It’s about 10 p.m. when I hear my four-year-old crying from her bedroom.
Something’s wrong; she’s only been in bed a couple hours. I race down the hall, push open her door, and in the dimness of her nightlight, I can see her standing in the middle of the room with vomit on her chin and down the front of her plaid flannel nightgown. That awful, sour smell has already filled the bedroom.
She cries out and passes a massive amount of gas, and diarrhea drips down her legs. I grab her under the armpits and carry her to the bathroom, leaving a trail of sick on the carpet.
As I strip her clothes and get her on the toilet, and she’s naked, terrified, and cold, my anxiety is already shouting “SHE’S DYING. SHE NEEDS TO GO TO THE ER. IT COULD BE SALMONELLA.”
I’m yelling at my husband to get her something to drink, imagining that every last bit of fluid has just been expelled from her little body. He says “okay” and rushes down the hall to clean up after us, to change the sheets on her bed, to get the carpet cleaner. He’s doing everything he can except getting the juice.
We’re running out of time. She’s dehydrated. We’ll have to call an ambulance.
Skip forward about a week. I’m lying in the guest bed with my sleeping two-year-old, my hand resting on her tiny chest, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. Her chest is warm – she’s had a fever for three days now, and while her breathing feels normal to the touch, it sounds awful: loud and raspy. She gasps and coughs herself awake and then fusses for ten minutes before going back to sleep.
She has the croup, and in a matter of three days, I’ve talked to the triage nurse twice, gone to the after-hours doctor, and texted every nurse I know.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I developed pneumonia and was in and out of the hospital and out of work for six weeks. Already an anxious person, I’m now convinced that sickness is a serious trigger for my anxiety.
In the course of two weeks, three viruses passed through our home, and in the midst of it, I felt uptight, but I did what I needed to do. I took the doctor’s and nurses’ advice. I forced fluids. I checked for signs of dehydration. I took my two-year-old outside to breathe the cold air when her coughing got bad; I listened for stridor. I was a machine.
It wasn’t until after they’d recovered that I realized the toll it had taken on me. I had lost six pounds. One day, the girls were with their grandma, and as I was backing out of the driveway, I felt the tires go over a bump. Even after looking behind me, I was convinced I’d run over one of my children. I had a panic attack, which felt completely random and left me so exhausted that I laid in bed for several hours after.
My anxiety had nowhere to aim anymore, so it swallowed everything.
“Is your child acting like herself?”
“Listen to your instincts.”
“You know your child best.”
I hate when nurses or well-meaning relatives ask open-ended questions or tell me to listen to my instincts because most of my days are spent fighting my “instincts.” I can’t tell the difference between my instincts and my anxiety. My “mother’s instinct” is a two-faced lying bitch.
In both cases, my kids were fine. My four-year-old had some cramps and sleeplessness, but after a day of recovery, she went back to school. The doctor told me my two-year-old actually had a milder form of croup because she’s a big girl, and her airways are larger now.
I understand why people offer this advice. For a less anxious person, maybe it’s good advice.
But, I’m sorry; I just can’t listen to you. Please don’t ask me to heed some magical instincts I now possess because I’m a parent. If you do, I’ll try my best not to hear you.
I will listen to actual medical advice. Things like, listen for stridor. Come in after three days of fever. Count how often she urinates. And I will do those things very, very well.
And, with flu season just around the corner, I know that for my own physical and mental health, I need to stay self-aware and realize when my anxiety around sickness gets the better of me.