t deserve it.”
The lack of reaching out forced my wife to reconsider her formerly close relationship (even friendship) with her brothers. Could this be the end of her tight bond with them? Had they grown disinterested now that she had a baby? Were their once-common interests diverging? As the tensions rose, the rift culminated into an all-out war of words about us being paranoid and lacking in perspective versus them having seemingly forgotten all about us. As if, poof, we had simply disappeared, fallen off the planet. At least that’s how it felt.
Then finally during a sit-down between my wife and one of the uncles, our worst fears and paranoid feelings came true. The words “It’s true, we never think about you anymore. Now we just think about the baby,” came out of the uncle’s mouth. There it was, the painful truth. We were no longer of any importance. As much as it hurt, we had known it all along. We weren’t crazy, after all.
We had to ask ourselves, what did we expect from these people? Assumptions that had been made – that living close to uncles and aunts would offer us a respite, that they would help out on weekends, give us a few hours to ourselves to just go to brunch, or see a film, or just to sleep – were not being met.
I discovered that parents can really become the worst kind of navel-gazers. We realized these people had their own lives, working long hours during the week. Their weekend hours are also precious. I discovered that parents can really become the worst kind of navel-gazers, looking inward with nary a glance outside the windows of our apartment. Sure, the phone calls and babysitting offers had not arrived, but maybe we were just looking at things from the prism of our new life. There are other worlds out there. We just couldn’t see them.
After more than a year, family members with cooler heads – namely, my wife’s mother – intervened. My wife and I admitted that, yes, we hadn’t put in too many calls for help. Our relatives admitted that they could have put more of an effort into first contact.
I’m happy to report that we now receive unsolicited, regular babysitting calls. The relationships are on an even keel; one of the uncles even bought us a spa treatment and offered to take care of our boy while we went off to be steamed, massaged, and therapized.
If I had to do it all over again, I would know to ask for favors from the outset: We don’t have much time to cook: do you think you could bring something over? What are you doing Saturday afternoon? How about we buy you lunch and you babysit for the afternoon? Asking for help is not a sin – and now that both couples are (yes) expecting, we’ll all need a little more of it.