Kids and illnesses go together like rubber gloves and Pap smears. Like razor blades and toe hairs. Like…well, any other two suck-ass partnerships. But when they spend their days with other snotty, drooly, non-hand-washing kids, the occasional sickness is inevitable.
I can handle the sore throats and barking coughs and fevers. Throw in a rash, and I’ll take it like a champ. But even though I consider myself a seasoned caregiver, it only takes one short sentence to throw me into complete and utter panic: “I think I’m gonna throw up.”
I dread a stomach virus the way most people dread, say, the apocalypse. It’s never a picnic for anyone, but when you have multiple kids — especially little ones, whose making-it-to-the-toilet skills are still questionable — it becomes any parent’s nightmare. They either fall prey to it one by one like dominoes, and then you’re dealing with it for a week solid, or they all get it at the same time, and you find yourself scrubbing a 2-foot path of one kid’s undigested macaroni out of the carpet while someone else is blowing up the toilet (at least, you hope they made it that far).
And you never know whom it’s going to strike next or what kind of heinous mess you’re going to have to clean up as a result, making you constantly edgy. Worst of all is the very real knowledge that its next victim could in fact be you, which would mean the worst-case scenario of dealing with someone else’s barf while holding back your own. Because it’s not like we get to take a sick day.
A household stomach virus epidemic is nothing short of traumatic, so it’s probably no coincidence that the stages of such an epidemic closely align with the five stages of grief.
Stage One: Denial
When it hits the first kid, my logical brain kicks in, trying hard to rationalize it away. “It was probably just something you ate,” I chirp breezily. “Sometimes our stomachs just don’t like what we feed them. Not to worry.”
My optimism is a little too forced, my smile a little too wide. I cling to that hope as long as I can, like someone who swears it’s “just a bit rainy” as a hurricane blows their house down. Maybe if I insist that it’s nothing with enough force, declare it with enough conviction, it might be true.
It’s nothing! Really! We’re fine. We’re all fine!
Stage Two: Anger
It’s when the kid hurls for the second time — or when diarrhea joins the shindig — that I can no longer deny there’s an issue. And that’s when I start getting pissed. As if I didn’t have enough to do already! Why now? All the work. All the laundry. All the misery. All the laundry. All the nights of sleeping with one eye open, poised to leap out of bed at the first gurgle or gag. All the laundry! All the marinating in germs and stressing over who it’ll hit next. All the Lysol-drenching, bleach-slinging scrubbing until my hands are raw. And all for what? So I can get sick myself? Dammit!
Stage Three: Bargaining
When the anger leaves me, I just feel drained thinking about what the next few days of my life are going to entail. My desire to do any of the aforementioned things is nonexistent. I mean, I’m not even a fan of laundry on a normal day. So I start tossing desperate pleas into the universe: Please just let it be confined to one kid. Please let it be quick. Please let this tub of Clorox wipes kill every single germ before they spread. I promise I’ll be a better person. I promise I’ll remember their multivitamins every day. I promise I’ll stop taking 15 items into the 12-items-or-less express checkout. I promise I’ll stop dropping f-bombs — after all this is all over, of course.
I start deep cleaning in earnest — a futile attempt to head off the virus. “Look!” I shout to the heavens. “I’m sanitizing these doorknobs! I’m scrubbing these baseboards! This should be enough to stave it off, right? Right?!”
Stage Four: Depression
Obviously the bargaining never works, so I glumly accept my fate. By now, more than one of my kids has gotten sick, and I’m up to my (unwashed) ponytail in barfy bedding. My hands feel like rooster feet from all the washing. I have callused knees from scrubbing excrement off the floors, and new stains in my carpet because sometimes even scrubbing doesn’t work. I have made several emergency runs for more paper towels, because kids can magically transform the 2 tablespoons of dinner they ate into gallons of vomit. I despondently spray disinfectant on everything, even though all hope of preventing the spread has faded away. I trudge, exhausted, through the never-ending mire of hair stroking, back rubbing, laundry, and Lysol. I feel sad watching my kids suffer. I sob while I peel off yet another pair of poopy pajamas and give yet another bath.
Stage Five: Acceptance
It seems like it will never come, but eventually there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The first victim is over it, and the last kid is finally feeling good enough to start whining. As always, though, the days of damage control and nights of broken sleep take their toll on me, and I feel the first yucky rumblings in my stomach. But since I’m long past the denial stage, I use my last hours of relative wellness to prepare as best I can, so things don’t go completely to shit while I’m camping out beside the toilet.
There’s no use trying to resist. I try to look on the bright side: I may feel like ass, but it means at least a few hours lying in bed. And hey, I might even lose a couple of pounds after a couple of days on the popsicle-and-Sprite diet. With no choice but to rest, I’ll regain some of my strength.
Because now that my kids are well enough to run amok while I’m in bed, I’m sure as hell gonna need it.