This past month included a week that ranks among our hardest ever as a family: all three kids down with a severe stomach flu within a day or so of one another. Just a few days prior, we had all finally recovered from a more minor 3-day version that hit each of us in turn. Then some nasty opportunistic bug attacked. Caring for three small sickies at once is just ridiculous. Triple sickness should not be allowed; isn’t that in the official rule book somewhere? First there is the sheer hard work: all the stripping of beds and clothing and all the scrubbing of floors and bathtubs and the constant loads of laundry. Next there is the mental and physical raggedness of interrupted sleep. Some nights I was lucky to get 20 minutes of silence in a three hour period. Dr. G. and I took shifts on the night watch, but often we had to recruit the other parent because the mess or the number of children awake was so extreme. As the week wore on, we each got better at handling nighttime emergencies on our own, which I guess is a victory of sorts. And Dr. G. adjusted his work schedule so I could have some time to rest each morning before facing the long hours once again on my own.
Abi had it the worst. She was vomiting at least hourly for almost three days, unable to keep down more than a few sips of water at a time, so listless she didn’t move from the couch for most of that time and just drifted in and out of sleep. She wanted me to be the one to hold her every time she threw up. Finally we got some anti-nausea meds from the doctor to get her through the final few days so her sweet emaciated self could keep some food down. She also invented a few pretty cool activities for sick kids as she began to perk up– twisting aluminum foil into sculptures once, and another time asking me to gather interesting things from around the yard in a jar for her to look at and play with.
The hardest part, though, was the emotional toll. One minute my heart would break for Ronan weeping through a painful session of vomiting or Abi asking for a piece of bread and then just staring at it tearfully. The next minute I would look at all my miserable children and mentally beg them to JUST STOP. Stop trying to climb up my legs while simultaneously trying to press down on your brother’s head to keep him from succeeding at the same task. Stop leaking explosive diarrhea out the legs of your shorts while I am filling your sippy cups with yet another flavor of fake Pedialyte. Stop crying at the same time. Stop chanting “I need you, I need you, I need you,” in that weak, piteous little voice, Callum. Oh, now my heart is broken again. Yes, I will pick you up.
Which brings me to the guilt. My standard of care for sick children was set by Abi. Whenever she got sick as a baby and toddler, I would hold her pretty much the entire time she was awake. That was what she wanted, and what better thing did I have to do? When her brothers came along that was no longer possible for her or any of them, but in general, my M.O. is to give the neediest child the most attention. The sick child gets picked up the oftenest, and the other two are able to go with it. And while I sometimes struggle with feelings of inadequacy about that, it is NOTHING compared to staring at three wan, tear-streaked faces at once– each with that desperate look that conveys feeling shaky and nauseous and crampy and clammy and wanting Mommy to cuddle and cuddle and cuddle–knowing you can give none of them as much comfort as they desire. Once in a while I resorted to setting the timer to designate when it would be the next child’s turn to be walked around in my arms.
And then there was one night when I was only awakened once; and a day with no leaky diapers and the children suddenly putting their food into their mouths instead of their pockets or the creases in their chairs; and the craziness of newly energetic kids who have been in the house far too long; and it was over. Relief, relief, relief. Callum immediately went back to working on being funny (like trying to climb out of the bathtub on the wall side– “Bye bye, mommy!” “Where are you going?” “Preschool!”) and Ronan learned how to say “mechanic” with perfect clarity and got busy “repairing” everything in the house; and Abi became obsessed with doing science experiments in the freezer (at the moment there is some plastic Easter grass in there because… well, who knows what the point is. But it is in there). There were no hard feelings, and life was no longer miserably messy but beautifully messy, just the way we like it.