The weirdly comforting anxiety of kiddo sick days

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This is the winter of our discontent – or at least record low productivity.

Why? Because an endless series of inter-family illnesses and snow days have made my transition back to free-lancing way, WAY rockier than it might otherwise be. For when you’re the parent working from home, it only makes sense that you assume duties when one of your kids gets sick or has nowhere to go – even though figuring out how to get your assignments done becomes exponentially trickier then. And for many (mostly obvious) reasons, winter is a notorious season for repeatedly disrupting family routine.

For example, a few nights after we took 4 year old Neve to the ER with a croup-y cough – she’d had increasing difficulty sleeping the previous 2 nights – she woke up wailing about ear pain, so I toted her right back to the nearest hospital. (No ear infection, just pressure from the congestion, resolved with Benadryl.) Though she didn’t have a fever, and I had a deadline for two longer-form free-lance stories looming ever closer, I kept her home the next day to let her rest – which, of course, she didn’t do. At all. Instead, the two of us put together every puzzle in the house, played five different games, read a stack of books, and watched a few episodes of “Dinosaur Train” before I pronounced her more than fit to attend her gymnastics class. (Did I have a good time with my charming, spunky kid? Yes, and she happily ate up the one-on-one time with me. Did I also simultaneously get stressed out about the multi-source story I was behind on and struggling with? YES.)

Two days later, Lily’s school closed for a snow day, and because she’s nearly 8, she’s less and less content to hang at Neve’s preschool on such occasions. Which I get. But I had a morning class and business lunch scheduled, so I made a deal with her to pick her (and Neve) up much earlier than I normally would, bring them home, and we’d watch a movie together. I was as good as my word – and I made zero progress on my assignments.

Lily then developed a fever, so I kept her home from school and gave her Children’s Tylenol – which perked her right up, of course, and made it what I call a “sort of sick day.” Though Joe had told Lily that I was going to need to spend part of the day on work, she begged me watch “Odd Squad” with her, and to read the entire “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book that had just arrived for us at the library. She’d recently arrived at the point where she can hole up somewhere with a book like that and read it on her own, but she also knows I’m a sucker for reading WITH her. So chalk up another enjoyable, but exhausting and professionally unproductive, day on the board for me.

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A card Lily made for me on the day of my layoff.

The next week, we fared better, though I had to go through the long, painful process of getting a crown at my dentist’s office, following my first-ever root canal (which was a shockingly quick and relatively easy procedure, despite all the hype). My dentist said, “It’s rare – well, it’s not like it never happens, but it’s unusual that a tooth just dies like that, unless there’s been some kind of trauma.” I said, “So the stress of my layoff may have caused all this?” “It could have acted as a catalyst, yeah,” he said. Awesome.

And near the end of this past weekend, Neve – after happily playing all day and being her chirpy little self – vomited in the living room. (’Tis the season.) I did some surface level puke clean-up while Joe tried to comfort Neve in the bathroom, then we switched duties so I could help her change into her favorite fleecy monkey pajamas.

Then, as 4 year olds sometimes do after retching, Neve announced she was hungry, drank a little water and ate a bit of bread, seemed her bouncy little self, and urged us all to play Twister. Because her (sweetly concerned) big sister had offered to read a picture book to us all, the four of us gathered on the living room couch, with Neve was sitting on my lap, and I suddenly had the sense that a little volcano was upon me. Sure enough, when Lily was only a few pages into the book, Neve vomited again, and I gripped her arms to airlift her to the bathroom as quickly as possible, then proceeded to hold back her hair, kiss her head, and say, “Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry. I know it’s yucky. We’re going to take care of you as best we can.”

Shaky and pale and gulping in the aftermath, she said, “Can you get me medicine?”

I increased my rate of hair petting. “I wish I could, but there’s not really anything I can give you for this. You kind of just have to rest and let it work it’s way out of your system.”

“I want to take medicine!” she wailed.

This made my heart hurt. “Sweetie, if there was something I could give to you to help, I would do it. Believe me.”

She rinsed out her mouth, changed into her (second-favorite) panda jammies, and curled up with me in our home’s front room, which didn’t yet reek of vomit. Hunching over her, my mind raced with all the usual thoughts: I hate feeling so helpless. Throwing up freaks me out. Could it have been something she ate? What did she eat today? That one time Lily had a stomach bug, she couldn’t keep anything down for 3 days, and taking care of her and worrying nearly broke me. Is this going to be like that? Are we going to be up all night tonight? Will we all get hit with this bug? Are the kids she played with earlier going to get this? Oh, God, after I cleaned up the vomit, I wiped my nose without thinking – am I already doomed?

Neve fell asleep lying against me, and I carried her up to her bed. She woke enough to ask me to stay with my arm over her body until she fell back to sleep.

When she seemed to be resting comfortably, I left the room, grabbed my laptop, and climbed into my own bed, remembering I had a concert review I needed to write and turn in by 10 a.m. Since Neve would obviously be home with me then, I knew I had to get it done while she slept. I just wanted her to be able to get some rest and recover, but I also felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, in terms of waiting to see who would succumb next.

“What an awful year it’s been so far,” I thought. “When will things get better?”

