I don’t know how mothers of more than one child do it. Every time my daughter comes down with something, I also begin to show symptoms. If she has a sore throat, my throat feels scratchy. When her head is hot, I have no need for a sweater. When her first grade class sent home a lice alert, my scalp itched. Inevitably, simultaneously with the sympathetic symptoms comes the trusty armor of guilt. There is that nagging feeling that as her mother, I somehow bear the responsibility for each attack on her wellness.
I wish I could say that it hasn’t always been this way, but that would be little more than wishful thinking. My daughter is my second-born. My first-born died twelve days after birth from a genetic heart defect, so the questioning and wondering isn’t purely without basis. Living through my daughter’s first year of infancy was terrifying, yet I was blessed with a happy and healthy baby. When I finally went back to work full-time she was just shy of her first birthday. Every mother remembers that difficult transition and on this first full day back, she was uncharacteristically fussy and I was late for work. Halfway to the day care center, as I drove across the floating bridge in rush hour traffic, the fussiness turned into a mother’s nightmare. As my eyes darted to the rear view mirror, I caught her eye just as the projectile vomiting began. Just for the record, driving across a floating bridge during rush hour traffic with a vomiting child is about as hopeless as a mother can feel. No stopping is allowed and with no shoulder to pull over on, I had to suffer the stop and go traffic until I could reach the first exit. Somehow as I cleaned my daughter up and attempted to salvage the child seat, I convinced myself that she was simply car sick. I took her to day care and prayed I was right. I went to our staff retreat feeling nauseous and guilty. Within minutes, I received the phone call that all mother’s dread: You need to come and pick your daughter up because she is sick. In this case, she was running a fever and they were almost certain that the blemish on the small of her back was the tell-tale sign of chicken pox. How could I have missed the signs? For the next 10 days, she broke out into a full-blown case of chicken pox. I tried to glove her hands so she wouldn’t scratch; all the while my entire body itched. I gave her Benadryl and she went 24 hours without sleeping. I tried to keep pace as I lay comatose on the floor afraid that I would doze off and she would go tumbling down the stairs. She eventually recovered and I eventually returned to work.
Fifteen years later, we’ve made it through almost all the childhood illnesses, and even though I still get the symptoms, I now have a better sense of what is unavoidable and what I can do to facilitate the recovery process. I think I’m like most parents, when our kids get sick our immune system goes into over drive mode. We literally keep each virus at bay long enough to nurse our child back to health, but once we let our guard down, look out. I’m now a parent of a teenager and what has emerged is a new worry: How will I live through a broken heart, a false promise, or eventual infidelity? It was hard enough when I was her age. I can’t imagine how I’ll transform my trusty armor of guilt into a trusty armor of Teflon. I may not be able to protect her from the inevitable heartache, but I can at least keep my own feelings at bay long enough to be on call for 24 hours (Benadryl or not), be the clean-up crew (backseat vomit or not), and facilitate the recovery process, however long it may take. And in the meantime, I will pray for a vaccine.