By Lisa Sugarman
Being sick is just sucky. I think we can all agree on that. And depending on what you’re sick with, the range of suckiness can be very broad. With something like the flu, symptoms can be so intense and overwhelming that most of us just wish we could curl up under our duvets and die quickly. Then again, even the common cold has some serious ass-kicking potential that can create its own unique brand of pain and suffering.
And the list of bugs that can make a grown man hug his knees in the fetal position is endless. But the one sickness that tops them all is the one that takes hold of your child, whatever that sickness might be. Because the only thing worse than being sick yourself is watching your child burn up with fever or wretch over the toilet bowl or, God forbid, suffer with something worse. Watching our kids feel even the mildest measure of pain, in my opinion, is worse than any kind of suffering that we, as adults, could ever endure.
The truth is, most of us are just big fat babies when it comes to being sick. We curl up like twisted little pretzels under our blankies and moan and whimper and pray for salvation. We become useless and pathetic. But the second one of our kids takes sick, all that changes. We offer, sometimes even beg, to take the illness away from them and absorb it ourselves. We become the caregivers and back rubbers, the washcloth soakers and temperature takers. Our only focus becomes beating the crap out of whatever germ or disease or affliction has infected our kid.
Funny how that happens, isn’t it? Our paternal instinct to nurture and heal and protect our kids overrides anything else. We drop everything and hit the drugstore hard, trying to find that one brand of cough syrup or decongestant or throat lozenge that could offer them even a tiny bit of relief. We break all the rules and buy them McDonald’s french fries when they can’t stomach anything else, just to make sure they have at least something in their system. We push popsicles and lollipops and ice cream just to ensure that they stay fortified.
And it doesn’t matter how old they are, that instinct to comfort our kids and take their pain away is timeless. When our kids get sick, whether they’re seven or seventeen, they all shrink back down to their original hobbit-sized selves in our minds. That’s just how the mind of a parent works. It’s like the minute that thermometer hits critical mass, our kids start reminding us of Tom Hanks in Big, all vulnerable and helpless, swimming in their dad’s business suit.
See, when we’re the ones who are sick, we know exactly how we feel and what we need, but when it’s one of our kids, especially the little ones who can’t communicate with words, it’s a real feeling of helplessness. And as a parent, that feeling of not being able to take your child’s pain away is one of the worst feelings imaginable.
Because let’s face it, the feeling you get when your child’s weakened voice calls to you from the other room is altogether different from the feeling you get when your husband, incapacitated by a scratchy throat and drippy nose, yells for you to get him the remote off the dresser. No offense, boys, but you know you do it.
The ironic thing is, I’ve found that my desire to take care of my kids when they’re sick has only gotten stronger as they’ve gotten older. And that’s probably because our teenage kids are usually only willing to accept our help (and affection) when they physically can’t help themselves.
I mean, think about it; every one of us knows the old trick of pretending to check our daughter’s temperature by putting our cheek against their forehead, then gently kissing them while we feign a quick temperature check. Oldest game in the book. A trick most of our kids are hip to but usually let us get away with when they really don’t feel well.
When they’re sick as teenagers, though, it’s like the electric fence most of them keeps buzzing around them temporarily shuts down and we’re allowed access. Limited access, of course, but access is access. It’s when they become needy and dependent that the walls usually come down and we’re just mommy and daddy again. Even for a short time.
It’s weird, I know. But where most of us with kids are concerned, we learn to take whatever we can get in terms of quality time with them. Especially as they get older. And even if that time involves having their fever-soaked head on our shoulder at two in the morning. Because at the end of the day, the only thing that offsets the ache of having a sick kid—for us and for them—is being the only one they want to help nurse them back to health.
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItIsWhatItIsColumn. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is, available on Amazon.com and at select Whole Foods stores.