About a year ago, my wife called me from California where she was vacationing with two of our children. She reported that while she was hiking with her sister's family and our kids, she heard a big pop and her knee gave way. She was in pain, but managed to get down the trail with some help, got ice on her knee and cut the trip short to drive back home.
After a doctor visit and an MRI, within a week she had knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and a damaged medial miniscus in her knee, and was largely out of commission for several weeks of recovery. It was a wild ride for our family dealing with a mom who was for all of us a huge support. We took over household chores, did the shopping, drove her to doctor's appointments and physical therapy and generally took over the mom role for a few weeks.
Of course, we were all happy to help, but we came to understand the challenges that Julie faces every day with a busy family and an active lifestyle. As this was occurring, I talked with a few of my friends who have found themselves in similar circumstances, including one friend who has a partner with cancer and five young children. Given those conversations, some research and our own experience, my children and I have put together some suggestions for any family who needs to cover for mom while she is ill, out of commission or recovering.
Lower Expectations. Let's face it-most families can't maintain the house and yard without mom as well as they can with her. So be prepared to tolerate a little mess. But not too much. If mom sees a disaster, she may try to get back to regular life sooner than she should. And remember to catch up as you can with the regular tasks of daily life.
Divide and Conquer. When Julie had her surgery, we sat down together as a family and divided up the things that needed to be done. For example, one of the things that helps Julie feel more comfortable after her knee surgery was a pump that circulated ice water through a pad around her knee. The ice and water need to be changed a couple of times a day, so we assigned children times and days to be on ice water duty, and an older daughter who drives was assigned every other day to head to the store for more ice. We also shared laundry duties, grocery shopping and the like. But having the kids involved (rather than dad carrying the whole load) helps them serve and also helps them appreciate their mom more.
Ask For Help and Express Thanks. Fortunately, we live in a great neighborhood and have some family nearby, so we have appreciated help. The first week, we someone brought a dinner in each night. A sister came and stayed with Julie when I was out of town for a few days. Other friends have offered to bring kids to scouts or other activities. And some friends have just dropped in for a visit to Julie to break the monotony. So don't hesitate to call in some favors, or just ask for help. Then, make sure you return dishes from meals and send some thank you cards.
Be Flexible and Adaptable. One of the things many families learn in a situation like this is to be ready to adapt to the new reality, whether permanent or temporary. For example, my friend whose wife has cancer has learned that during the summer, the kids adapt their sleep schedule so they are up much later at night and sleep much later in the morning. This strategy maximizes his wife's rest, and allows him to get to work early in the morning and leave a little earlier as well. Be prepared to be flexible and think about things in a new light.
Simple Meals in Advance. Many families find this to be an important strategy. In our case, we have kids who love waffles, so on Saturday morning, I make a huge batch of waffles and then freeze them for thawing and toasting during the week. We also found ways to prepare dinner in the morning and then serve it at night. For example, sloppy joe sandwich mix can be made in the morning and then put in a crock pot to cook all day. We also love salads, and we can cut up all the ingredients for a chef salad in the morning, and put them separately in containers or resealable bags in the refrigerator to combine that evening. A little creativity and planning can go a long way.
Be Patient. Finally, it helps to take a deep breath from time to time and try to be patient. This can be tough for the kids especially who may tire of new routines, or get frustrated with the way dad does things. Keep your perspective and remember that there are many dads in your shoes.
The hardest part of having mom sick is trying to balance all the competing demands for your time and attention. Sharing the load with kids and others, reducing your expectations and a little planning can go a long way to helping you and your family adjust.