On a recent evening, Joe came home from work and said, “How was your day?” and I said, “Until I get work, I feel like the answer’s never, ever going to be ‘good’ again.” And right now, it really feels that way. Which is why, before getting started on my review that night, I broke down crying.

Joe tried to comfort me, assuring me that Neve would be fine, we’d all be fine, but I just wanted the universe to give us all a break from illness, from pain, from worry. Pragmatism soon trumped self pity, though, so I punched out my concert review, turned off my lamp, and pulled the covers up around me.

Neve did get up once during the night to pee, and after washing her hands, she asked, “Can I have some water?” Fearing the worst, and remembering what happened hours earlier, I said, “Well, how about you swish some water in your mouth and spit most of it out, and just swallow a little?” Neve, at this moment, seemed to remember, too, and said, “No, I changed my mind. I don’t want water.”

After leading her back to bed, I laid myself next to her again until she slept.

There’s so little we can do in these situations, so you do the little things you can.

She woke up early – 5:45 – and Joe took her downstairs to watch “Dinosaur Train” episodes while I went back to bed. By 7:30, Neve was asleep again on the couch, and Joe woke me and Lily, saying he didn’t have meetings scheduled, so he could stay at home and share sick day duties – specifically, so I could keep my previously postponed (because of another kiddo sick day) business lunch date.

So that’s what we did. I accompanied Lily to her bus stop; and Joe and I ate breakfast and worked while Neve slept; when she awoke, I snuggled next to her to watch “Barbie: Spy Squad” (per her special request); Joe read books to her while I walked to CVS to buy a box of plain Cheerios and Pedialyte pops; she hungrily drank the small amounts of water and Cheerios we gave her, though we kept urging her to take it slowly; and I left for my lunch, relieved and comforted by the evident upswing in my daughter’s mood and health.

When I returned, I took over Neve duties, and she played (and unabashedly cheated at) Jenga and Chutes and Ladders with me, then put together a large floor puzzle of the Milky Way.

“This is Mercury,” she said, holding up a piece, though she can’t yet read.

“What? How do you know that, sweetie?” I asked, stunned.

She launched into a long, rambling explanation about watching The Magic School Bus at preschool, and learning that Mercury was the planet closest to the sun.

Given how often Neve seems to not hear a word we say, my jaw dropped in wonder. Huh? Was she absorbing far, far more of the world around her than I ever realized?

Clearly, the answer was “yes,” and as worried and nervous as I get when the kids are sick, I began to feel strangely, surprisingly buoyed by my child’s day of convalescence.

Not just because I got to experience this endearing, unexpected moment of clarity, when I suddenly felt a little closer to my 4 year old, but also because this 24 hour period demonstrated to me that all 4 members of my little family do what needs to be done to support each other, even when that’s hard to do.

Though vomiting freaks me out, and I shudder at the thought of catching a nasty stomach bug, I repeatedly cuddled Neve close to me, soothing her to sleep.

Though Lily was also scared by Neve’s illness, she offered to read a book to us all, bravely trying to do something for her little sister when there was precious little any of us could do. (And the next morning, she got up, ate breakfast, and left with me for her bus stop, going to school without fuss or questions beyond, “How’s Neve?”)

Though Joe had planned to go running near the time Neve got sick, and struggles to make time to go each week, he let his plans go, helped clean up, and read books with Lily to soothe her anxieties. And the next day, though Joe’s been utterly swamped at work lately (and I’m obviously out of work), he stayed home to co-parent so I could keep my business lunch date.

Joe’s decision quietly conveyed that my work, my abilities, and my sense of self-worth matter – a message that’s damned hard to come by when you’re unemployed. And I was so grateful to him for it.

Even Neve, who’d slept through her beloved gymnastics class that afternoon, accepted the news without tears, climbed up on my lap, and read stories with me until Lily’s class wrapped up.

They say that how you get past the toughest, darkest times of your life defines you, but it’s also true that those times put a spotlight on your human safety net.

After Neve fell ill, she had the chance to see that her family would stay with her, and comfort her, and take care of her until she recovered, no matter what.

The same is true for me in regard to my layoff. Though I lose more hope with each passing day – I deeply love arts journalism, but there seems to be no place for me in that world anymore – I’m nonetheless moved by the fact that the family I’ve worked so hard to create with Joe still believes in me and is rooting for me.

The day I was laid off, Lily made a multi-page card for me, and it read, “Mom, I’m sorry you lost your job. I love you so so much. … I loved your job. It was great. It was cool. It was amazing. And you deserved it. … And don’t forget you are perfect just the way you are.”

sallyThis message of love is hard to remember on most days lately. I have yet to land a job interview; no one’s expressed interest in me beyond low-paying free-lancing work; and job listings (and new hires) posted by the very company that let me go have made me feel like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” when she learns an ex-boyfriend has gotten engaged and she says, “All this time, I’ve been saying that he didn’t want to get married, but the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me. He didn’t love me.”

I could have been shifted to another beat, as many of my co-workers were, or tried to fill a newly created position. But they apparently didn’t “love” me, either.

So lately I feel hurt and dejected; I’m struggling to figure out who I am without the work I poured my soul into for 12 years; and I feel forgotten and isolated.

But when my family reflexively circles the wagons like we recently did for Neve, I can see a little more clearly what I didn’t lose.

And while this doesn’t, by itself, make everything better, it’s at least something to hold on to.

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