“I’ve got to get off the topic of death,” I told my friend, neighbor and editor. “I’ve become a Debbie Downer.”
The journalistic matriarch of the Mommyhood was very forgiving.
“You have to write from where you are in life,” she said. “And here you are, caring for a dying aunt. You’ll find humor in these moments, eventually.”
Oh, I’ve found humor in it. Not of the ha-ha kind, but of the oh-yuck variety. In one week, both of my daughters endured swift but severe bouts of the gastrointestinal virus, the pets were stressed from all of the changes in our home, and then of course, my aunt’s health condition — renal failure and cancer — required frequent trips to the bathroom (if she could get there).
I live in latex gloves and I smell like Lysol. I change clothes at least three times a day.
As an in-home caregiver, life is humbling. There’s frequent cleaning and disinfecting, regular emptying of portable toilets, and mopping up spills and other accidents (human, animal, culinary…the list goes on and on). But as I pulled the sheets and mattress cover off our bed (at least Ava got sick on Mike’s side), I wondered: How do mothers become desensitized? What happens in the course of parenting that makes us immune to the gross parts of life? Where do we get our resilience?
Years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to clean up these messes. Some say that motherhood is a lot like becoming a professional — women build a resistance to things that would have bothered them at another time. It’s similar to being in medical school. The first few cases are shocking, but after that, injuries and illnesses become routine. A common response from doctors and nurses is, “I’ve seen worse!” They also report that swiping Vicks Vapor Rub under their nose helps to cover up whatever’s in the room. Good to know.
But on the other side of the bedpan is the experience that the sick child (or adult) is going through. As one nurse wrote in an email string related to clinical queasiness, “When I am in the thick of it, I try to put myself in the patient’s shoes. They are usually in pain, or their pride is hurt when they are confined to catheters, machines, etc., so their condition allows me to care for them at an angle of compassion.”
When mothers are on the front lines of vomiting and other types of bodily fluids, they become detached from the situation so they can protect their child. As one doctor explained, “The truth is, these jobs would be impossible if every time someone died you broke down in tears or every time you saw a blood-soaked shirt you curled into the fetal position. The key is making sure you debrief or decompress afterwards so it doesn’t “build-up”.
However cold it may seem, the doctor gives good advice. What every new parent (and old caregiver) needs to understand is that breaks from the dirtiest parts of the job are absolutely critical. Between the stomach flu and renal failure, dogs with nervous stomachs and cats with anxiety, I found myself sitting on the front porch in chilly January weather. No coat. No cares. I just needed fresh air.
I walked inside and asked my husband if his mother could sit with our girls (all of them) while we escaped for a little while. “Give me two hours,” I told him.
He didn’t have to be persuaded. “Sure. Three o’clock?”
And at three o’clock, I sat in a sports bar and watched the Mountaineers get thumped by Purdue. I ate chicken wings and treated myself to a much-deserved beer, and I laughed at Mike, who announced through swollen lips that habanero pepper sauce is the world’s greatest sinus blaster. When we had our fill of both basketball and Buffalo wings, we walked off our early dinner in a few stores. I stocked up on Garden and Gun and Southern Living magazines, and “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey.” Oh — and I splurged on some new makeup. Nothing perks a girl up faster than a tube of lipstick the color of Tabasco.
When we got home, I felt like I could get back into the swing of things without so much emotion. I just needed a clear head before I could clean up another mess. And there was one. Remember the dozen mango habanero Buffalo wings that Mike ate? Yeah…BIG mistake.