I lie on the couch powerless against the bone-crushing fatigue of my first trimester of pregnancy compounded by the pressure in my throbbing sinuses, the heaviness of my congested chest and my aching body. I visualize taking a concoction of cold and flu medication to relieve my symptoms, but the forbidden mirage soon dissolves with the sounds of my three children screaming and yelling while they run circles around me. I panic and tell myself, “I don’t think I can take care of my children.” I grapple for the phone in desperation and dial my mother’s number in Calgary. I want to complain, to whine, to cry. I crave some motherly reassurance and sympathy. To my dismay, an earful of pragmatism is all I get. “For Heaven’s sake, call your mother-in-law and just ask for help.”

Why is it so difficult to ask for help? Why can’t we receive help with the same appreciation and thoughtfulness that we give it? Wouldn’t we want life to be a little easier if possible?

At the dinner table, a lively discussion erupts among my children. My three-year-old daughter finally yells, “Super Girl is real.” Then they all turn to me, and ask, “Is it true?” I don’t know how to respond. Sometimes I try to convince myself that it is true. “I am Super Girl, knee-high red boots, super powers, taking on the world with superhuman strength, stamina and agility.” In truth, it is all just an illusion, fueled by my insecurities that fight hard to maintain an image of togetherness and competence, not wanting to admit helplessness and imperfection, ever fearful of being exposed to judgment and criticism. The reality, however, is as John Donne writes: “No man is an island.” I can’t think of a single person who can do everything on his or her own. The “Super Woman Syndrome” is a myth, and the cape that defines it a burden that weighs us down and prevents us from living more graceful lives. It is a construct that has led us to believe that our self-worth should be based on what and how much we do, rather than who we are. At the end of the day, I am nothing more than human, with strengths and weaknesses. Yes, I am capable of many things, but I do not soar above needing help. My Achilles heel is my ego and the only antidote is a good dose of humility.

And it’s not all about me. “How can I be of service?” These are the words used by a friend of mine to offer her support with the impending birth of our fourth child. Her choice of language, particularly the use of the virtue “service,” struck a chord with me, bringing clarity to the fact that the concept of “help” is embedded within relationship—it reflects the needs of the receiver but, equally important, it reflects the needs of the giver to give of their gifts. One morning, my eldest daughter, almost six at the time, noticed me changing the sheets of my bed and asked if she could help. As we smoothed the surface and mitered the edges of the sheet, I heard her sigh. “I’m going to be doing a lot of work around here when the new baby comes,” she said, “changing the sheets, doing laundry, loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage. You’re going to have to teach me how to use a knife so that I can do some chopping and dicing too.” My daughter’s words were endearing but beyond this, through this opportunity for her to show and feel compassion, I realized that I could still give by letting myself be “unwrapped.” When we graciously allow ourselves to be helped, the gift is twice blessed; it brings joy to both the giver and the receiver. We receive what we need and to the giver we, in return, offer a gift as well—a sense of meaning and purpose that comes through being of service to others.

Though treasures lie in store for all, unwrapping helpfulness can be sticky. It calls for discernment to recognize the difference between need versus want—both for the giver and the receiver. Assertiveness is essential in establishing boundaries to ensure a sense of trust and safety as well as a means of rationing our time and energy. Finally, from both sides, it is important that we honour the dignity, abilities and independence of others as well as ourselves, giving and receiving in ways that enable them/us to discover teachable moments and live up to true potential.

Author Jean Vanier writes, “Weakness that is recognized, accepted, offered is at the heart of belonging.” This is especially important for us as parents to remember, particularly in an era where our “village” is no longer made up of our family and relatives who are close at hand to help. A village can only raise a child if we are willing to offer help to others and if we are willing to be helped. The relief that we receive for ourselves can be physically and psychologically liberating and help us to battle fatigue, overwhelm and guilt. It can also provide us with the time and space in our lives to be more mindful and present to our families. As for our children, they are able to develop a sense of community in relationship with other people whom we let into our lives to help. We provide them with the opportunity to foster important connections beyond us that nurture their social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual needs.

It has taken four children for me to, out of necessity, truly open myself up to the abundance and bounty that community has to offer. My life lessons have been countless as I chisel away at my growth virtues. I am working at embracing humility by seeking and receiving help. When my fourth was born, I graciously accepted meals that people offered to prepare for us. I garnered the assertiveness to ask friends to pick up and drop off my two oldest children to and from school/preschool. I have become more open and flexible by allowing others to step up to the plate and hit a few home runs, even though their slide into victory may be a little dustier than mine. For example, I try to ignore the crumbs left on the table and to appreciate my husband’s seven (sometimes eight!) out of 10 efforts with kitchen clean up. I have tempered my unrealistic expectations of friends and family and, through greater acceptance, I am allowing people to give whatever gifts they have to offer, however and whenever they can. I am relinquishing the guilt I feel over not being able to fully attend to all my children and, while they may not always be getting what they “want” from me, I try to feel a sense of contentment in knowing that friends, aunts, grandmothers and “other mothers” can help to give them what they “need.”

For me, life with four children under the age of seven is, for the most part, peaceful and “underwhelming.” My community, my village, has afforded me the space and the pace to be reverent and to savour the joys of family life. I am confident and strong as a mother and while I honour my own gifts and virtues that I bring to my family, the virtue of helpfulness has shown me that “I am who I am because of who we all are.” As for Super Girl—maybe she’s a costume just for Halloween.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.