I don't think I've ever heard my mother say the word, not in a meaningful way at least.
My mother came out of the Mad Men era of Manhattan. She quit her job as a secretary for a huge financial firm on Wall Street -- liquid lunches were definitely a thing or as she has breezily recounted, "Sometimes my boss would come back from lunch too bombed to finish out the rest of the day." Roger Sterling, you are real -- to get married and raise a family. My brother and I left the house for school each morning with a kiss and a wave and came home to snacks, help with our homework, and dinner on the table at six.
In grade school my grandparents, her parents, came to live with us. We built them a small, studio apartment where they lived out their golden years. My mother cared for both of them in their decline, an experience that ultimately motivated her to get back into a paid career as a home healthcare worker. She tended to my father when he had cancer; she took on responsibilities of helping my brother who lives with a disability. I heard her complain, I saw her weariness, but I never saw her wave the white flag, I never heard her say "enough, assistance please."
For a short while I got to connect with groups of women who were also caregivers as part of a pilot program for a health non-profit. Even though I'm not a mom nor a caregiver, I would tell them about my mother from my unique vantage point -- as a daughter, but also as a woman carrying all the privilege and access that comes with being an educated, white female in the twenty-first century. She sounds amazing, they would say, extraordinary. She is, I would answer, and I want to be nothing like her.
Like so many women, my mother shoulders the world and takes on a few additional planets for good measure, but she doesn't ask for help. Not good. Not noble. Not heroic. Not even very smart actually because in her enormous capacity to give and sacrifice, I've watched her peel off parts of herself and discard them along the way. This is painful to write, but it's even more painful to witness. I have been the beneficiary of her generous soul and her outsized heart in ways that I can't even begin to describe.
I'm not convinced that the steely resilience that was instilled in her by her family and by the culture that shaped her beliefs is the best way for any of us women. Just because we can do it all doesn't mean we should. Feminism gives us opportunity, but it shouldn't be used to feed the lie that women are not allowed to ask for help.
Help is not weakness, it's not a sign of personal shortcomings, and it's not an indication of failure. Help is a mighty super power, maybe the most formidable one women have in our utility belts that we, sadly, rarely activate. When you reach for help, you're gifting yourself with the strength to redirect your energy where its needed -- to the job or the kids or the relationship or the grief or the moment or even back to yourself. Asking for help is self-love in action.
I wouldn't change much about my upbringing and I wouldn't trade having a mother who is the true north of our family. But I would wish her the permission to use that superpower, the one she so liberally gives out to everyone else, for herself.