Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Help Me Hell

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It was one of those great evenings--we had two other couples and their children over for dinner, and the kids (five of them) had all found ways to occupy themselves while we lingered over dessert and drinks. Marina and Nick, the two youngest, had spent a good hour planning a play, and now they came down to the living room to perform it. They had developed an elaborate fantasy in which one of them was in hell, and the other would effect a rescue.

Nick explained in all his six-year-old seriousness: "So if Marina is in hell I will come and rescue her."

Then Marina--one year his junior, though you wouldn't know it--chimed in, "Unless I'm in help me hell, because there no one can rescue you."

My friend Kathy, a medievalist, watched in growing amusement. They explained more about "help me hell"--"it's where you go through this trapdoor from hell, and all you can do is call 'help me, help me!'"

"They're channeling Dante!" Kathy cried.

We howled with laughter as we listened to them explain ever more elaborate conditions for their various hells, including what would happen if you were the devil of hell (nothing good, believe me).

I don't know where they got this stuff. Nick never hears about hell in church, I'm quite sure--I tend more towards the "mercy" than the "judgment" school of Christianity--and Marina's being brought up without any religion at all. But then, hell's not really a religious concept, is it? It's an idea we need, we here in the world, to explain what will happen when those who offend us and prosper finally receive their just desserts. (I recently read about a study that purported to demonstrate that nations where a belief in hell is widespread are economically more successful than those where it isn't, though the cause and effect of this escapes me.)

In any event, "help me hell" sounds just about right: it's a place where you've finally realized you need help, but still can't get it.

I think the kids, when they made that up, intuited something about God that I've taken years to come to myself. That is, that as long as you can say "help me" and feel some response, there's God. Right? Maybe.

All I know is I've never been very good at saying "help me." I attribute this, of course, to my upbringing, to parents who seemed like they had it all figured out and thought I would, too. They're New Englanders by affinity if not birth, and they have that sort of upright, we can do it ourselves attitude. After all, they retired to a house on a dirt road that was only recently added to the electrical grid. Before that they had a generator and passive solar and no cell phone coverage and they did just fine. They've both always seemed to me to be super-competent, the kind of people other people ask for help but who never ask for it themselves. You know, the "God helps those who help themselves" types.

For me a big part of my continuing "growing up" has been learning to ask for help, then. Growing up as the oldest girl in a family of four kids I spent many years thinking of myself as the caregiver, the one who could manage. I took on that role in adulthood, too, trying to be the breadwinner for the family while I cared for everyone in sickness and health. But some time between coming up for tenure and deciding to have a second child, I finally realized that I couldn't do it all myself. Well, OK, it hit me in the head when I went to see a counselor for help with "time-management issues" and she looked me in the eye and said, "You're in a major depression."

I burst into tears, sure there was no way our family could handle a depressed caregiver. Yet, with help, we did, and we learned from the experience. We'd always shared parenting pretty equitably in our house; now we also share bread winning, and I consult regularly with a large group of close mama-friends, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, and a spiritual director. (And all that after I LEFT California!) Knowing that I can ask for help has made me a better mother, I think, and certainly a better spouse.

Recently I visited my dad's old prep school with him. Somehow we got talking about the school motto, which was in three parts. He could only remember two, and when we came to a wall adorned with the motto I read the third part to him: "Self Reliance." Again, those old New England, Emersonian virtues, right?

"That's why I don't remember it," he said. "I've been blocking it. I don't think that's a good motto for a Christian school."

And suddenly I knew what I hadn't known before: that he, too, knows about "help me hell." It's the place we go to when we think we can do it all ourselves, when we get all self-reliant--and then fail. Which we inevitably do, because we live in a world, we live interconnected with others, and self-reliance is a kind of idolatry, really. We need our connections, and it's when we pretend we don't that we get into trouble.

I don't really think Nick knows all that yet. But then again he's still at the age where he knows he needs a lot of help. I mean, he can barely wipe his own butt. So maybe he still knows something that most of us forget as we grow up. I hope we can help each other to remember.


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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