The first time it happened was a few days after Christmas. I had fed my 9-month-old son tofu for the first time, at an Asian restaurant. When we got home, he went down for a nap, and about an hour later I heard him screaming and gagging. He proceeded to vomit himself into severe dehydration. The doctor said it must’ve been a flu going around.
Then it happened about six weeks later when he tried the tofu again. This time, we ended up in the ER for IVs and supervision. My adorable, half-Korean son was allergic to soy of all things. The guilt I felt for feeding it to him and causing such a violent reaction was monumental. It was heart-wrenching to watch him suffer through these episodes at such a young age, but this was only the beginning.
I’ve heard moms say their kid didn’t get sick at all until they were 2 years old, or they had one cold their entire first year of life. Wait, what?! This was definitely not our experience. My son’s food allergy may have had something to do with my son’s general sickliness, but probably not. All I know is that my kid has been through the ringer with germs.
Maybe I’m biased, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s not an especially disgusting, dirt-eating, floor-tasting child. Sure, he touches the toilet seat once in a while and has occasionally licked the cart at Target, but I really don’t think he’s all that different than your average, nose-picking toddler.
As he neared his second birthday, he began getting sick much more often than all the other toddlers we knew. In just 6 months (all six of those while I was pregnant with our second child), he had pneumonia, a UTI, hand, foot, and mouth disease, countless colds, and at least two bouts of the stomach flu. It seemed like he was always lying on the floor or couch, watching TV, and moaning and groaning.
I hated seeing him like this, especially after we had spent the first 18 months of his life figuring out his allergies, and realizing (sometimes the hard way) that soy was hiding in almost everything that came in a box, can, or package.
I started to feel super guilty, like I was to blame for his poor health. We lived in a congested, urban part of Los Angeles—maybe it was the air quality, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t washing his hands enough, and maybe he wasn’t eating healthy enough. Maybe I should be using essential oils, or eliminate all grain from his diet, or feed him more “phytonutrients.”
I endured comments from friends and family about how my kids (I now had a second little snot-faucet onboard) were “always sick” and how it seemed like we were constantly fighting off something. People suggested all kinds of things from vitamins and supplements, to better cart-sanitizing methods at the grocery store (geez, it’s not like they were tasting every inch of those damn things!). Some friends suggested that my house might be too clean after I posted on Facebook about our seemingly constant illness. Right, guys, that totally had to be it.
I Googled endlessly, searching for answers. I bought all kinds of weird, overpriced, “immunity” products at Whole Foods. I forced my kids to eat and drink some pretty nasty concoctions in hopes of finding a miracle. For a while, it seemed like some of it worked. But then there was another cold, another fever, another bout of diarrhea, etc.
I asked his pediatrician for guidance a few times. “Just tell me what I’m doing wrong. Tell me how to help him,” I begged at one of our dozens of appointments. He suggested I stop taking him to any function with other kids. Was he serious? There had to be something deeper, something else making him sick—not just germs from other toddlers! If I could just figure it out, I knew I could restore my precious boy to good health. But alas, he assured me there wasn’t anything truly wrong with him, and that being sick was just a normal part of childhood.
Finally, I faced the lie that I was a bad mom if I couldn’t protect my son from these insidious germs. It had been eating away at me, day after day, tissue after tissue. I would see other moms and wonder how often their kids got sick, and how often they washed their hands or wiped down their car seats. I questioned everything about my mothering abilities until I got to to the heart of it.
I loved my son, I fed him reasonably healthy meals, and he even ingested vegetables from time to time. We played outside daily and enjoyed regular social interaction. Sure, I could’ve cut down a bit on our screen time, and we did allow him sugar sometimes after dinner, but he wasn’t overdosing on either. The truth was, I really, truly was not causing him to be sick. His doctor was right—maybe if I wanted to live in a bubble inside our home, maybe then we could avoid the germs.
I didn’t need to go on living with the guilt. And if your little ones are also germ-balls, you don’t either. So take heart, fellow mamas of sickies, unless you’re feeding them foamy, green mud from the local water treatment center, you likely are not making them sick. Kids just get sick.
Could some of our kiddos get more sleep and ingest less sugar? I’m sure. Could some of us be more diligent with antibacterial wipes? Maybe. But most of us are doing our absolute best, and if we could find a way to keep our children healthy 24/7, we would.
So, next time your kids come down with something mild like a cold or cough, or something especially gnarly like the 72-hour stomach flu that we just recovered from (ugh!), don’t blame yourself. Dose them up with Tylenol or Thieves oil (or whatever works in your house), fill up that humidifier, and hold them close. Remind yourself that being there for your poor baby and assuring them that you’ll take care of them (even if it means getting vomit on your pajamas or snot in your eyebrows) is what makes you a good mommy, not whether or not they got sick in the first place.
Next time the demon-microbes invade our house, I’ll be prepared. Instead of wondering if I’ve used enough Lysol (or perhaps used too much?!) or given the right mixture of probiotics and elderberry syrup, I’m going to choose to be thankful for my little disease-mongers and focus on getting them better, with no guilt attached.
And all arrogance aside, I’ll remember the good things I’ve done with them—the stories we’ve read together, the Bieber-themed dance parties, the kind words, the bedtime snuggles, and the goodnight kisses. Because these are the things that remind me that just because my kids are sick doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom, and neither, my friend, are you.