It should have been a mother’s dream. As I lay in my bed with a book, I could hear my husband starting dinner preparations and marshaling the kids into peeling shrimp, chopping vegetables, and setting the table.
I should have been relaxing and enjoying the fact that other people were making dinner–not to mention the fact that they were going to deliver it to me when it was done, but I just couldn’t do it. I was absolutely bursting with helpful suggestions. I called my younger son on the landline to give him a little participation pep talk and direct him to go outside and pick a lemon from the tree. I called my older son on his cell phone to tell him there was some ready-to-bake bread from Trader Joe’s and zucchini in the fridge. My exasperated husband finally hung up on me. Even I had to laugh at myself.
I guess it is indeed possible to make dinner without me.
I had Covid (thankfully, a very mild case) and I was the only sick one in my family (also thankfully), so for the better part of a week I was alone in my room listening to family life going on without me. It was a bit weird. I mean, it wasn’t awful to stay in bed and watch Netflix and read and grudgingly do a little work, but I felt terrible about all the slack my husband was having to pick up in my absence, and I was worried the rest of the family would get sick too.
Being sick and being a mom don’t seem to mesh all that well. The first night I felt sick I was curled up on the sofa, wrapped in blankets and looking in dismay at the thermometer, when my younger son, wearing a hopeful expression, brought over his math homework. My first instinct was to stick my head under the blanket like a turtle retreating into her shell. “I cannot help with math homework right now!” I told him. “I need two days to be sick. Just two days!” The truth is that I am not really good at junior high math homework when I’m feeling my best, but that night it just seemed impossible. Buddy, don’t you see I’m dying here?
It’s troublesome when the caretaker gets sick. Moms often feel like we don’t have the luxury of allowing ourselves to be sick because we’re the ones who make the family run. So instead of dedicating ourselves to resting and getting better, we immediately panic about how everything will possibly continue without us. Who will do the laundry? Who will remind my daughter to brush her hair and drive her to school? Who will make the lunches and check the backpacks and pick up the craft supplies for the volunteer project and pass out the boxes of orders from the elementary school fundraiser? Who will remember the zucchini??!!
You see, normally, I just do all this stuff anyway, even when I’m sick. But when you’re the only one in the family with Covid and you want to keep it that way, you have to stay in your room and hope everyone can manage.
This freedom from the usual tasks also gives you some time to think.
My spiritual director told me once that it’s hard to pay attention to God when you’re sick, and to some extent I think that’s true. An acute illness tends to stay front of mind as you worry about whether you should go to the doctor or the ER or if you will ever be able to lie down without coughing again. It’s hard to focus on the spirit when your body will not let you forget about it.
Yet I think there’s also a sort of spiritual awareness that comes along with recognizing the essential frailty of the body, whether you’re acutely ill with a bad cold and feel terrible but know that SOMEDAY you’ll feel better or whether you have a chronic diagnosis such as breast cancer where you’ve been told that something is badly wrong even though you feel fine. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer 7 years ago, I thought that knowledge would be at the forefront of my thoughts forever. I’d be watching TV and laughing at something and all of a sudden I’d remember, “I have CANCER!” and the weight of that knowledge would settle heavily on me once again. It wasn’t even just worrying about being sick and possibly dying that was always on my mind in those early days. It was worrying about how it would all affect my children. After all, I had a newborn baby and two young boys at the time. What if I was too sick to take care of them? What if I got so sick I could never take care of them again? Those were the thoughts that were never far from my mind.
But even those worries gradually abated. After some time (months, in my case) had passed, cancer (and the ways it could affect my family) was no longer my first thought upon waking and my last thought before falling asleep. It no longer felt like a dark cloud following me around like Olaf’s snow cloud in Frozen. One of the reasons I was able to able to focus less on my worries and troubling thoughts was that I grew increasingly better at seeing God with me even when it felt dark. And the way I felt God most closely when I was sick was in the care of those people around me.
Here’s some of what I learned from that experience.
First, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. In fact, it can be the opposite of selfish. If I want to be here for my family, I need to rest when I’m sick and take better care of myself when I’m not. As much as self-care is a buzzword these days, I think deep down most moms believe that taking care of ourselves–prioritizing things like our own rest, exercise, and nutrition–is innately selfish. But how can it be? Think of this in terms of your family if that helps. In other words, if you’re the engine that makes your family run, then don’t you have to keep yourself in good condition?
And second, if you’re able to pay attention when you’re sick, you will see God everywhere. God was there during my cancer treatment in the dozens of people who cared for me medically but also in those who brought meals and baby gifts, who drove my kids to baseball practice, and watched the baby while I received radiation treatment. When I had Covid, God was there through my husband who drove my daughter to school and picked up my craft order for the volunteer event and passed out the Art to Remember gifts at the elementary school when I couldn’t. God was present when my husband and my kids made many dinners, even remembering the zucchini.
(Before we all get too carried away with how amazing my family is without me, though, allow me to point out that while I had Covid no one did any laundry at all. None. I’m not even going to tell you what my children were wearing when I emerged from isolation because their future spouses might read this one day. Let’s just say that I can rest assured that I’ll never be completely superfluous around here.)
But despite the little laundry hiccup (my husband has asked me to point out to you that he did in fact ask me if he should do laundry and I recoiled in horror and insisted that I would do it all when I was recovered and to be honest, that does sound like me), my family not only managed to take care of themselves while I was sick, they also took care of me because, for the most part, I let them.
It’s so hard for many of us to receive help, particularly moms. We are programmed to give rather than receive. Yet the care of others is one of the primary ways God demonstrates love and presence, and if you never allow anyone to help you, you are missing that. If your family is battling sickness this season, try to accept help if it’s offered. And do what you can to take care of yourself. Rest is important for all of us. Make yourself actually do what you tell your kids to do when they’re sick. The kids will be fine.