Sometimes I’m concerned about how many of my recent life lessons come from children’s literature and music. But then I figure that truth is truth; when it comes to the basics, what’s true at 4 is true at 40. My latest case in point: “Put Down the Duckie.”
“Put Down the Duckie” is a song from Sesame Street. You can watch it here. To summarize: Ernie’s having trouble playing his saxophone, so he solicits the advice of Hoots the Owl. Hoots tells Ernie that his problem is simple: he has to put down the rubber duckie he’s clutching in his hand if he wants to play the saxophone.
I don’t remember this song from my own Sesame Street days, but it’s included on a “Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits” CD that we keep in our minivan, which means I get to listen to it a lot while I’m cruising the back roads of Vermont with my peeps.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite song on the CD. But one morning — maybe it was that extra cup of coffee — I suddenly had a revelation. The saxophone is LIFE, I thought to myself, and the duckie stands for the things we won’t let go of, that prevent us from doing life as well as we could.
Of course, my next thought was: What’s MY duckie? What’s the thing that I refuse to put down, that’s getting in my way?
In truth, I probably have about twelve duckies. But the most glaring one, the one I’ve been trying hard to put down, is my pride in being self-reliant. To put it another way: I have a very, very hard time accepting help.
Here’s what my life looked like last year in California: Erick cooked us breakfast and dinner almost every day, and was always home mornings, evenings, and weekends to help with the kids. Erick’s parents would drive over two days a week to watch the girls from 10-5, while I worked. And on those days, Erick’s mom cooked us all dinner. I was so spoiled. It was wonderful. And the whole time, I was consumed with guilt.
Guilt because, when I looked around at my other mom friends (always a bad idea), they didn’t seem to have anywhere near the level of support that I did. It must look like I can’t handle my life on my own, I would think to myself. And in my darkest moments: Everybody is offering me this help because THEY THINK THAT I’M INCOMPETENT.
I can take care of multiple kids and keep the house clean and cook all the meals, just like everybody else! I would wail inwardly, But nobody’s giving me the chance to TRY!!
If my inner monologue sounds ridiculous, that’s because it was. And sometimes it became an outer monologue. After one of my self-bashing sessions, Erick looked at me and said calmly, “Why do you have to feel guilty about having help? Why can’t you just feel grateful?”
So, for my final months in California, I tried to replace guilt with gratitude. And I really WAS grateful, because during those months I was buying a house, finishing out a job, packing up our lives for a cross-country move, and caring for three children ranging from newborn to three years old. If ever it was understandable to need some help, that was the time.
When we moved to Vermont, things were different: Erick started an intense full-time job, and we had no family anywhere nearby. I got my wish to be just like everybody else, loading three kids in and out of the minivan all day, taking care of all the grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. It’s been wonderful in most ways, and I’ve mentioned before that this was the year that I finally felt like a grown-up.
But you know what? I’m still holding on to that duckie.
Because even though my family members are now limited by busy-ness and distance, they still just want to help. Erick usually takes all three girls on Saturday mornings so that I can get things done around the house. And sometimes, instead of gratitude, I catch myself thinking, I don’t see many other dads doing as much. Despite the distance, Erick’s parents have spent 6 weeks in Vermont this year; my parents have visited every month except one. (To put it in perspective, Erick’s done a lot of traveling in the past months, but thanks to the grandparents I’ve only had to spend three nights on my own). And sometimes, instead of gratitude, I catch myself thinking, Wow, our parents seem to spend more time here than other grandparents, and people are noticing.
I know exactly where this comes from. During a recent four-day visit by my parents, I noticed that even though my dad had, among other things, re-caulked a sink, repaired a shelf, built a gravel box, built and hung a birdhouse, planted a garden, hung a hammock, made a pancake breakfast, and played with three granddaughters, all with two broken vertebrae, he felt like he wasn’t doing enough. He seemed guilty that he was more limited, less self-reliant, than he used to be. It was kind of like the old Cat Stevens song “Cat’s Cradle,” but in reverse: My dad was just like me, yeah.
So I’m once again trying very hard to put down this duckie. Because I won’t be able to play my saxophone very well if I’m always feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough on my own. What good are flying fingers if they’re wrapped around a duck? And the truth is that life isn’t a solo, at least not most of the time; if we want to make powerful music, we need to let other instruments jam with us.
One more truth: there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with self-reliance. If I were overly dependent on help from everyone around me, that would be another sort of duckie. But it’s like Hoots the Owl tells Ernie: “You don’t have to lose your duck; you can pick it up when you’re finished!” At this point in my life, I can stand to accept a little extra help with grace and gratitude; there’s plenty of time for self-reliance in the future. And having people around me now who are offering help is a blessing. Just because I can handle life on my own doesn’t mean that I have to. In the words of Hoots, I don’t wanna be a “stubborn cluck,” I wanna lay aside the duck. And the first step is this:
Thank you, Erick. Thank you, Nana and Boom. Thank you, Grandmommy and Granddaddy. I am so grateful for each of you, and I love you.
Happy Independence Day, everyone! Perhaps we can all celebrate freedom by putting down our duckies, whatever they are.