Germ Warfare 

A pox on all our houses

A pox on all our houses

As a child I did not get sick. I can recall exactly two times in my entire childhood when my parents considered me ill enough to take extraordinary measures to heal me. Once, when I was 2, in an effort to bring down a high fever, they lay me naked on their bathroom counter and subjected me to a cold-water enema, a serious indignity which I remember with wondrous clarity, considering my age at the time. Then, when I was about 8, they hauled me into the doctor’s office. I had seen the doctor so infrequently that he was a total stranger, and his wicked, bony-fingered nurse injected me with a horse-strength dose of penicillin to which I promptly developed an allergic reaction. I’ve never seen that doctor, or for that matter penicillin, again.

As a healthy child, I envied the sickly children who regularly got to stay home from school and lie in their parents’ beds and drink ginger ale through a straw, children who got to watch I Love Lucy reruns three times a day and whose mothers would lie down beside them in the bed and pet them, smoothing back their bangs or reading them the funny papers if they got fussy. Instead, I was a hearty child blessed with good health and a perfect school-attendance record.

I didn’t even catch the chicken pox until I was 16 and my younger sister delivered them straight to our door from the fourth-grade epidemic at her school. It probably goes without saying that chicken pox at 16 is a misery too awful to be described. While my fourth-grade sister suffered little more than a handful of itchy abrasions that looked like minor mosquito bites and were easily soothed by calamine lotion, my whole face—not to mention my entire head and body—was engulfed by angry, pus-filled blisters that continued to resemble terminal acne for weeks afterward.

So I am aware, even though I am a mother and the parent who’s home to do the soothing of sick children absent from school, that there are advantages to childhood illness. I am aware of the nature of viruses—that you never catch the same one twice—and that viruses are best caught in early childhood, when they tend to be milder and to cause little disruption in the carrier’s daily life. When I returned to school after a week of the chicken pox, I had, among other trials, a week’s worth of chemistry homework to make up; when my toddler recovers from a week-long bout with roseola, all he has to do is eat a little more peanut butter to make up for the calories he lost while he didn’t feel like eating. Obviously, the toddler gets the better end of this stick.

But it’s possible to have too much of even an arguably good thing, and childhood viruses, in my opinion, have gotten out of hand. Both of my children get them regularly—one is prone to colds that turn into raging ear infections; the other favors gastrointestinal ailments—and they pass each of them on to the rest of the family when they’re done with it. When your baby lovingly sticks his snotty finger up your nose and says, delightedly, “Nose!” you know you’re doomed.

For the first day or two of an invading childhood illness, I’m a sympathetic mother, one of those mothers who lies beside her children in bed and strokes their feverish foreheads, one of those mothers who willingly lies on the sofa and endures the same Raffi video over and over while a sick baby lies on her belly and half-heartedly blinks at the bastardized folk songs emanating from the television screen. When my children are first sick, I buy ginger ale and straws; I read story after story; I sing song after song. I go to bed exhausted but triumphant. I know I am being a good mother.

But on the third day of their illness, I turn into a Mr. Hyde of a mother. I leave the children entirely unattended on the bed or the sofa. I lurch into the shower while Raffi bleats his insipid songs once again, and, with no one around to hear, I throw a screaming fit while the blessedly hot water runs over my unwashed hair and careens down my unshaven legs. Late in the day, when my husband’s car turns into our driveway, I grab my keys and pass him on the sidewalk leading to the front door.

Climbing into my car, I wave to him weakly. “Do you want me to do something about supper?” he calls. I drive away, pretending not to hear. I don’t return until I’m pretty sure he’s figured out how to feed us all.

I used to blame the upsurge in childhood ear infections and stomach viruses on an incomplete feminist revolution. When it’s one parent’s job to stay home and take care of the kids, the petri dish of daycare is removed from the germ laboratory; children who are exposed to fewer other children are naturally less likely to carry home other children’s germs. Plus, I reasoned, stay-at-home moms are more inclined to keep truly sick children home from grade school while mothers with jobs would likely just dose them up with Benadryl and Tylenol and send them on.

Feminism got women to the point of full employment choices, I felt, but unfortunately the workplace itself hasn’t yet evolved to the point of truly flexible schedules that allow fathers as well as mothers—depending on whose day is most packed—to stay home with sick children. With more to prove professionally, working mothers are the ones who can least afford to miss work to care for a sick child.

Now that I am more or less a stay-at-home mom, I recognize a number of fallacies in these theories, not the least of them being that, despite not having an outside job, most middle-class stay-at-home moms nevertheless send their children to preschool or Parents’ Day Out. Their kids, therefore, are equally exposed to—and catch at roughly equal rates—the same variety of germs as kids in full-time daycare.

Second, stay-at-home moms are at least as likely as working mothers to send sick children to preschool, to cart them to play groups, and to plop their germy little bodies into grocery-cart seats (thereby depositing germs on the cart handles for the next unwary shoppers, or their kids, to transfer to their own bodies). In fact, stay-at-home parents may be even more likely to do these things than mothers with outside jobs because stay-at-home parents are more desperate than working parents to get away from their kids. If the only thing standing between me and the only 4 hours of freedom I get all week was two chewable Tylenol tablets, I know for a fact that I’d be sorely tempted to hand my kid a couple of pills.

I haven’t done it yet—mainly, to be honest, because this year I missed the deadline for Mother’s Day Out—but I feel sure that time is coming. After two days of Raffi and ginger ale, I’ll hear a whiny child’s voice calling from his bedroom, and one of my lower eyelids will develop that telltale tic. Then I’ll know the transformation is coming. Before I turn entirely into Mommy Hyde, I’ll shuffle into his room and growl as sweetly as I can, “Crawl out of bed, sweetheart; it’s time to get dressed for school.” Later, I’ll feel guilty, of course, but I’ll take comfort from the truths of my own past: Going to school feeling sick might be bad, but I swear it can’t be as bad as a cold-water enema.

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