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When one parent is sick

The following is a guest post from Sarah Park, co-founder of Pear Budget.

Parenting is a difficult job. It’s hard enough when both parents are present, healthy, and sharing the work. (Single parents know well the challenge of shouldering all the responsibility.) In families accustomed to a shared workload, when one parent gets sick, it wreaks havoc on the entire house. So whether you’re down for the count with a nasty cold or struggling with a long-term disability, it’s crucial to approach this time with extra grace and flexibility.

For the last three years, I’ve suffered from a severe sciatica-type pain. It’s gotten in the way of everything — making it difficult to take care of chores, causing issues in our daily schedule, and adding countless doctors’ appointments to our life.

Thankfully, this chapter of our life is coming to an end, and I wanted to share five things we’ve learned along the way.

1. Rely on the people who care about you.

Maybe you’re like me: I hate imposing on others. I know my loved ones’ lives are busy enough as is. Who am I to ask even more of them?

That’s the wrong question.

The right question is this: Knowing that the people in my life do, actually, care about me, what could they do that would help ease the pain, difficulty, or tension that I’m in?

We need to be better about asking for assistance.

Over the last few years, the families in our church and neighborhood have made us meals, watched our kids, listened when we’ve needed to vent, and even stayed with us overnight in the hospital.

Your friends want to help. Often, they just don’t know what they can do that’ll help the most. Tell them. As crazy as it sounds, they’ll thank you.

2. Write down a family schedule

This is something we should have done long ago. When my back pain started, it wasn’t easy for my husband to know how to help — all the important information was in my brain, not on paper.

By creating a schedule together, three things occurred:

1. We both knew what needed to happen, and when.

2. We were able to balance responsibility. (I could take on certain jobs that could be done from bed, like handling paperwork and paying bills.)

3. We could prioritize. The well parent is likely to feel over-burdened; if one parent has the flu, the other will have extra work — taking care of her normal duties, caring for her spouse, and taking on the sick parent’s responsibilities. This is the time to decide what gets dropped.

3. Investigate flexible worktime

Having a family is a round-the-clock job. If one parent is out of commission, one of the best ways to juggle both bread-winning and family care is to make your work schedule more flexible. Since we’re entering “cold and flu season” now, it’s a good idea to look into your options before one parent catches a bug.

If a stay-at-home parent is sick, can the working parent work from home? Use vacation days? Work different hours? If not, make sure the working parent can easily arrange back-up childcare, whether through neighbors willing to help in a pinch, or from a list of trusted babysitters.

In our own situation, Charlie was able to work more in the early mornings, which meant he had more freedom later in the day to pick the kids up from school, help out around the house, or otherwise “be available” during normal work hours.

4. Be sympathetic to the other parent’s situation

When times are tough, it’s easy to focus on your own frustrations, your own pain, your own loss of freedom. Keep in mind: this is a hard time for both of you.

For the sick parent

You know how challenging your day is, normally. Your duties are now falling on your spouse. Express your gratitude! And try to receive help graciously, even if it might not be done exactly to your liking. (Charlie has “a way” that he likes the dishes to be put in the dishwasher. He’s had to learn to let go of that when I’m in charge of the dishes.)

For the well parent

Remember that being sick is terrible. Your spouse is feeling awful, isn’t getting good rest, and has no real idea when he or she will be well. He’s not trying to sabotage your life (really!). Try to be especially patient and sympathetic.

5. Be sure to make time together

Photo by Ada Be

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to have a date night on the town when one of you is sick. However, it is more important than ever, for your relationship, to take some time together that is unstressed. We find that lying in bed together and watching a movie on the laptop is a perfect way to help us unwind.

Don’t let nurturing your relationship be one of the things that gets axed when you’re prioritizing. Your marriage is the linchpin that holds the family together in sickness and in health.


We’re happy to note that the cause of my pain was recently diagnosed. I had a non-cancerous tumor growing right on my sciatic nerve. Three years and 20+ doctors couldn’t find it, but just before Thanksgiving, a neurosurgeon found it on an MRI, and was able to operate on it. It looks like I’ll have a complete recovery.

And while I wouldn’t wish the last three years of my life on anyone, through it, Charlie and I were able to find new ways to cope, to find new ways to communicate as husband and wife, and to find new ways to work together as parents. And we’ll be able to carry these lessons forward as we serve each other and our girls — hopefully from a place of recovered, stable, long-term health.

What’s been your experience with this? What are your tips for handling the load when one parent is out of commission?

