Given that I was sitting in a hospital bed with a broken leg, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the news. But I still stared at the orthopedic surgeon in disbelief when he told me what to expect. The fractures would take three to four months to heal, I’d need to use crutches for nearly that long, and I wouldn’t be allowed to drive until I was done with the prescription narcotics that managed my excruciating pain, and until my leg was strong enough to slam on the brakes. That would take about a month.
“A month?” I asked, incredulous. “I won’t be able to drive for a month?” Not even Percocet could take the edge off that news, which sent me into a logistical panic attack. As the working parent with the more flexible schedule, I had become the one who walked our 6-year-old to school in the morning, drove our 2-year-old to the babysitter, and stopped by the store for groceries while my husband worked more traditional hours. Now I was out of commission for a month or more, courtesy of an ill-fated fall at the ice rink that resulted in an ambulance ride, emergency surgery, and a metal pin and three screws in my leg. How in the heck were we going to get the girls to school or the sitter? How were we going to get dinner on the table? How was I going to manage the girls at home by myself, given that I couldn’t pick up our toddler to change her diaper?
My husband reassured me that we’d figure it out, but my mind reeled.
One year later, I’m relieved to report that we survived my four months of injured reserve status. But it also showed me just how little guidance is available for families dealing with a short-term health crisis. Unlike more serious illnesses, there are few books, support groups, or online resources for such situations, and trust me, the parenting books do not discuss them. (Just try catching an active toddler when you’re on crutches. “I not coming, Mommy!” my daughter told me one morning as I attempted—totally unsuccessfully—to get her dressed. “You no get me!”)
Where books and Web sites failed us, though, people did not. One of the most surprising aspects of our adventure in cobbled-together-parenting-with-crutches was the willingness of so many—friends, family, neighbors, and even people we had just met—to offer their help. As busy as they all were, they somehow carved out the time to deliver us a meal, get our kids where they needed to be, send us encouraging notes, bring us groceries, do our laundry, and battle traffic all over Northern Virginia to pick up my prescriptions. We could not have managed without them.
While the true kindness of our community might be one of the most lasting lessons of this experience, it was not the only one. Four months of crutching my way through through the grocery store and being lapped by my toddler on the stairs gave me plenty of chances to see what works—and what doesn’t—when you or your spouse is on the disabled list. Here they are.
Ask for help. Managing family, work, and life is challenging even when everyone is at their best. If mom or dad is suddenly on the sidelines, you’re going to need assistance. I felt mighty awkward emailing people I barely knew to ask them if they could take my daughter to school or help me prepare lunch for myself, but I am still amazed at how many of those favors led to lasting friendships for me and my kids. If your needs are too big for friends and family to handle, you may have to open the wallet for grocery delivery, prepared food, child care, laundry service, or whatever else you can’t manage at the moment.
Do what you can. Between the painkillers and the pain itself, there wasn’t much I could do for my kids, especially at first. The two things I could do? Make their lunches and read them stories at bedtime. It wasn’t much, but it kept us connected at the beginning and end of the day.
Create an online calendar and keep it updated. Before I started driving again, we had as many as seven different friends and family members taking our older daughter to and from school. I put all the details on the online calendar so my husband knew when and where to pick her up if needed. I also emailed appointment requests to those people so they could save it to their own online calendars if they wanted.
Lower your standards. With my husband going nonstop from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. taking care of the kids, heating up dinner, and helping me, the last thing we wanted to worry about was washing dishes. Hello, paper plates and disposable cups.
Apply for a temporary handicapped parking permit from your DMV. If you’re recovering from an illness, surgery, or injury, you’re neither going to be as mobile or as energetic as you think, and the convenience of these temporary tags can help. You’ll need a doctor’s signature, but you’ll forget the hassle the moment you and your spouse can take the kids to the insanely popular Clemyjontri playground in McLean and gratefully park the car just a few hobbling steps from the fun.
Give your spouse a break. You may be the one in pain, but the healthy spouse is the one working triple shifts. To keep them sane while you recover, let them get away for an hour or two to exercise or see a friend. My husband will always be grateful to those who came over to help me with the kids so he could escape for a bike ride.
Tell your children’s school about the situation. Kids are resilient, but they will likely need some extra support from their classroom teachers and others during such a topsy-turvy time. Our daughter’s school counselor met with her regularly, giving her a safe place to share her fears and frustrations during my recovery.
Celebrate the small victories. Five weeks after my fracture, I decided I was finally ready to get behind the wheel. I slipped into my car and drove slowly around the block, feeling the thrill of a 16-year-old who just got her license.
Alison Rice is a freelance journalist in Arlington. She blogs at www.lisforlatte.com.