I love autumn in Iowa, and we start to feel hints of days to come in September. Often, our Labor Day holiday is sunny, breezy, and warm but not hot: the perfect harbinger for glorious fall days. For me, Labor Day weekend has mixed meanings: excitement about my favorite season, holidays and birthdays coming soon, and the start of a new school year. Those are obvious. It’s also a foreboding reminder of dark days: frigid winter nights, slick country roads, and the possibility for another winter as awful and exhausting as the winter of 2010-2011, the worst time (so far) in my young family’s life. That winter, Robin and Holly were sick with back to back to back illnesses quite literally every other week. Both suffered from chronic (but not critical) childhood ailments that exacerbated every mild cold into a minor crisis. It all began on Labor Day weekend two years ago.
I know this might not sound particularly fun to read, but I think its important for parents, specifically, and people in general to understand how chronic illness, even illnesses that are not particularly unusual or severe, can add up to a major life crisis for a family. My kids didn’t have cancer or pneumonia or something obvious: Holly suffered from ear infections, and Robin had a form of childhood asthma often called “viral induced asthma.” These are common and treatable. Yet that winter was the first domino to topple in a series of events/eventualities that led to quitting grad school, to desperate choices that dramatically redirected our lives. It’s had a longterm impact on my identity and acts as a mother. It wasn’t a bomb, but a series of small strikes that led up to near collapse. I wanted to share that story, because Labor Day just rolled through and there’s a nip in the air at night… I’m both excited, and terrified, for the season to come.
Two years ago, during Labor Day, we attended a wonderful picnic for homebirthing families in our area that would benefit a grassroots organization that I helped found and lead. We saw longtime friends, and Robin played naked in the mud for hours. She was a lithe toddler at the time, with a blond mullet that was practically white, and Holly was just six months old, a bald butterball.
Brian was sick that day with a vague stomach problem that I remember finding very annoying, because he left mid-picnic to go home and rest. That night, he was feeling a little better, but a few hours after we went to bed he woke me up and told me that Robin had barfed all over the bed.
I hate puke and puking, even after two pregnancies where it was a daily, if not hourly occurrence. This immediately freaked me out. I’d been dreading the inevitable and here we were: our first stomach virus with kids. Brian was a hero and slept in the hallway with Robin, trying to get her to vomit in the potty instead of on the floor (tricky with a toddler), which she did every hour on the hour. I called the nursing hotline in the morning and got advice about caring for a sick kid, and things seemed to improve a bit during the day. Then they took a turn for the dramatically worse overnight, and she was puking again, unable to keep anything down. Robin became wan and lethargic, so I took her to the doctor two days into the illness. By this time, we’d barely slept and I was becoming more and more terrified that Holly would get sick, too, or me, or both. The sense of dread and doom was overwhelming. I was hearing and reading a lot of contradictory advice about how to handle a severe stomach illness, and obsessing over how long it had been since she’d last vomited, what she should eat, how much she should be taking in, etc. Robin threw up three times at the doctor’s office, and they decided it would be best to admit her to the hospital to rehydrate. (Dehydration, I learned, will lead to vomiting: if you drink too much, the body rejects the thing it needs the most.)
I wrote that very matter-of-factly, but please understand that my child being hospitalized was horrifying. It was our first experience with a stomach virus, and it lead to hospitalization. That’s the nuclear option. I was living out my worst case scenario. We got Robin settled in the children’s wing with an IV of fluid. Our University children’s hospital is one of the best in the country, but it was still a cold, strange, clinical place, and neither Brian nor I have ever spent more than an afternoon in a hospital. It was completely new and weird.
Every diaper was weighed, and the first few had barely any liquid. We spent the entire day at the hospital, but I was going to have to take Holly home to sleep, and Brian would stay with Robin. It was my first night away from Robin, ever.
Before we left for the night, I fed Holly some sweet potato baby food, then packed up our stuff. As we were walking out the door, Holly vomited all over me. You can imagine the absolute terror I felt in that moment, knowing that my little baby might be struck with an illness like Robin, worrying how her tiny body could weather such a terrible illness. I drove home in full panic mode. The situation kept getting worse. I slept in the hall with Holly all night long. Fortunately, she threw up that time alone and didn’t get worse (I think it’s all the boob juice she was getting at that age). I, on the other hand, came down with a fever, chills, and vomiting the next day as we were waiting to check Robin out. Brian escorted me back to our car barely conscious, and I had to drive home alone and care for Holly while grappling myself with that terrible stomach sickness.
Robin came home after one night in the hospital and two bags of IV fluid, but continued to teeter on the edge of dehydration for another week, so any time she dipped below that threshold she would puke. This was like the worst kind of Pavlovian conditioning, because I came to expect puke at any moment and live in constant fear that the whole thing was going to start over again. It was over a week of illness, stress, and exhaustion (and laundry). I was completely caught up in and obsessed with her recovery, but I was feeling pressure to return to teaching and grad studies as soon as possible. Every day I lost was another day farther away from the comps exams I’d delayed for a year. At the time, I wrote:
I wonder if this week of illness is a dealbreaking thing like our babysitter quitting in July was: just a sign that things aren’t going to go the way I thought they were, a sign that comping won’t happen the way I want, and that I need to accept that I will be making very slow progress. If any. I really feel like I’m running to stand still, like I’m working really hard to just stay at pace with life, and a week like that threw me so far off course. I’m struggling to catch up just with teaching, nevermind getting my head back into the school game for the millionth time. I feel like I’m going to work very very hard for a goal that is probably unreachable. I mean, I need a backup plan or fifty, and right now at the nadir of energy and focus I wonder if THIS WHOLE THING ISN’T JUST PLAIN STUPID. Why am I working so hard and going into debt for a degree that will net me so little professionally? WHY am I going to do this, if the payoff is so obviously little? Other than “I want to finish what I started” and “this is my dream,” I mean. It’s just starting to feel like a bizarre charade where I keep flailing and moving books around and thinking in my head about how great everything would be IF THE SERIOUSLY UNLIKELY WOULD HAPPEN AT THE PERFECT MOMENT. Then I step back and see how far off and remote those things are. Why am I so dead set on a course in life so dramatically unlikely to lead to happiness? What IS my backup plan, anyway??
All I keep thinking is that I need to finish as fast as I can so that we can move on, but I don’t think I can go any faster! I don’t think I can chip away at this monumental thing at any faster a pace than I already am. I can’t tell if I’m making any real progress since I haven’t finished anything yet and every time I get somewhere, the goal line recedes a little more. My adviser is hounding me to get together, but I’m scared to let her see how scared I am. I think everyone wants me to tell them where I’m going and what I’m doing and I have no clue… My whole life is at loose ends and I am struggling to be coherent about my professional goals when that professional world seems to be crumbling, and when my immediate life is so far removed from that sphere. And I guess last week taught me how very, very legitimately HARD the work of raising small children can be, will be, is.
Not to mention the fact that witnessing my child being ill to the point of becoming responseless was absolutely, gut-wrenchingly terrifying. I kept thinking that if we had lived in the past, if I’d not been able to get care for her, she actually could have died. From puking. At age two. It opened a door in my mind that I could never close.
Unfortunately, we never fully recovered from that initial blow. The entire winter was riddled with back-to-back, chronic illnesses for our family. Stay tuned…