Flu season is upon us yet again.
I can afford to be a little smug about flu season, because in our house – with a four-month-old baby around – we’ve all had our flu vaccines. My husband got his flu shot in the quiet peace of the Middlebury College flu clinic. I got my flu shot on a whim during a shopping trip to Hannafords, because the baby was asleep in her carrier and the 2-year-old was being unusually compliant. My two middle daughters received the FluMist nasal spray during a visit to their pediatrician. And my oldest daughter decided she wanted a flu shot because she hadn’t liked the FluMist last year, then panicked when she saw the needle and demanded the nasal spray, then panicked at the memory of having a mist sprayed up her nose, and finally had to be held down in order to get the shot. So, in our own ways, we’re all covered.
It’s not the flu I’m concerned about this flu season; it’s everything else.
My college roommate, now a pediatrician, recently introduced me to a phrase that describes how she sees children: “Germs with legs.” Two of my own little walking germs go to school, which means that they’re vectors for every epidemic that passes through the youth of central Vermont.
So, for the next few months, I’ll be tracking the health of my daughters’ classmates like an investment banker tracks the stock market. I’ll note who’s not in school due to illness, and how recently my daughters had contact with them. I’ll be quick to judge when I drop my daughters off at school and notice a child who seems to have a lingering cough or a runny nose; I’ll debate whether, when I hug my child goodbye, I should whisper, “You know Jenny? Keep away from her today.”
There has already been sickness in our house this fall. Everyone’s had a version of the runny-nose-and-coughing bug, which will likely plague us in various incarnations until May. My oldest daughter had a fever along with her cough and had to miss two days of school. TWO days!
I’ve turned out to be a much less sympathetic mother than I thought I’d be. On the first day of no school I can get into the Mother Teresa role, with cool compresses and popsicles and videos on the couch. By the second day, I hear myself saying things like, “Do you really think you can’t make it through the day?” and, “Maybe you’ll feel better after a little breakfast.” When it’s clear that school isn’t happening again, I sigh and say, ‘O.K!”, the subtext being: I am now having to keep FOUR children housebound because of your waning illness, so don’t even THINK about getting a burst of energy at 10 AM. There will be NO FUN here today, and tomorrow you are back at school as long as you have a pulse!
My husband also got the runny-nose-and-coughing bug, which caused him to lose his voice for aweek. So every night for a week, he came home and communicated through a series of grunts, tongue clicks, and hand gestures. I’ve turned out to be a much less sympathetic wife than I thought I’d be, because if you can’t speak you’re pretty much off the hook as far as parenting duties go, which means – aside from that job that supports all six of us – you’re of limited use to me.
Also, why don’t my daughters ever lose their voices when they’re sick?
Thus far, we’ve been fortunate to escape what I really dread: The Stomach Bug. Last winter, my two oldest daughters and my husband came down with a stomach bug within twelve hours of each other. I think it lasted for three days, but I can’t quite recall; I measure that time in terms of laundry loads. For some reason, my daughters look back on those days with nostalgia; “Remember when we were both in bed throwing up?” my second oldest asked me just the other day. I’ll never forget it. And I promise you, if any of my children contract a stomach bug this year and I identify your child as Patient Zero, I will show up on your doorstep with the laundry.
Actually, what I mean to say is this: Sickness is an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of living in a community, and being part of a family. This season, let’s do our best to take care of each other by covering our coughs, washing our hands, and supporting sick friends with visits and meals and childcare. We’ll all get through it, and I’ll try to remember to be grateful for my basically healthy kids and the minor childhood illnesses that boost their immune systems.
My ultimate goal is to get all four of my children to adulthood without any cases of head lice. So if any of them comes home with lice and I identify your child as Patient Zero….
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.