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  1. Gina

    this is a really excellent, well written, and helpful post! Before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I was sick all of the time with migraines, horrible stomach pain and many days I couldn’t get out of bed. I really appreciate you saying that we need to learn to ask for help, and it’s ok…so true. I’m glad that they were able to find the cause of your pain and I hope your recovery continues to go well. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Rachel

    It’s hard to ask for help. I was supposed to have back surgery a few months ago, and I got up the nerve to make a care calendar for myself (at It wasn’t just meals—I knew I wasn’t going to be able to lift more than five pounds for several months, so I needed help with cleaning and help with my toddler pretty much all morning, every day. A lot of stuff that was very time consuming. I sent out the calendar, people started signing up, and then I was healed. Like, no joke, HEALED. I felt so guilty having to say, “False alarm! Thanks for signing up, but I don’t need you anymore!” For some reason, I thought people would be mad. No one was. They were all super happy I was healed. And I felt guilty? So weird.

  3. Carol Adams

    Such a very thoughtful post!

    I can so relate, as I went from working beyond full time as a critical care RN & doing cartwheels (literally, @ the age of 50!!) to being diagnosed with Lupus and neuromyelitis optica. I was plunged into the world of chronic illness/auto immune diseases. I worked part time for a while but then had some flare ups which hospitalized me. I have experienced the temporary loss of movement on my left side requiring very high dose IV steroids and rehab hospitalization.
    I am happy to report that all pieces parts are working well. 😉 In saying that, my chronic illness has been difficult on my husband although he is such a trooper!
    Yes, expressing gratitude for all that ones spouse does, goes without saying or maybe it shouldn’t ? Ha ha.
    No one knows what they sign up for when they say the vows: for better or for worse”.
    Thanks for your very thoughtful post.
    I am so happy that your life & health is on the mends!

  4. Kathy S.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad to hear you are improving. My husband has chronic pain and a host of other problems that keep getting worse. We have two small children and sometimes I feel the burden so much, I appreciate your advice to be patient and sympathetic. The word I try to use in my head–my own self talk–is to be gracious. Resentment tends to sneak in at the worst times, and I have to nip it in the bud for our marriage and our kids. He would do the same for me. We go day by day. Again, I really liked your post, good advice for all as one never knows what life will bring.

  5. Brit

    My husband can’t help me when I’m sick. He works 60 hours a week and goes to school. It would be nice though.

    • Kathryn

      I understand that feeling–my hubby travels 50% of the time with his job and works long hours when home, so he’s often not able to help if someone is sick. I hope you can find some friends or family in your area who can help you. It’s really hard for me to ask for help from anyone, but I’ve found that leaning on God really encourages me, and he’s faithful to provide help if I can bring myself to ask my friends for it.

  6. becky@oursweetpeas

    I was on bedrest for almost 3 months (including recovery after pg) followed by our daughter’s NICU stay of 2 months and had to rely on a lot of church family. My husband was awesome and did everything from the time he got off of work until he went back the next day. I prayed for him A TON. I made sure he was able to get out on Saturdays and play softball so that he could have some sort of release from the insanity.

    We did much of what you said. I had a detailed schedule and had to just look the other way when it wasn’t followed. You HAVE to be flexible when allowing other to help care for you and your kids. For example they had a bit too much chocolate milk and TV while our lives were crazy but they were well cared for and that was my priority.

    Now I try and make meals and help family and friends when needed because I was SO blessed by others.

  7. Kelly

    Tanks for a quick, concise, on target article about how to help and accept help!

  8. These Are The Days

    When we had one child and had just purchased our first house (two weeks before), my husband blew out his knee…we had no insurance and to make matters worse, he got an infection and things got REALLY complicated. 4 months and minus 40 lbs. later, he finally walked again. All I can say is it was SO hard but it also made us stronger and closer. It literally brought us to our knees and gave us a quick lesson on humility. Good luck, so glad they finally found the problem. I’ll keep you in my prayers. 🙂

  9. Vanessa

    these tips are good for even when everyone is healthy!
    great post today.

  10. T

    this is a really useful post, thank you so much for sharing. my family came to the US recently, and coming from a culture where the middle-class normally has paid help, I realized just how hard it is for parents to keep everything under control – more so when one of them is sick. i wish you good health.

  11. Whitney

    These tips are great for a variety of situations, from chronic and unexpected illnesses, to the numerous other scenarios capable of upturning your life.

    This might be the fire I need to finally label shelves and make lists to help my husband in such an event.

    Wishing continued blessings upon you and your family!

  12. Nina

    Being a single parent I think some of these are still great ideas.

    I’d add in making sure a couple people have a key to yourhouse. When I was on bed rest in the hospital a week before my son was born 7 weeks early I had friends and neighbors go by to feed the pets, take out trash etc.

    Get out of your comfort zone –
    I’m not good asking for help but when we need to just do it. When my son was 2 he got sick and couldn’t breathe I called a friend to meet us at the hospital. We were quarantined so she got us food, brought us changes in clothes, diapers, movies, slept over in the little fold out bed and had driven through a snow storm to do it. I had reached my limit of being able to deal with the situation and just having her to talk tO was a relief.

