It’s been just two years since Jeannie Gaffigan (writer, director, producer, and wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan) was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a pear. In the spring of 2017, she underwent surgery and endured complications thereafter, ultimately rendered unable to swallow anything at all for six months.
Her physical recovery made way for a spiritual renewal that she shares with honesty, humor, and grace in her new book, When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People, which is out this week. We’re delighted to share an interview with Gaffigan on the good that came of her experience and her tips on how we can strengthen our marriages and families when tragedy strikes.
In the book, we see a tremendous example of sacrifice within marriage, both in Jim’s caring for you and your family and in your letting go of the desire for control and accepting being cared for. What tips would you offer married couples navigating scary circumstances?
While I was recovering, I didn’t think of letting go of my desire for control as a sacrifice, because I was forced to let go by the circumstances. Before the tumor, I was very conscious of putting my family first. I sighed my way through putting aside my own creative projects for years to act as Jim’s right-hand man and produce his comedy. At the time, I perceived to this to be a “sacrifice,” but rationalized, “Well, this is the life of a mother.”
It wasn’t until I got sick that I realized these weren’t sacrifices for my husband and family, but things that serviced a part of myself that desired to be needed. During my recovery, I saw Jim making actual sacrifices for our marriage and family. The youngest of six children, Jim didn’t really inherit the “caregiving gene.” But he sacrificed his own comfort and his business to take care of us.
My advice for married couples is not to wait until tragedy strikes to see and hear each other. Work on developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of who your partner is and why you are together in ordinary times. Imagine what it would be like if you had to switch roles. Express gratitude and love on a daily basis. Learn to navigate the normal circumstances as a team before the scary circumstances happen. Because they probably will.
How have you seen the fruits of these sacrifices in your marriage and in your relationship with your kids?
The fruits are abundant! Jim has a deeper understanding of what it takes to run a busy household, and therefore has a newfound love and respect for me. His relationship with the kids is closer. They have a tight bond that only a group that has been through something difficult and painful, yet survived and thrived can have. Our family was always close, but now we are inseparable. There is always a rainbow at the end of the storm.
Letting go of micromanaging my kids during my recovery gave them a greater sense of independence. Being “less managed” allowed them to try, and sometimes fail, to do things on their own. Before, if my 10-year-old wanted a playdate with a friend, I was quick to make all the arrangements myself. Now, I show her how to check the calendar to see if she has any other appointments or obligations, then I have her write the email, asking politely for a playdate, and send it by herself. It’s win/win for everyone— less work for me, and they are happier and feel more accomplished.
You were concerned that you couldn’t be there for your kids during your recovery. What advice would you give a mom who can’t give herself to her children as fully as she’d like to, due to a difficult pregnancy, grieving a miscarriage, or other physically and emotionally taxing struggles?
Go easier on yourself! It’s not the quantity of time you spend with your kids, but the quality. Find a way to create those more meaningful interactions. Invite the kids into your room and ask them to tell you about their day or tell you a story. Touch their hand lovingly. Those little moments are what they will remember.
Don’t be afraid to ask others for help. If you had a friend in need, you wouldn’t hesitate to take some of the burden off of her. Your instinct would probably be to offer to bring food, take a kid/s off her hands, clean her house, or bring over groceries. Don’t be too prideful or embarrassed to accept help when you need it.
Something I continue to struggle with in times of normalcy is not to over-schedule myself. Learn the power of “no.” Change your “to do” list into a “must do” list. Sometimes we take things on thinking that we are helping someone out, but we are actually hurting ourselves by over-extending.
Pray for discernment about where you are really needed. Leave some time in your day to “do nothing.” You will find those “times of nothing” quickly fill up with meaningful activities and leave space to help others when they really, truly need us, so you can be more present for them. Living our lives in a compassionate, generous way is only possible if we leave room.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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