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Recovery tips for moms: How to prep your family so you can heal

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

Mother and daughter cuddling on bed

Before having abdominal surgery several years ago, I had my recovery all figured out. I'd had three earlier surgeries: one to repair a hernia and two to deliver each of my daughters. So I was confident things would go smoothly this time.

As I discovered, the road to recovery was filled with potholes and speedbumps. While healing from surgery or illness is difficult for anyone, moms of young children are faced with a special set of challenges. Below are my top four “traffic alerts” for moms, to keep you in the fast lane back to good health.

Set up a 24/7 childcare plan.

For the first two weeks after surgery, I was barely mobile. My mother and mother-in-law picked up the girls from school and stayed in the house until my husband got home from work late at night. On weekends, a network of mom friends took my 5-year-old to her regularly scheduled activities and on playdates, while my husband cared for our toddler.

Because everyone recovers at a different pace, arrange for more childcare than you think you’ll need. Enlist relatives and friends to help out in shifts. If there’s a window of time where help isn’t available, don’t wing it: Hire a babysitter. Sitters aren’t cheap, but they’re a good deal compared to the cost of repairing busted stitches.

Check with your health insurance company to see what childcare support they provide. Aetna, for instance, can connect families to local resources when a mother is recovering from a major medical event. If you have a newborn, read more childcare tips.

Talk to your kids, but at their level.

Those first two weeks were rough for me and the entire family. I was prohibited from standing up straight. I had fluid draining into little bags attached to my abdomen. It was quite a scary sight.

Fortunately, my husband and I had spoken to our 5-year-old in simple terms that she could understand. "Mommy is hurting and the doctors are going to make her feel better," we told her before the big day. Back at home, she asked to see my bandage. I showed her a small section that was clean. Her curiosity was satisfied and that was it. I didn't offer to show her my incision.

Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, advises parents to keep their tone reassuring and answer the questions your child asks but no more. "If a child wants to know if Mommy will be alright, say 'Yes, I'm going to be alright,'” Kazdin explains. “If children ask if it hurts, say 'Yes it hurts. It hurts in the stomach. But I'm going to be alright.'"

You can prepare toddlers and preschoolers just a day or two before the event. If you have older kids, conventional wisdom recommends discussing your upcoming hospitalization soon after it’s scheduled, to give them plenty of time to process their feelings before the family routine is turned upside down. Kazdin isn’t so sure. "Be careful,” he says, especially with sensitive children who are prone to worry. “Advance talking can backfire." Moms should trust their gut on this one.

Plan ahead to cover household tasks.

There’s nothing worse than being in the hospital and realizing a bill needs to be paid. I remember my husband running to drop off a check the day after I delivered my first daughter.

Assume that you won't have the time and energy to take care of common household tasks, even pulling out your laptop to pay the mortgage. Make a list of every little thing that would normally be on your agenda, like picking up a birthday gift for your child’s close friend. Before my abdominal surgery, I realized I’d be recuperating over Halloween, so I bought both girls their costumes beforehand.

To coordinate with multiple helpers, use family calendaring tools like Google Calendar, Cozi or Hub Family Organizer. And every family should post a list at home with all activities, due dates and important phone numbers of doctors and babysitters. Although it’s common for one parent to be the keeper of all the information, that becomes a problem if the keeper comes down with appendicitis.

Read more about mobile apps that support your health goals.

It’s okay not to be supermom.

Listen to your doctors and take time to rest and heal. You may feel guilty not jumping to the rescue when someone needs help, but it’s not worth a setback. My first day up and around, I took on too much. It was Halloween and I went to both my daughters’ costume parades at school, then planned to take them trick-or-treating. When I could barely make it to the corner, a mom friend ordered me back to the house and the group continued without me.

Massachusetts mom of two Jennifer Palazzo was caught off guard by what seemed like a stubborn case of strep throat. "It turned out to be pneumonia, and it escalated pretty dramatically," she says. It would take three months for Palazzo, 40, to make a full recovery. For a while, even reading to her kids made her out of breath, so she stuck with group cuddles while watching TV.

Learn how to stress less about family mealtime.

Kazdin recommends inviting kids to participate in your recovery with small projects. “You can ask older kids to make a ‘Mommy is resting’ sign to hang on the bedroom door,” he says. “Younger children can add drawings to it.” Children of every age love to feel like they're helping.

As you feel better, you can spend more time interacting with the kids. Start slow, with board games and puzzles, and build from there.

Once you realize things are running smoothly and the children are taken care of, it'll make for an easier recovery. Pretty soon, you'll be back on your feet and wishing you had a few moments to rest.

About the author

Christina Joseph is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.