When one parent is out of commission

A mother and daughter provide tips on how to help when a two-person household is down to one.

Mary Rose Remington & Laura Groenjes Mitchell
Mary Rose Remington & Laura Groenjes Mitchell

MAMA: As full-time working moms — of a toddler and newborn — my wife and I were just hitting our stride, feeling like skilled multitaskers, who handled the challenges of day-to-day life pretty well, all things considered.

However, when my wife needed to have surgery — that required an intense recovery period — we were reminded how hard life can be when one parent is out of commission.

In fact, the weeks that followed her surgery were the hardest of both of our lives. But we survived — with a ton of help from our family/friends, some creative problem solving and patience.

Here are my tips for making it through the tough days when a two-parent household is down to one.

Plan ahead, if possible

  • Prep freezer meals and stock the pantry with essentials and favorites.
  • Rearrange furniture/sleeping accommodations (if needed).
  • Buy a couple of new high-interest toys to help keep kids entertained.
  • Schedule times you’ll need help with kids, including weekend playdates for toddlers.
  • Write down reminders for yourself about things you need to do — a lot can fall by the wayside when you suddenly become responsible for everything around the house.

Say yes to (specific) help

When folks say, “Let me know how I can help,” take their offer seriously and try to get a specific commitment right then and there: “Actually, we could really use help with X on X day. Would that work for you? Thanks so much for your help!”

Services like mealtrain.com are handy for organizing meals. You can set it up yourself or have someone else do it for you.

Adjust expectations

This is NOT a time to take on more stress (at work or at home) or to try to achieve perfection. Our daycare wanted to start our toddler on potty training the same week my wife had surgery. We agreed to have them work on it during the day, but after he had an accident on the couch the first night at home, we decided he’d stay in pull-ups until we were in a better place to support him.

We eased up our rule on screen time a bit as it was helpful to keep the toddler entertained when the baby was fussy or needed to be put down to bed. (Tip: There are lots of kid-friendly educational apps available for iPads/Kindles.)

Find time for yourself

You won’t be able to keep up with the demands if your cup is empty, so be sure to do things that help you recharge, too. Nap when the kids nap, go to sleep earlier at night, treat yourself to your favorite coffee, take a bath, go for a walk and/or meet up with friends.

NANA: Hats off to the military families who march on when one spouse is sent off to serve, and credit to all the single parents out there juggling daily demands. You are unsung heroes and heroines, for sure!

My time to be brave came in 2011 when my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

First we shared the news with our kids, who were all young adults. Each one took it a little differently. Once the shock wore off, I moved into action. Preparing for the worst, I called our life insurance agent to check on our policies: We’d be OK.

I went online daily and researched the disease. At times this made me feel worse, not better. Work schedules were altered, as we had doctor’s appointments and treatment sessions to attend. My husband may have been a little annoyed (I know his doctor was) when I asked three times as many questions as he did. My quest for knowledge was based on my struggle to hang onto hope.

Due in part to my husband’s positive attitude and stoic constitution, he didn’t miss a day of work! And while he was technically functioning day to day, more often than not, his disease — and the uncertainty it brought — was the hardest thing we’ve ever faced. Here’s what helped:

  • Seeing a therapist;
  • Using family medical leave to reduce my hours at work;
  • Letting my close circle of friends and family know what was going on and communicating with them frequently;
  • Saying yes when people offered to bring over meals;
  • Letting our nearly grown kids take the lead on how much they wanted to know;
  • Recognizing that everyone deals with news like this differently. Some people were frightened and stayed away, while others rallied by our side;
  • Friends and family who would ask about my husband and then add, “And how are YOU doing?”
  • Taking things off my plate that weren’t crucial;
  • Self-care, including massages, exercise and my daily mantra “This too shall pass.”
  • And when it got too much, having a good cry alone in my car.

Suggestions for helpers

  • Instead of “Let me know if you need anything,” offer something tangible like, “I have Saturday off. Can I take the kids to a movie that day?”
  • Call ahead before hospital or home visits to see if everyone feels up for visitors. Keep visits short (think 30 minutes).
  • Sanitize your hands when visiting and, at the hospital, KNOCK before entering!
  • Don’t stay away, fearing you’re invading their privacy. Help is the priority now.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t cook. Offer to grab takeout from a favorite place.
  • Don’t forget essentials. Offer to go shopping and, if you can afford it, cover it. It all equals out in the circle of life.

At the risk of sounding sappy, miracles happen! Seven years later, my husband is still here, doing great and we both have a deeper appreciation for this gift called life.

Mary Rose Remington, a baby boomer grandmother living in Minneapolis, is documenting her journey in this occasional series with her daughter, Laura Groenjes Mitchell, a millennial mother of two who lives in Denver now, but is moving to the Twin Cities soon.