Break in Routine

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Caution Slippery
22 May 2008

The first time I hopped on one foot while holding a 24-pound baby was at 2am. I hopped right onto a tower of legos and nearly lost my footing before diving onto the couch. My bleary-eyed daughter thought I was experimenting with some new rocking method in lieu of nursing and cried out in horror, “Nim! Nim!” which means literally—Nurse me immediately and don’t try any new tricks! How could I explain to this innocent that I had broken my fifth metatarsal that afternoon and life was not going to be the same—meaning she just wouldn’t be able to get what she wanted when she wanted it. Nor would I, for that matter.

It was partially her fault. She distracted me with her flailing arms and loud cry, “Mine! Mine!” upon spotting a purple balloon as I walked down the stairs to the basement. I slipped on a blanket left by a careless toddler and fell down the steps. I heard the crack, I felt the pain, but no way did I comprehend how my life had changed in that moment. I lay at the bottom of the stairs alone with my child, mumbling, Ow, ow, ow and wondering…is anyone going to rescue me?

No one rescued me. I left my daughter with the balloons, crawled up the stairs, hopped to the freezer and pulled out a frozen bag of peas to reduce the swelling.

I always thought that breaking a bone would hurt more than it did. I imagined a person lying in a bed, writhing in pain, with her bandaged foot held in the air by a rope. But, I wasn’t confined to a bed or even a couch. I had some mobility. I could hop. And hopping can be fun, sometimes. You can pretend you’re a bunny rabbit to entertain the kids. You can increase your heart rate by just hopping from the bedroom to the bathroom. However, I overestimated my hopping stamina and deceived myself in a larger way as well. You see, as long as I didn’t bear weight on the foot, I experienced no serious pain. Without pain, I had my mind intact. In my inexperienced brain, this meant that I could continue to be the CEO of my home.

Within a day, however, I fell onto the cement as I got out of the car. Then, I flew across the room and landed on the cold linoleum following my third attempt with crutches. I scraped my legs crawling up the brick steps to my house and bruised my knees pulling myself up into a standing position. I could not lift my daughter into her booster seat. I could not stand over the sink to scrub sticky pans, prepare chicken cacciatore for dinner, carry the laundry basket downstairs to the machine, sweep and mop the kitchen floor, chase my three year old if he escaped from the house. And finally, I could not take long walks outside in the fresh air to maintain my mental balance.

But, I still turned down meals from kind neighbors as well as shopping and babysitting help. “I’m not sick,” I thought. I can take care of myself. There are sick people much needier than I. However, I quickly realized that despite my determination, I was quite needy. In fact, all the generous chesed that was offered would not even suffice!

Full-time help was my only alternative. Once I submitted to help, my household transformed. Within days, my normally disordered home was whipped into shape. My children had matching socks, my husband found underwear folded neatly in his drawers, and for four weeks – there was not one rotten cucumber liquefying at the bottom of the refrigerator. My son observed with bulging eyes, “Wow, it’s so clean, Mommy.” Dear Mommy planted herself like a queen on the couch and delegated the household tasks. A certain calm permeated the entire household. My husband thrived at work and my children enjoyed watching the pockets of messiness become ordered living space.

When, after four weeks, although not completely recovered—but definitely out of money — I exchanged a tearful good-bye with our hired help, I watched in astonishment as the dishes piled high in the sink, the laundry found its way to all corners of the house, the dirty diapers accumulated on the changing table and oatmeal became the dinner entrée for two consecutive nights. Soon the nagging began, the personal time diminished and the frustration set in. My foot looked blue and I still had to hop around with my daughter at 2 am.

My hysterical husband cried, “Honey, get the help back! We’ll live on pasta, we’ll keep the thermostat at 68 degrees, we’ll remember to turn the lights off when we leave the house, and we’ll buy gas at Costco. I’ll take a second job, for goodness sakes!”

It occurred to me that hopping was not a new phenomenon in my life. In fact, even with two healthy feet, I could not seem to do all that needed to be done. My husband’s hysteria was loaded with baggage. His nightmares reflected our earlier days: soggy cornflakes strewn across the floor, flat surfaces covered with old mail and estranged toy pieces, stray socks in baskets, dinner at 10pm, empty diapers boxes and garbage bags with hangers popping out lined up by the door, and so on and so forth.

Breaking my foot was a concrete message from G-d insisting that I accept and invest in help for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the home).

I had to admit—I have a disability.

Perhaps, I had missed earlier signals. Maybe when I stubbed my toe on the corner of the metal bed frame during the summer or sliced my thumb with a paring knife in November, maybe I was suppose to look beyond the physical pain of these accidents to find a message like – You are too tired and worn out to be an effective human being. Once the pain subsided, however, I was too busy and too tired to explore deeper meanings.

It’s not that I was an inherently bad housekeeper. My potential was just hindered by my lack of sleep. But more than that, I was easily distracted by the more interesting things in life like watching my kids figure out a puzzle, listening to a friend vent her life frustrations over the phone, even food shopping at Trader Joe’s. I liked to read the news and practice my vocal scales, look up new words in the dictionary, flip through the encyclopedia, learn about organic fruits and vegetables. My endless distractions were distracting me from maintaining order and routine in my life. And I kept injuring myself to boot. Certainly, this was not a revelation. My revelation was – I have to fix this for the well being of my family.

I had to learn how to make the same dinners every week, make school lunches in the evening, put the dry cleaning out every Tuesday, the recycling out every Wednesday, go food shopping every Monday and Thursday morning, change the linens every Thursday, clean the dishes before bed, put the bath toys away after every kid’s bath, cook dinner in the morning rather than at 4pm when the carpool arrived, and go to sleep at 10 pm every night so I would have the energy to sustain all these routines! There was much to master. And for a person who despised routine, sought out adventure and change, transitioning myself into the routines of life was no easy feat.

But when it came down to it, for me, hopping around on one foot was just not good enough. I had no choice. And so I began. Monday night, spaghetti, Tuesday night, Tuna patties and peas, Wednesday night, salmon, sting beans and salad, Thursday night, mushroom omelets, etc. I discovered that making my bed every morning gave me a lot of self-satisfaction. The task was easy. That is until the baby started screaming or the oven timer went off or my friend who just got engaged called. I tried to focus, reminding myself that order equals peace. And when life became chaotic, I would look around to see which routine was being neglected.

I am much calmer these days. Sure, I got more cleaning help. It was inevitable. Nobody changes overnight. But I also developed productive routines and finally began to understand more clearly how to make my home run more smoothly (even with the distractions). Now, when I stumble around blindly at 2am to nurse my daughter, I don’t stomp on a tower of legos left standing from the afternoon. I am able to navigate life on a safer and sturdier course.

Tara Eliwatt has an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. She is the founder and former Director of the Clifton YM-YWHA’s Camp Oh! Manuyot, an all girls’ camp for the Fine and Performing Arts. She currently resides with her family in Passaic, New Jersey.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.