Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Family members do all kinds of sharing–the good times, the hard times, the bathroom…and the household chores.
Doing the chores is more than just keeping the house together. It’s a way for everybody in the family to feel like they are contributing to the household, taking responsibility, making the home a comfortable place for everybody. When parents work around the house they demonstrate to their children how important they are, that their parents are concerned about their well-being. And parents can also use household chores to help their children to begin learning how to be responsible for themselves.
When a parent has a chronic illness, household routines, including the chores, can get disrupted. Mom or dad may have trouble holding up their end some days, or they may have to modify their activity level. If both parents are in the house, maybe the other one takes over and does more of the work. Or not. Either way, kids see that something is different. And while adults don’t like change, children like it even less. Even small changes in routine can leave them feeling scared.
Families adjust to changes in the household routine in different ways. A parent who has to change his/her activity level may be feeling like they are letting down the other family members by not being able to do as much for them. Or may push him/herself even harder, hoping that by keeping things as “normal” as possible, the kids won’t notice that they aren’t feeling as well or as emotionally strong as they used to.
Someone else in the household may take on more responsibility, maybe even more than they need to, leaving the individual with the illness feeling like they don’t have a role in the day-to-day life of the family, while the family member doing more work feels exhausted.
Whether they say so or not, children notice change. Maybe the house is a little more cluttered, meals aren’t ready on time or the menu isn’t what it used to be. Maybe the parent isn’t as emotionally available, or is tired, preoccupied, isolated, worried. Children know. They sense that something isn’t normal. The see the evidence around the house, or at mealtime. One of those elephants in the room.
So what can you do?
You can start by talking.
As a family, have a conversation about how mom or dad is feeling and what this means for getting the chores done. Let them know what this might mean for them. For example, that some days, Mom or Dad may not feel like getting the dishes done, or that they might be having frozen food for dinner, or maybe everyone has to pitch in to cook. Or that the laundry might not get done every Wednesday. Or that one parent might be doing more of the work than usual. Make this conversation age-appropriate.
Younger children may need more examples of how things are going to change, and reassurance that, while life will be different, they will still get what they need. And they will need lots of reassurance and handholding along the way. Teens may want more of the whys about the condition, how it affects your ability to function on some days, more reasons why things have changed. But they also need reassurance.
Keep in mind that when one family member has been diagnosed with a mental illness, everyone is affected. Yes, we are back to that share word. Share the love. Share the information. Give everyone a chance to share their feelings.
Share the workload
Children may appreciate an opportunity to help out around the house, to feel like they are doing something to help their parent when he/she doesn’t feel well. Part of the family meeting might include talking about how everybody can pitch in and help out. This is a great way for family members to deal with their own feeling of helplessness by letting them be helpful. Let them share in the new normal at home, and feel like they are making some of the choices as well as doing more of the work.
Let them know what you can do. And what you need help with. Let them take part by making their own bed, picking up after themselves, helping with the dishes.
I am not promising miracles here. I know that not all spouses, or children for that matter, are all that helpful. They may be in denial of the family member’s condition, hoping it will go away, or maybe they are just not that helpful in the best of times. But is it worth a try —or a few tries—to get the conversation going? You might be surprised at how willing they are to step up to the plate.
Just because something isn’t being discussed doesn’t mean it isn’t being noticed. And talked about (with someone). The chores need doing. Is it time to sit down and have a talk about who’s doing what?
What’s worked at your house? Any conversations starters to share?