I ran through Rock Creek Park Tuesday morning and quickly realized that it’s time to store my summer running clothes. The cicadas have given way to a cold, wet damp that, even when burned off by a few glorious afternoons, will be with us for the next several months.
Recently, D.C.-based therapist and occasional On Parenting contributor Stacy Notaras Murphy endured her own bout with debilitating illness. It tested her household dynamic, the way so many of ours will be tested this season. It also taught her, firsthand, the importance of advice she gives to couples in conflict: Show gratitude.
Here’s her story:
“This spring I had the unfortunate opportunity to experience mononucleosis for the very first time. After weeks of feeling vaguely run down and having a constant, low-grade fever, my doctor diagnosed mono. It was a relief until she explained that the only course of treatment was ‘rest,’ a rare antidote not seen in my home since the birth of my first daughter, now 4 years old.
“If I didn’t rest, I would not get better. It was as simple as that. So even though I had functioned (I was beyond exhausted, but I had functioned) with the same level of child-rearing responsibility for the previous few weeks of undiagnosed illness, I was now going to have to take it easy, or else I would not get better.
“My husband and I have a fairly equitable division of labor when it comes to taking care of our two daughters...When I got sick, this equality went out the window.
“The furious dovetailing process whereby he plays Legos with the 4-year-old while I put the 17-month-old down to sleep, and then he bathes the 4-year-old while I clean the kitchen and prepare backpacks for the next morning, all so we can wind up together, unencumbered on the couch by 8:15 p.m. just to spend some time together — that nightly routine was off the table.
“He had to take over bathing both girls, figuring out the backpacks, and leaving the more sedentary (and yes, fun) book-reading and bed-tucking parts to me. Plus he had to plan grocery shopping, laundry lugging, and other household maintenance. This would take a toll on anyone, particularly when there was no end date in sight. We simply didn’t know when my symptoms would go away.
“During this time I did keep seeing my clients. I wasn’t contagious and sitting in my comfy office talking about other peoples’ lives was such a respite from the energy-sucking whirlwind at home... Listening to couples facing big challenges of infidelity, parenting struggles and other emotional upheavals, I remembered the healing power of appreciation. This was a great reminder that a solution to a specific problem is rarely the answer when we are in conflict. Rather, the most powerful transformations occur when we are known, understood, and appreciated by our partner.
“I spent a lot of time while recovering from mono telling my husband how thankful I was for what he was doing. I made sure to say these things in passing and most definitely in front of our daughters — modeling gratitude and appreciation is a high calling of parenting — but also at 8:15 p.m., sitting together, making eye contact and being present with each other. It’s amazing how the stress of a day being the ‘primary everything’ in a household can evaporate — or at least lessen — when it is acknowledged by a witness.
“Yes, scheduling a sitter to help me when he wanted a guys’ night out was essential. Deciding to order our groceries a few times, was another strategy we employed. But looking back, we both agree that focusing on appreciations during a very difficult time was a very powerful technique. It gave him the fuel to get through the exhausting demands of parenting without his co-pilot, keeping us from spiraling downward.
“When a partner gets sick — whether it’s seasonal allergies or something more debilitating — there is a shift in the household dynamic. The merits of this shift can be debated, but the most important point is that the shift be acknowledged and a part of the conversation. This doesn’t mean negotiated. If you have a broken foot, you simply cannot put the kids to bed without assistance, that’s not changing.
“What I mean is that partners have to take the time to acknowledge that a change has happened, and that it has an impact on the family. Our impulse may be to minimize the shift, to hope it goes away and not give it too much of our energy. But this rarely works.
“Instead, unnamed and on the loose in a household, the shift fuels resentment. Over time, the rift becomes less about frustration with a partner’s immune system, and more about frustration with a partner’s unwillingness to acknowledge how his weakened immune system is actually having an impact on the situation. One partner pulls away, feeding the other’s isolation and frustration, and you have an unending cycle...
“Make time for intentional appreciations every single day: make eye contact, slow it down, let yourself be thanked, and always say ‘you’re welcome.’”
Have you endured a major sickness or injury as a parent? How did you manage?