29 June 2013

Helping in Another Home, Part 2: Helping while Mama is Away

Dear Lissy,

We're headed over to HVBC for Old Home Days Sunday, and everyone is in high spirits.  We'll get to see Pastor and Esther, a rare treat since Daddy's usually filling the pulpit while they're on vacation.  The afternoon song and testimony service is the highlight for Daddy and I.  A barrel vaulted ceiling and a musically talented congregation make for an a-maz-ing service.  I'm pretty sure your brothers are eying the potluck and ice cream social after services with their friends.   We'll be bringing pans of sweet potato rolls and a Mexican chicken and rice casserole with roasted corn, so you and I have some kitchen time ahead of us , too.

Today's letter is a bit more serious:  how to help in a home when Mama is away, and Daddy and the kids are running the home.  If you haven't read Part 1, take a few minutes to look back through that letter before you begin this one.  I've written most of this letter to address a situation where Mom is away for a week or more.  This letter assumes that Dad has one or more preschool or school aged children.  I also wanted it to be appropriate for those homes where mama has gone home to Heaven.  I find it unsettling that so many women in their late thirties and early forties succumb to cancer while they still have young families.  Those families need quiet assistance for years, not days.  It's been my experience that very often mom's absences are emergencies, and she doesn't have time to organize much help ahead of time.

Establish Boundaries Before You Begin Helping. 
  • Keep a gracious spirit and a merry heart with the man you're helping no matter what.  This dear man has enough trouble without adding a condescending, complaining, or snippy woman to the mix.  Don't discuss any aspect or the extent of your help for the family with friends. This is done unto the Lord. Problems are a matter for prayer, or if necessary, a discreet conversation with your husband or pastor.
  • Even great dads panic a bit when left on their own, and will often want you to do more than you have time or energy to do and still minister faithfully to your own family.  Whether you're helping out your best friend or a lady you scarcely know, be very clear up front when you are available and what you're willing to do.  Do not, and I mean never, take responsibility for filling the role of his wife in their home.  If the wife is deceased or away for an extended period of time, simply filling her shoes becomes a real temptation.  Pandora's box, trust me. This is important if you're single, but crucial if you're married.  The Dad is still responsible for his home and his children and it's not a bad thing for him to miss her and have to sacrifice.   
***Protect Your Reputation:  Do not, ever, under any circumstances, spend time alone together.***
  • Not in his home.  Not in yours.  Not at McDonald's.  Not at the grocery store.  Not on the phone (set up a communication notebook the first day to leave each other notes.  Keep notes short and business like -- leave the smiley faces and jokes for another time).  Don't do it.  If he's picking up kids, he needs to wait outside or pick them up after your husband is home.  If you're bringing in a meal, running laundry, or tidying through for the family, it has to be while he's at work, and you should bring a friend with you.  People love a good scandal, and will make one where there is none.  When I helped a family for 6 weeks who's Dad worked swing shifts, a local church allowed me to park our van in their lot so my car wasn't even in the family's driveway at odd hours.  The only exception is if you're helping Daddy or your brothers. Proverbs tells us that an unfaithful wife is worse than "rotten bones" for a husband -- cancer, or leukemia.  Even if you don't care what people think, your husband needs his wife's reputation to remain intact.  If you're single, accusations and whispers fly even more readily, and may one day cast doubt on your own purity.
  • Realize that replacing a wife long term is expensive.  Have your husband or pastor ask him to provide cash or gift cards (and give him receipts) to offset the help he's receiving.  If he can't afford the assistance, see if the church can offer finances that cover basic costs.  As a general rule, if someone gives one time assistance, I don't reimburse them.  If someone is giving regular financial assistance to a non family member, they receive gift cards to cover their costs. If someone refuses reimbursement, recycle the gift card back into the fund for the family.  Many people with compassionate hearts are held back from helping simply because of finances.  If they are given just enough to cover costs, they will often help for months or years.  It may sound harsh for Christians to pay for help, but practically speaking, you open a much larger pool of helpers and avert a lot of hard feelings by doing so.
Consider Organizing Help Instead of Giving Help Personally.
While you can't fill his wife's shoes without hitting a hornet's nest, you can be the mastermind behind the operation if you have enough women who want to help. Instead of personally providing assistance, you create, fill, and manage a group who wants to help.  This works best with a group -- 4H, church, etc.  Make a table of needs and times and personally approach women and ask.  Almost no one volunteers willingly anymore to an open call.  Ask the dad specifically for names of family members in the area, too, so you don't wear out your own helpers.  Anyone who is helping should contact you with questions or changes so dad isn't overwhelmed.  Once again, set a time limit on your help.  "I will organize help for your family for February" gives you the option to continue in March or pass the responsibility back to Dad. 

