Children are little virus sponges wandering around licking toys and other filthy objects. They don’t always wash their hands, and they don’t always wipe their butts, and sometimes they pee their pants. Not to state the obvious — anyone with kids knows this — but I do want to point out that kids are the most unclean things I’ve ever lived with. So it wasn’t surprising when my 8-year-old son came home with a cold, and a day later the illness had spread.
The whole family was feverish and cranky, and the house smelled like cold medicine and dirty dishes. Three unwashed and unfolded baskets of laundry from before the illness sat in the living room like artifacts representing the time before boogers ran along our faces and we only spoke in snorts and coughs. After the sickness spread, my wife Mel and I just stopped giving a damn about the house. Toys were everywhere, along with kids’ clothing and random wads of tissue. The beds weren’t made, and the floor was littered with toys and food crumbs. Anything outside of sleeping sounded like hell.
My 6-year-old daughter spent her time wrapped up in a blanket on the floor. My son refused to use a tissue, so there were lines of boogers up and down his shirt sleeve, but I was too sick to fight him. However, the rational side of me knew that I’d eventually be cleaning boogers off everything from his sheets to the sofa.
Our baby went from a sweet, lovable little person to a slimy troll-like creature with a trail of green boogers running down her face. She screamed every couple minutes, which made me feel like I took an ax blow to the head. And yet, when I looked at her weeping right eye and the way her chubby arms helplessly gripped Mel’s shirt, I couldn’t help but feel horrible for her.
But ultimately, this is what it looks like when the whole family is sick. It’s everyone for themselves. It means cursing and griping and wondering how you are all going to survive. You want to just sit and do nothing, but the kids expect more attention than usual, so you wipe their faces and make them soup, but you do it grudgingly, the whole time cursing God, or whomever, for placing this plague upon your home.
Once we finally got the kids to sleep, Mel and I went straight to bed.
I’d been a parent long enough to know that all three kids were going to be waking up every few minutes asking me to fix things I couldn’t. This is the worst part about the whole family being sick. The parents have to suck it up even when they really don’t want to. But you can’t blame the kids for this misfortune, so you often end up blaming your spouse, wondering why they aren’t taking pity on you and getting up in the night. Or you assume that someone isn’t pulling their weight, because if they were, you wouldn’t be suffering so much. When the reality is, you are probably both pulling your weight equally, you’re just sick and tired and not thinking properly, and you ultimately end up in a crazy, ranty, nonsensical, virus-fueled, fight at 4 a.m.
If Mel and I got through night without divorcing, it’d be a miracle.
In the past, we have split the night. One of us takes all the kids until around 2 a.m. and the other takes the rest of the night. Or sometimes we split the kids. Mel might take the baby because she had the milk, while I took care of our other two children’s needs. But we went to bed without really drawing out a concrete plan of attack, which was a huge mistake.
The baby woke up first. Mel tried to feed her, but she couldn’t suck milk and breathe at the same time, so she screamed. This woke up our daughter, who cried out, “I have boogers!” as if it was something we didn’t know.
I got up and tried to get her to blow her nose. But she was too sick and only half awake to figure it out, so she started screaming, which woke up her brother and agitated her baby sister. Our son did little more than moan in his bed and ask for a popsicle. I was tired and sick, so I gave it to him, fully aware that I’d find it melted in his bed, but I just didn’t care anymore.
As all three kids cried, I thought about climbing in our van, driving to the woods, and sleeping beneath a pine tree.
Around 1 a.m. I managed to get our older two kids to sleep. The next few hours consisted of light dozing, a baby crying in the background, and coughing. Mel woke me around 3 a.m. to let me know that the baby had been up the whole time. I couldn’t see her face because it was dark, but I could feel her eyes. I don’t want to speak for her, but I’m 90% sure she wanted to kill me because I’d been sleeping.
For the next two hours, I sat up with the baby watching Baby Einstein: Lullaby Time on repeat. The video was about 30 minutes long and consisted of soft classical music by Johannes Brahms, repetitive hypnotic images, and puppets. I’m not sure if it was the cold medicine or the lack of sleep, but around 4 a.m. a plotless random movie intended to put babies to sleep started making sense. Suddenly I felt like I was on an acid trip.
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it. The train moves in a circle.”
The baby fell asleep in my arms around 4:30. I placed her in the crib, and about 10 minutes later she cried again. I think it was then that Mel and I went from exhaustion to madness. We started to fight about why the baby woke.
“You didn’t swaddle her!” Mel said. “She has to be swaddled.”
“She wasn’t swaddled when you handed her to me, and I couldn’t find the stupid swaddle blanket,” I said.
We went back and forth, talking about binkies and blankets and everything that probably went wrong that kept the baby from sleeping. Sure, the real problem was that she was sick and couldn’t breathe, but we weren’t awake or well enough to be logical. Instead, we just argued.
Eventually Mel took the baby, swaddled her, fed her a bit more, and placed her in our bed. I climbed in bed with our son because he’d started crying again. Somehow I managed to avoid the melted popsicle.
We all slept.
By morning Mel and I were tired, but no longer aggravated, and ready to talk rationally. We laughed a little. I can’t think of many things more stressful than being sick yourself, and then up in the night with three sick kids. It’s a maddening, crazy time. But I’m always surprised by how quick Mel and I are to anger in the night and how equally we are willing to forgive each other the next morning.
“I’m sorry for getting so mad in the night,” Mel said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
Then, together, we grudgingly made the kids more soup.