Are you down with the sickness?

A rumination on parenting during cold and flu season.

No one tells you how sick you’re going to get.

Perhaps someone did warn you, among the many warnings that are often issued before people have kids, that being around small children means you’re going to get sick a lot more frequently than you once did. There are warnings that can be understood on their strength of their own words, though, and there are warnings that cannot be.

Some warnings must be experienced.

My children’s preschool has some incredibly advanced medical forecasting technology. Once every couple of weeks, they send me an email that casually mentions the name of a specific ailment. Four or five days later? That same ailment appears in my house. It’s uncanny. It’s like Minority Report, except that there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop it. Influenza. RSV. Pinkeye. Common colds and uncommon ones. Croup and colic and coughs and chills and countless comparable contagious conditions. 

You could report that anything was present in a preschool classroom and I’d believe it. Spanish Flu, the Black Plague, smallpox or rinderpest, the Georgia Flu or the Andromeda Strain. A shaken, breathless foot messenger arrives at your door, unfurls a parchment that reads “A ftudent has been diagnosed with the foulest of humours, and will be excluded from the center while we offer a fatted calf to the gods we hath angered”, then drops dead on your porch, which can’t be a great sign. When the New York Mets’ star pitcher Noah Syndergaard was temporary waylaid during the 2018 baseball season by a bout of Hand, Food and Mouth Disease, the reaction in my social media feed cleaved neatly between the non-parents recoiling in horror at the mere idea of this comically-medieval sounding ailment and the parents nodding along, saying “it really do be like that sometimes”. 

Here’s the thing about small children: their immune systems are developing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re weak. It just means they’re just unable to fully police what’s going on within their borders, and that allows them to become safe harbor for extremist illnesses. They take in all manner of germs — licking them off shopping cart handles or chewing them off of gum they found under a table at McDonald’s. Once in their system, these infectious agents are radicalized, converted from a common pathogen to something that will terrorize your stable, unsuspecting developed system. 

You will be sick a lot, at a time in which you’re already tired a lot. In the first year that my oldest was in day care, I got sick more than I had in the previous decade combined, a decade in which I rode crowded subways a lot, patronized restaurants with C grades on the door, and often drank beers that ping-pong balls had landed in mere moments after being picked up off the floor. Despite a newfound zeal for handwashing and surface-sterilizing, you will still get sick. You will use up all of your PTO, if you didn’t already use it up as a replacement for non-existent paid parental leave. If you’re a two-working-parent household, you’ll play a constant game of hot potato on who has meetings at work today and who is “working from home”, which usually means “having a conference call with the sounds of The LEGO Movie and occasional puking in the background”. 

You’re going to feel like shit a lot. 

This will only serve to compound the emotional impact of a generational shift that corresponds with having children. Suddenly and without reversal, you are the middle generation of your family, not the youngest one, and right as shift this is happening, your body feels as though it is failing you. I scoffed at people who had kids at 22 when I was still young and having fun, but who’s laughing now?, I think, as I feel the full weight of my mid-thirties made manifest in a deep chest cough that lasts three weeks after the child who gave it to me has recovered.

Of course, despite the illness ravaging you, it’s not about you. You’ll still have to take care of the kids, of course — kids who are in fact also sick, and in ways that will surprise and confound you. Kids will throw up mid-sentence as they ask to watch another episode of PJ Masks. (Put the show on while you clean it up.) Their body temperatures can go from 98.6 to 103 and then back to 98.6 in the time it would take you to watch The Irishman, but you didn’t watch it, because you were out getting their medicine. They will be prescribed three medicines, two of which cost $4 and one that costs $350. They will spit up the latter one on the floor, but that’s okay, it only would’ve been effective if you gave it to them yesterday. (Next time, mix it with chocolate syrup. It still won’t be effective, but they might swallow it.)

And, of course, they will be contagious. They will be geysers of pestilence, their every movement shedding new opportunities for you to be infected, new chances for your not-so-young-anymore body to be brought to heel once again, new omens of the inevitability that you will be deathly sick in a desk chair next week because you can’t afford to take any more days off, not after caring for them this week.

But you will never push them away. 

You will accept that the matter of whether you will get sick or not is out of your hands at this point and irrelevant anyway. You will let them wipe their nose on your sleeve, let them fall asleep drooling and sneezing on your shoulder, let them crawl into your bed while the fever burns away in their dreams. You will know that the strongest act of love you can offer is to be there for someone who needs you completely in this moment regardless of how it will affect you. You will breach the quarantine and hope for the best. 

You will be there for them, because it’s just what you do now.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

I got up three times during the writing of this newsletter to check on a kid.