A Sick Kid, 3,000 Miles, and a Lesson in Adulting
“Mom, I really don’t feel good,” my daughter said. She was on the phone and 3,000 miles away from home.
The symptoms: nausea and stomachache.
“I think maybe I’m just exhausted from the jet lag. I’m going to try some Alka Seltzer and see if that helps.”
Sound idea, I thought. Maybe it was just jet lag – I know I get nauseous when I’m overtired.
Then, a text: Mom, I just threw up the Alka Seltzer all over the car. But I feel better!
She was on her way to a concert. I told her to keep me updated. I feared the nausea was something worse—food poisoning or a stomach virus—but put those thoughts aside. This was her first major trip away from home, a trip with her boyfriend's family, and she was nervous. Could that be contributing to the nausea? I told myself yes, that was it. Get off the anxiety train, she will be fine. Proud of myself for not overreacting, I went to sleep.
At 12:30 am, my phone rang. “Mom, I can’t stop throwing up!"
Well, this was definitely more than jet lag. I told her to go back to the house and try to sleep. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, my soul fighting an internal cage match. My child is sick and I’m not there. I can’t touch her to tell immediately if she has a fever. I can’t rub her back as she vomits or stop her from drinking too much water. Small sips, small sips, I would say to my kids when they were little and had just thrown up, usually either all over me or all over the bed.
The next day, her boyfriend called for advice. He was worried. He had tried everything he could think of, but nothing was making her better. He, too, was getting a rough life lesson: Plans can be thrown out the window at any moment, despite how much work you’ve put into them, and there’s no magic pill that will make a stomach virus go away. You just have to wait it out.
How am I sure it was a virus? A day later, her boyfriend started puking too. And my daughter found herself still battling her own illness while needing to be the one rubbing the back in the middle of the night and repeating small sips, small sips.
“I guess this is what being a mom is like,” she said to me retrospectively, as she was just starting to feel better but he was still a day behind.
“What do you mean?”
“You have to put other people’s needs in front of your own. I’ve never had to do that.”
I had been pacing as we talked, but this made me sit down. My daughter got this lesson at age 18. I didn’t experience it until I was 31. Her epiphany brought back the memory: She was 9 months old and got her first stomach virus. Having never dealt with a vomiting baby, I had no idea what to do. And I did all the wrong things. I was so worried about her getting dehydrated and not eating that I kept trying to give her a bottle, which she would immediately vomit up all over us both. She was feverish and clingy and fat tears rolled down her flushed cheeks every time I tried to put her down. I was exhausted but that did not matter. It was a week before my sister’s wedding, and I had no family to call on because everyone was afraid of catching whatever my daughter had. And then my husband tells me, “I’m not feeling well.” Soon I started to feel the telltale symptoms. I had a sick child, a sick husband, and a sick me, but the “me” part didn’t matter because I had to take care of everyone else.
I remember really resenting that. I'm sick too; I'm tired too; why is no one helping me? But I pushed through, sleeping when the baby slept and trading off with my husband once he was able. Somehow we all made it to my sister’s wedding. And then eventually everyone was healthy again, and my initiation into the martyrdom of motherhood was complete: We push, and sacrifice, and endure, not just because others expect it but because it is the burden we put on ourselves. If not Mom, who? And so I toughened up. I greeted every future illness as if I were a warrior heading into battle: cure it, contain it, and cancel all your plans.
On what was supposed to be a vacation, my daughter found herself being the caretaker. She learned a lesson in how to push through when you just want to run away, and also got a crash course in the unglamourous side of relationships. Tough lessons, but necessary ones.
And I learned yet another lesson in moving to parenting’s cheap seats. I can only watch from afar as my daughter learns a whole slew of lessons that had never occurred to me: How to be sick from home for the first time, how to care for others, how to let people who aren’t your parents care for you. And that there is no magic fix for life’s maladies—often time is the only remedy, and time requires patience.
She is home now, her stomach returned to normal. In just a few weeks, she leaves for college. There will be so many more lessons ahead of her, so many more times when I’m just the voice on the other side of the phone. It’s a lesson for me in letting go, but also a victory for her in adulting. As I let go, she takes on more, and in the process learns how to be the warrior in her own life.