I vaguely remember being sick with swine flu in that fuzzy, long ago time before I had kids. It wasn’t pleasant, I felt sorry for myself, people were sympathetic. I went back to work before I probably should have, but that was on me. There were also some inadvertent perks. I got to watch daytime TV, something I’d never allow myself otherwise, and to stay in my pyjamas. It never struck me what it would be like to feel that way, and for it not to be just about minding you.
The fact is when you think about having kids, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t, what will I do when I get sick, and then what if they do, too? Do I have enough of a support structure around me? Is there a rainy day fund? Is there any kind of ‘Break in Case of Emergency’ care system you can call if everything hits the fan? No, It’s all bassinets and baby clothes, breastfeeding techniques and birth plans. Then twelve weeks after having my first baby, I experienced just how horrific parenting when you are sick is first hand, and I was unprepared for its shitness.
After struggling through breastfeeding with a fairly useless district nurse who didn’t seem to recognise the danger of the open sores that were developing on my nipples through lack of education about ‘the latch’, my very hungry baby was taking everything I had, feeding incessantly, and leaving a trainwreck in her wake. Then it hit. I woke one morning shaking with fever, throwing up, and unable to stand. I didn’t know what was happening to me, accept that my skin felt like it was being electrocuted and my breasts were swollen and excruciatingly painful.
Luckily I was able to lurch across the road to my doctor, who took one look at me and threatened A&E. It was mastitis, also known to breastfeeding mothers as a torture chamber of unspeakable pain, and I was close to having blood poisoning from the infection. He gave me an injection, and saved my life, if not literally, certainly figuratively. With the fever and vomiting under control, I could get the drugs for the infection and start hopefully putting myself back together.
But there was a catch. “Your baby will heal you,” I heard the doctor say as I rocked back and forth crying in his surgery. I didn’t know at first what he meant, and then I realised. Despite open sores, infected ducts, and a sincere wish to surrender my breasts to Rumina (Yes, there is a breastfeeding goddess, who had clearly turned her back on me), I had to keep feeding my baby through the illness, and as much as possible.
Continuing to physically nurture another person while in immeasurable agony was physically one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Having another human pull and drink from you while your skin is on fire, and sending shooting pains right through your entire being for the entire duration, every two hours, is a form of torture that could rival some of the darkest military techniques.
I was reminded of this the last week when my world fell apart and I found myself as ill as I was that other time. It's been six days, and counting, of the flu, something people talk an awful lot about but something I’ve clearly never had. It’s been absolutely horrible; ideally I would have just curled up in a ball in my bed and waited for it to pass. But I have two small children and that's not an option.
If not for family help, I’m pretty sure some kind of emergency services would have been called. Though my mother, who raised three of us on her own, was quick to put some perspective on things. Having suffered for years from violent migraine attacks before there was any treatment, she recounted mornings driving us to school, stopping the car to vomit, and getting back in to finish the school run. “This too will pass,” she wisely reminded me. She's right, of course. But when?
There has been no respite. No place to hide, because there is still an umbilical cord between us all, and now both my children have now also fallen ill. I’m stumbling through being both nursemaid and patient, though the only person seeing me as the latter is, I think, myself. I’vm trying through gritted teeth to remain calm, and caring. I had a massive cry in the middle of it all one afternoon, and no one noticed, which pretty much seemed to encapsulate the whole grotesque experience.
Understandably people get a bit self-absorbed when they are sick; kids, already firmly in the me-zone, go all-out. So day six, despite not having been outside the door in almost a week, and not quite yet being able to hold a conversation without a coughing fit, I decided the best place to take refuge is back at work, swollen nose, aching limbs and all. Somewhere I don’t have to wipe anyone’s bum, check anyone’s temperature or make anyone’s lunch. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are laws against it, which sounds like heaven to me.
Photo Credit Naomi August, Unsplash