As I type this, I’m sitting on the floor of my bedroom, glancing up every so often to see if my gently snoring four-year-old is stirring. Normally Lily is a peaceful sleeper, but she’s been battling a nasty cough for the past few days. This morning, she woke up with a new symptom. “My tummy really hurts,” she whispered, tears in her eyes, before drifting back to sleep. Though the dreaded stomach bug has been the hot topic of conversation at school and in playgroups lately, I’m hoping my daughter can still escape it. Maybe she just needs extra rest…
I’ve been dreaming of spring a lot lately. At this point, I think everyone in our family is just ready to be done with winter. The brittle, gray-tinted snow banks, the chilly mornings at the bus stop, the tired parental refrain, “No, we can’t play outside because it’s too cold today.” But most of all, we’re ready to bid farewell to colds, hacking coughs, fevers and upset tummies.
Whenever my kids get sick, I think I deal with it fairly well at first. I know it’s a rite of passage, a necessary part of growing up and developing an immune system. When my oldest child was a baby, I was so terrified of exposing her to any illnesses that we didn’t take our first walk out of the house until she was almost a month old. Since then, I’ve worked hard to make peace with the germs in my life, realizing that many are friendly and beneficial. We have become avid consumers in the world of probiotics, or “tummy yummies,” as my daughters call them. I’ve learned not to cringe (or at least to look away) when my kids refuse the toilet seat cover in a public bathroom, and I no longer bother wiping down the grocery cart before we do our shopping.
As I’ve become more comfortable in my role as a mom, I’ve developed an awareness of the fact that it’s not possible, nor is it necessary, for me to sanitize the whole world to keep my children healthy. With this enlightened attitude, you’d think I could weather cold and flu season with the patience and compassion of Florence Nightingale, serving up Kleenex, soothing honey tea, and comforting words to my little patients. After all, as my mom always used to say, “This too shall pass!”
But somehow, after a day or so of playing nurse to my sick, cranky and stir-crazy children (who still manage to quarrel with impressive energy and vigor), I generally start to lose it. When this happens, I start to feel like I’m living back in what my husband and I now refer to as “The Dark Time.” We coined this phrase to describe the perilous stretch of months when I became very ill during my pregnancy with Lily, a time when normal life seemed impossible.
I got to experience my own miniature Dark Time last month, when Kevin flew to Dallas for a conference (which, I might note, had an on-site Starbucks – what, me, jealous!?), while I flew solo at home with the kids. On my husband’s first evening away, a freezing Wednesday in February, Lily went to bed with a cough and soon developed a fever; by the next day, her cough was so frequent that I actually looked forward to the occasional two-minute intervals when it would settle down. Steam showers, spoonfuls of honey and nasal irrigation did nothing, and our pediatrician’s office gave the usual generic advice: “It’s a virus, come in on Monday if it’s not better.”
By bedtime on Thursday, my nerves were shredded and I broke down and cried in front of my daughters, apologizing to my oldest child that I’d miss volunteering at her school in the morning, and texting my husband in nonsensical bursts of frustration. He felt terrible that he couldn’t help, and I just felt, well, terrible.
On Friday, my dad drove up from Chicago and stayed with us overnight. The kids always love visits from Grandpa, and it was a huge relief to have his help. Lily’s cough even seemed to be improving. With my husband scheduled to return on Saturday afternoon, I knew that the end was in sight.
But at breakfast on Saturday morning, Julia pushed her pancake away. “My tummy hurts,” she said, almost sheepishly. I waved it off as typical kindergartener behavior and finicky eating. Two hours later, I had to admit I was wrong, as I witnessed what little breakfast my daughter had consumed making its second appearance.
When Kevin pulled into the driveway several hours later, it probably wasn’t the ideal homecoming one would envision, but at least we worked efficiently as a team. He bleached the bathrooms and played nurse to Julia, while I quarantined myself with Lily and tried to keep her entertained. And even though we knew in the back of our minds that this was only temporary, the next few days felt strikingly similar to “The Dark Time.” It’s a time when all you can focus on is the next crisis. There is no joy in the daily routine anymore, only the endless soundtrack of whining, projectile pee on the bathroom floor (yes, that happened), and the scent of Lysol as it stings your nose. It’s the feeling of being stuck in a deep, muddy pit, too slippery to climb out, so dark that you know the surface must be miles and miles upward. The uncertainty is the worst part: you don’t know when this is going to end. And the bright, blissfully uneventful, non-sickly existence that you long for seems out of reach.
But I have to remember that the bad times don’t always last forever. Even the longest, most bone-chilling winters in Milwaukee still give way to spring. And even when you’re immersed in a crisis, there can be tiny windows of peace. During the week that my kids were both ill, I was so grateful that I could connect with other moms via text to just vent and commiserate. It helped enormously to realize we weren’t the only ones stuck inside battling the scourge of winter school germs. I was able to connect with my kids in different ways as well. When the girls felt energetic enough to do something other than zone out on Disney Jr., we played school in the kitchen and came up with a bug-themed craft, snack, and storytime.
Once my husband was home, even getting the chance to grocery shop on my own was therapeutic. How luxurious it was to have an adult conversation that did not revolve around who coughed during the night or the latest bathroom mishap! The cashier probably thought I was crazy as I blathered on to her about my family and the weather. I realized then that as much as I love my kids, I need to get out and reconnect with other adults on a daily basis, and even more so when things at home are stressful.
I hope I can make it through the next round of illnesses with a bit more grace. For now, I’m thankful that Lily seems to have fought off whatever was bothering her, and Julia is back to eating like a champ. Outside, the snow is melting, and the birds and bunnies are reclaiming their favorite spots in our yard. Spring is coming; it’s almost here.
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