Areas to Organize Help by Importance
  • Child care and transportation before and after school and on weekends.   
    • Preschool children will need regular day care arrangements.  See if stay-at-home moms within your church would be willing to take on a short term commitment.  Preschool kids need stability, especially with Mom away, so make sure the same person can make the commitment for the duration.  Dads should offer the current day care rate if at all possible, but every little bit helps. Lunch and snacks must be provided, either by Dad or your church.  One income families run a squeaky-tight budget.  Dads, because they've almost never spent an entire day responsible for pre-school kids, think that it's "no big deal" to add a few more to the mix. He needs to know that even with the extra $$$, it is a big deal.
    • If children are homeschooled, most state regulations are very strict regarding long term arrangements.  The parents, not you, need to look up the regs and make appropriate arrangements.  For short term (a week or less) they can usually join another family during school hours.  Again, because these decisions have legal consequences, the parents need to make the arrangements, not you. 
    • Dad needs to be given clear expectations for pick-up times.  If he can't pick up on time, he needs to text or call the caregiver.   Ask him for the number of a family member who can pick up the kids if he's running late, too.   I had one Dad who regularly went home for an hour or so to unwind and take care of house business before coming to pick up the kids.  That wouldn't have been a problem, but he always had an excuse or lie about why he wasn't picking the kids up at 4:00 as expected. Another area that needs to be discussed ahead of time is what will happen if he gets out of work early or gets a day off .  Some caregivers prefer to keep the routine, others prefer the option of a day off.
    • During one six week assistance I picked the kids up from school, helped them finish homework, and then the Dad and kids joined us for dinner before heading home.  That worked out exceptionally well for everyone. 
    • Make it very clear at the beginning who is responsible for getting children to and from after school activities.  Often a mom who is already picking up kids can make the 3:00 pick up, but an additional 4:30 pick up is nearly impossible.
    • If possible, arrange for Dad to have some downtime at least once a week without the kids.  Find families who are willing to take the kids on Sunday between services or a half day Saturday. 
  • Meals.   
    • Arrange for easy breakfast, lunch, and snack items (cereal, Pop Tarts, sandwich fixings, soup, granola bars) to be delivered to their home or the church.   Feel free to have an announcement made at church or in your community group for grocery store gift cards which can be used to purchase these items.  Usually the women who have the time to make an extra shopping trip don't have the finances to pay for the items.  You can be a bridge between those who have time and those who have finances.
    • Arrange for hot meals, either home made or restaurant coupons/pizza delivery for dinner. In the case of a mom's death, local pizza places will usually be very generous with coupons.   It usually works best to have "hot" meals delivered cold with clearly written instructions for reheating.   Remember, KISS -- Keep It Simple, Sister.  Ask the ladies to provide a simple meal that they would be willing to make and provide repeatedly, not a Thanksgiving feast.  A pasta bake, a bag of salad, and a loaf of bread every other week is a much bigger blessing than Chicken Kiev, pilaf, bacon wrapped asparagus, and a scratch chocolate pie provided once.
    • I've found that many dads enjoy being in someone else's home for the meal so they get some downtime before they're alone with the kids for the evening.   Inviting a family without their mama to join you for your family's fun night is one of the most loving things you can do.
    • See if your church or another individual will provide disposables for the duration of Mom's absence to keep dishes to a minimum.  I've had many dads tell me that the paper plates/cups, napkins, and plastic cutlery were as much of a blessing as the food.
  • Laundry.  If mom is deceased or away for more than a week, laundry becomes one of the most daunting chores left behind.   If you can arrange a laundry helper twice a week, it will be a huge blessing for Dad.  It usually works best to have helpers pick up bags or baskets of laundry and return the laundry cleaned and folded/hung.  This system allows Dad to keep out items he'd be embarrassed to have another woman in his church or community group seeing.  Offer to provide laundry supplies or a pre-loaded card for a laundromat depending on how the helper is handling laundry.  With a deceased mom, the children's wardrobes are nearly impossible.  The conversation is delicate, but given finances, it's usually fairly easy to find someone who is willing to shop with and for the kids.  It's best to make this a long term, year-round commitment, one person per child.  I've found empty nest moms really enjoy this ministry, and will often sew and scour thrift stores and garage sales to keep clothing costs to a minimum. 
  • Light Housekeeping.  This is obviously for a long term absence.  Dad should be able to manage an absence of a week or less without any trouble. If mom is deceased, consider offering housekeeping for a month or three until he's established new family routines, but unless the Lord lays a burden on someone's heart, don't plan on organizing a permanent situation.
