“Alexander has been in daycare for two days and he already has a runny nose, is that normal?” My coworker, a first-time dad with a 4-month-old, asked as we sat in the conference room between meetings.
“Yes,” I responded empathetically, but truthfully. “He’s gonna be sick a lot. The first year is pretty awful, but then it gets better. It sucks, but you get through it.” His face fell a bit at my honesty. I know he was looking for a more optimistic response. When I was in his shoes as a new mom, I was, too.
A whole year of colds on repeat? No, thank you.
Gracie, my firstborn, started daycare when she was seven weeks old. She had her first cold a week later. By four months, she’d added more colds, ear infections, and RSV to her illness résumé and the foretold year of colds sounded longer than ever. I turned my focus to the optimistic piece of the promise: it will get better.
What I couldn’t bring myself to tell my coworker was the other half of the equation—the new baby isn’t the only one whose immune system is in for a rollercoaster ride. It turns out, fighting off illness is a lot harder when sick babies don’t have the decorum to cover their noses for a sneeze or cough into an elbow. Cold germs blasted into your face at 100 MPH tend to stick.
Every time Gracie brought home a new bug in that first year, I got it too, and the saying “Moms don’t get sick days” started to make sense. Everyone knows babies are still helpless even if you feel like crud. So I took on the mantle of supermom and powered through snot, puke, and other bodily fluids.
Gracie’s little brother, Logan, arrived two years and a month after she did. I was fully prepared for the onslaught of runny noses, hacking coughs, and worry over a baby who just seemed too tiny to be sick when my maternity leave ended.
What I hadn’t expected was the whole family was going to go through the sick year again. Shouldn’t Gracie have beaten all these bugs already? And what about me? I’ve grown wiser, and more wary of cute little sick faces just waiting to spew viruses into my own.
It didn’t make a difference. When it came to illness, it was all for one and one for all, three sick little musketeers.
Sometimes it started with Gracie, sometimes Logan, but the same pattern always played out: patient zero needs a tissue. The next day, patient zero needs many tissues and has that glazed look about him or her. I tell myself the rest of us might be spared. Another day or two goes by and child two begins to show symptoms. My own nose starts to run. One day when he was just a few months old, Logan laid on my bed on a lazy Saturday. Per the norm, he had a runny nose. Gracie stood by the bed playing peek-a-boo with him when Logan sneezed right in her face. She laughed. Thirty seconds later she coughed into his open mouth. I just stared in disbelief and started mental math to estimate when my own symptoms would start.
By Monday morning, Logan had a fever and had to stay home. My husband and I worked out the logistics of each taking a half-day from work to take care of him. Tuesday he was well enough for school, but Gracie was looking glassy-eyed. By the end of the day, I was carrying a tissue box wherever I went. Both kids stayed just-barely-healthy-enough to go to daycare for the rest of the week, so my husband and I were able to put in full workdays. Neither of us was feeling well either, but I took the no excuses route, following through on home-cooked meals, laundered clothes, extra snuggles and frequent middle of the night wakeups courtesy of the baby.
And so in Logan’s first year, I clung even harder to the promise of good health for all of us returning by his first birthday. Logan quickly filled in his own illness résumé with the usual suspects, then threw in a few more ER visits and an extended hospital stay for extra credit. But still, the show had to go on, and even when I had the same colds knocking my little ones for a loop, I made “Moms don’t get sick days” my personal, weird badge of honor. No matter how I felt, I did what needed to be done. I saw to my children’s needs before giving in to my own.
Sure enough, our family’s health started to bounce back as that first birthday got closer.
But Logan’s a September baby. And not long after his birthday, winter rolled in with a fresh set of bugs to battle.
In January, I sat down at a new desk in a new office, surrounded by new coworkers. On day three I accessorized my desk with a box of tissues because the cold I thought I was almost over on Monday was back in full force. I noticed side-eye coming from my new office mates, clearly dropping signals that going to work sick wasn’t something they did here. I did my best to blow my nose covertly, stifle my coughs, and just make it through the week.
By lunchtime on Friday, my reserves were gone and exhaustion defeated my just-keep-chugging mantra. I dragged myself into the nearest urgent care and received a diagnosis: pneumonia. The word was a wake-up call. Or really, the opposite of a wake-up call. It was a just-go-to-bed-and-stay-there-for-awhile call.
For three years, I’ve lived and sneezed by “Moms don’t get sick days.” I’ve powered through and kept showing up and shamelessly refilled the box of tissues on my desk whenever I needed to. And you know what? I still haven’t been awarded my trophy.
Not even a lousy perfect attendance ribbon. Just pneumonia.
So I took a sick day, then upgraded it to a whole sick weekend. I watched Netflix on the couch. I fed the kids boxed macaroni and cheese. I abandoned my husband and kids and retreated to the bedroom to sleep. I texted my husband a recipe for dinner and wished him good luck.
He fed the kids; he packed the lunches. I checked out, and the world kept turning. The extra rest let my body recuperate enough to get me through a new week. My mind benefitted just as much from setting down the mental load.
When a stomach bug ripped through our house a few weeks later, claiming me as the final victim, I sent my mom a text message, “I don’t think I can feed the kids tonight. I need help.” She showed up at the door with dinner and tended to the kids while I convalesced on the couch. When I showed interest in trying to eat something, she made me some toast to nibble on. I thought becoming a mom meant I had to take care of everyone myself.
But sometimes moms need to be taken care of, too.
In a few short months, baby number three will enter the world and we’ll start the one-year countdown all over again. We’ve learned as much as we can from rounds one and two, but we are not so naive to think we can avoid the inevitable.
Family, friends: don’t shower us with diapers or adorable outfits, just send cold meds and a reminder that it’s OK for me to ask for a sick day, too.
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