  13. Prerna

    Wow.. just wow.. Exactly what I needed.. God does have a way of answering prayers.. My husband has been unwell for the last year and is continuing to be so.. Chronic pain – TMJ, gout, diabetes and to say it has been tough on us is an understatement. He’s had to quit work (and he was the main breadwinner) and taking care of him, our toddler, the home while writing to meet the bills sometimes gets me feeling all overwhelmed and overworked. Like Kathy S. says above, sometimes one does feel resentful and angry, but then you remind yourself to be gracious and patient and move on day by day.. I’m deeply thankful for your post..
    I was wondering if there any books that you’d recommend for spouses with partners who are chronically unwell.
    Thank you once again.

  14. Sarah Park

    I’m so glad the post came at just the right time for you! I hope for all the best for you, and full healing for your husband. I wish I had a book recommendation, but I haven’t run across anything like that yet.

    Anybody else know of any good books on this?

    Thank you, all, for your wonderful comments and support!

  15. Erin

    Wonderful post. These are important issues to address and somewhat plan for or at least talk about and they often don’t…until we find ourselves in the situation scrambling around trying to figure out what to do and who’s going to do it.

    I was put on bed rest due to pre-term labor in my last pregnancy….the problem was I was a stay at home mom to a 2yr old and we had no idea what to do. We couldn’t afford daycare, my husband couldn’t work from home, and all of our parents work full time. We did argue with each other because we were both stressed out and worried.

    I was so surprised though how many of our friends and family members were willing to step in and help as much as they could, whether it was helping with our 2yr old or bringing us meals. It was difficult to start asking people, but we really had no choice. The experience really did open my eyes as to how lucky we are to have the family and friends that we do and in times of stress, I do my best to remember that we are lucky to have our health.

  16. Alison @ Femita

    We try to solve this situation with good communication, love and patience. If you love each other and you have a good understanding, then the division of tasks should come naturally and your spouse will be happy to do an extra effort when you’re not feeling well.

  17. Living the Balanced Life

    My situation has been a little different in that my kids are almost grown, so we don’t have little ones to worry about, but I went thru a mental breakdown last year. I had to learn to let my husband and kids help me, I had to ask for help (very hard, I was a stubborn independent woman) I had to learn to accept my limitations and that I was in a healing process. I think you also have to lower your expectations for life during this time. And remember the “in sickness and in health” part of your vows, lol!

  18. ALK

    Having suffered for 15 years with chronic illness, I can really identify with this post and those comments following. I do have a couple of things to add.
    1. DONT FORGET HOPE. Often in the middle of illness it is easy to give in to despair. This only worsens the anxiety and illness. Because getting better is always a possibility even if it is a miracle, fixing attention on that gives strength to battle the illness.
    2. Try to see the benefit of this time. During my illness I have seen my husband true loving character that I had not seen or appreciated before my sickness. My 3 daughters now know more how to comfort others who suffer and have much more compassion than they would have otherwise. This difficulty has enriched them as people (me too!)
    3.Be sure to get wise financial counsel on how to manage the onslaught of medical bills so you don’t go under financially. Get professional advice early on so that money is not stressing you out while battling illness.
    3. Keep an eye on the emotional health of your family. Don’t tell yourself that the kids and spouse are managing fine even if on the surface it may appear they are calm. The kids feel this deeply and making sure they know that they are a priority during the chaos of each day. Help them have special quiet time with a parent regularly. Read books on anxiety because typically anxiety comes with prolonged difficulty.
    4. Be sure to have a confidant. If it is a professional counselor, great, but if that is not feasible make sure you have a friend who you can unload on whether you are the sick person or the caregiver. It is much better if this is someone outside your family. This will allow more freedom in your talking.
    6. Finally, It is difficult to find books on chronic illness and its ramifications but the best on I have found is by Kathleen McCue named When a Parent is Sick. She looks at it in terms of helping kids but it has good ideas for the spouse too. Chroic illness is very overlooked in the world but it deeply affects many people. We can be encouraged by this blog that we aren’t alone.

    • Sarah Park

      Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom you’ve gained from your experience with chronic illness—these are excellent and helpful points!

      I agree with it all—and I especially resonate with numbers 1 and 4, and would even put them together… it helped me so much to have both professional counsel and dear friends who would listen, and who would have hope *with* me. There were times when I despaired, and these confidants would not let me give up.

      And thank you for the book recommendation! I will have to check this out!

      I hope the best for you, that you find relief and healing. Thank you again for sharing with us. 🙂

  19. ashleigh

    I never got any thanks for my efforts in raising my children while i was sick, by the other parent. Only resentment because of the pressure my illnes took on the household. Mind you my wife had always known i was sick from the day we met. In the end..apparently i wasn’t doing enough in her eyes….so she left me. Difficult when you try your best..but its not good enough in the eyes of your loved one. So now..i face life as a single sick dad..and one day i will not have older family members too help me. Very worried i will have too say goodbye too my kids. I don’t want too….but if there’s no physical support…what will i do?

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