    • Housekeeping help should only be offered if the Dad wants another person in their home.  Many people are too private for this to be a blessing.  Don't pressure Dad, even if you know it's something that Mama wants.
    •  If he would like someone to come in, limit their help to family bathrooms, children's bedrooms, and vacuuming/dusting or sweeping/mopping public areas. 
    • Let him know up front that dishes, clutter and trash is the family's responsibility.  The cleaner will not be tidying up.  Text or e-mail him the night before to remind him a cleaner is coming in.  
    • Unless the wife is deceased, don't take on spring cleaning type projects even at his request.  She will not consider your efforts a "happy surprise", but will feel violated.  If he wants to clean out the basement playroom and re-organize it, that needs to be a family project.
    • Consider offering to keep a wood or coal stove going if that's the family's primary source of heat.  Again, dad needs to be sure that his helper has the wood or coal next to the stove and that no ashes need to be removed mid-day.  Gloves, pokers, etc. need to be in good condition and stored next to the stove. Often retired men are willing and happy to do this job.
    • Arrange pet sitting or walking if possible so the family's pup isn't left home alone all day.  Again, retired couples are a great choice if the animal is well-trained.
  • Gratitude.  Men are, in my experience, terrible at communicating gratitude. Almost every man underestimates the amount of effort child care, meal preparation, and a home require. Their lack of communication with the helpers makes your job a lot more difficult.  A verbal thank you at the time of assistance is not enough.  Weekly thank you e-mails from him need to be arranged before you agree to take on the task of organizing extended help.  If he thinks it's foolish, or time consuming, graciously decline the ability to organize extended help, because you won't get help after the first two weeks.  At the end of each week provide him with a list of people that need a thank you, their e-mail address, and a brief note about what they did.   Check with a friend to make sure their help is being acknowledged.  Your husband or pastor should step in if he's not following through.  This is another reason I suggest giving a solid time frame for how long you are willing to help.  If he's taking everyone's help for granted, it's hard to get volunteers to keep going.  When the assistance is completely done, make a short list of those who have gone above and beyond on the family's behalf  so the wife can write a personal note. 
Be Ready to Open Your Own Home. While I was a pastor's wife, I made every effort to keep kids in their own home during difficult times.  I think that's an important principle during stressful family times.  Because a pastor and pastor's wife falls somewhere between friend and family, they welcomed that arrangement.  Now that we're not in full time ministry, I tend to open our own home instead.  Spending too much time in another person's home in their absence can create a weird vibe in the friendship later on.
  • We have chosen not to allow sleepovers with friends, so when another family joins us, I put their kids in the living room or re-arrange bedrooms so families are together.  Boys and girls use separate bathrooms, too.
  • If kids are joining you long term (3 days or more), express family rules the first day and enforce them lovingly.  I've had kids from pretty rough homes live with us for a month or more and slip right into our expectations and routines.  
  •  Remember they are missing their mama.  Badly.  Remind your own children of that often, too.  Plan lots of cuddles and reading time for younger kids.  Older kids enjoy games, crafts, cooking, and having someone sit with them while they do homework.  Every age needs to be outdoors for at least an hour a day, something Dad won't have time for.  Plan special time with your own children, too, to prevent jealousy.
  • Remember mama is missing them!  Try to take and send lots of pictures of the children in their normal routine as well as special times.  Seeing their baby girl cuddled up sound asleep with a favorite stuffed animal can be balm to a mama's tired soul.  Short videos can be fun, too.
When it rains, it pours
Make plans with the Dad ahead of time for another emergency that will pull him out of the home, too.  I've seen this happen nearly every time I've helped.  Funerals, last minute business trips, or emergency visits to his wife's side are inevitable.  Have a plan in place ahead of time.

These thoughts come from twenty years of ministering to others who are in a difficult season of life.  I have seen well-meaning, compassionate women jump in head first time and again, only to desert their victims after a week of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what they took on once they realize they have to keep up the pace for weeks, months, or even years.  It is far wiser to slowly and thoughtfully create a real support structure that can remain in place over time.  If you ever have to be out of your own home for an extended period of time, try to line up as much help as possible ahead of time for your husband and children. 

 Much Love,

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