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When you become a parent, you think you know what it’s like to be sick. Unless you’ve endured a serious illness or are somehow immunocompromised, you probably have no idea what you’re talking about. Your idea of illness is the Old World of maladies — a head cold, a sinus infection, maybe even mono — but you haven’t seen anything yet. When you have kids, you enter the New World. Welcome, it’s awful here.
Expect To Be Sick, Often
You’re going to get sick routinely. This part is just math — when your progeny venture forth into the world, even to daycare, they interact with dozens of people, each with trillions of germs, and therefore so do you. Of course, in your day-to-day life you probably encounter all sorts of folks — the difference is, you understand basic hygiene.
Ask yourself: Do your friends and coworkers stuff their hands into their mouths at breakfast, for no apparent reason and then look up nonchalantly and just wipe the resulting saliva on the face of the person next to them? Do they shove entire fingers into one of their nostrils, the digit darting into the abyss like a sounding rocket before it re-emerges, trailing a bubble as green as pond scum? If so, you need a totally new social scene. If not, you have a child.
Let me put it this way: You know that scene in the Return of the Jedi where they’re about to attack the Death Star and then there’s a goddamn monsoon of Tie Fighters and one of the pilot screams, “There’s … too many of them!” Yeah, that’s your immune system once you have a kid. There are so, so many germs.
Oh, The Diseases They’ll Contract
Becoming a parent is a very personal introduction to microbiology. If you’re not a parent, you’ve probably never heard of half the diseases your kid might get. Your first introduction to them comes via vaccinations, and this is a relief once you realize that rotavirus and measles and meningococcal bacteria are off the table.
When you have kids, you enter the New World. Welcome, it’s awful here.
But then your kid comes down with her first garden-variety cold, and you catch it. A few weeks later, they get another, and you get that. This process continues until approximately their sophomore year of college.
Some of the worst maladies are the most common, but they’re problems you thought you’d left behind long ago. In this respect, it’s exactly like your high school reunion.
Our daughter had ear infections almost from birth. Despite repeated courses of antibiotics, she never could shake them, and things got so bad that when we went to a specialist and they gave her a tympanogram, she could hardly hear at all.
This essentially predestined her for ear tubes — which have worked splendidly — but we didn’t realize that adults could also get ear infections. Between us, my wife and I have endured 3 of the bastards since our kids were born, and those damn things hurt. They’re so bad that they really give you an idea of just how tough kids can be. Sure, when it comes to minor inconveniences — not wanting to put on shoes or socks or pants — kids writhe in agony as if they were aflame and onboard the plummeting Hindenburg. But when it comes to physical pain, they’re Stoic philosophers. You lop off their arm, and they solider on. The same cannot be said for parents.
Now much has been said about the “man cold,” and some of it rightfully so. I’ll admit that I was damned crabby when I got my first adult ear infection; I had no idea why my ears were pounding like the drum climax of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Speaking of, “adult ear infection” sounds like one of those supposedly “sexy” Halloween costumes, or perhaps a very niche part of the adult film industry.)
If you’re not a parent, you’ve probably never heard of half the diseases your kid might get.
I knew my reaction wasn’t far off, though, because my wife got an ear infection around the same time I had mine, and she actually went out of her way to acknowledge feeling pain. In my experience, that’s saying something, as women, especially mothers, aren’t exactly the types to even admit that pain exists. Usually, they’re too busy, as they have all kinds of other shit (both figurative and literal) to deal with. I mean, look at everything a mom has to face, from the threat of abuse and assault to inequities in the workplace and at home, and tell me who’s really tougher — the person doing most of the work, or the one claiming more of the credit? In that respect, it’s like that trope from sci-fi movies where a burly commando grins before taking a swing at an alien/monster/all-powerful deity, only to realize that his haymakers have no effect. Inevitably, the alien looks up before eating him and smirks as if to say, It’s your turn to do the goddamn laundry, Larry.
Hand, Foot And Mouth Disease And Other Diseases You’ve Never Heard Of
When my kid came down with Hand, Foot and Mouth disease, it freaked me out because someone called it “Hoof and Mouth Disease.” I heard the word “hoof” and couldn’t help but think of Mad Cow Disease, and my mind was flooded with images of biohazard suits, international boycotts of hamburger patties, and my daughter’s brain being laid waste by prions. (I also have anxiety!)
Do your friends and coworkers stuff their hands into their mouths at breakfast, for no apparent reason and then look up nonchalantly and just wipe the resulting saliva on the face of the person next to them?
I then did some frantic googling and discovered that hand, foot and mouth disease is sometimes called hoof and mouth disease because cattle and other animals also get it. It was just one of the many diseases our kids have contracted that we never knew existed. Between them, our kids have had RSV, atopic eczema (cradle cap), croup, and most recently, Fifth’s Disease. At first blush, all of those sounded more serious than they actually are — RSV sounds like the next global pandemic, if you ask me — but that’s the thing, you probably don’t have much of an idea just how many pediatric diseases are out there until your kids contract, oh, 85 percent of them.
Visiting A Doctor
As my daughter has had ear infections since birth, I’m on a first-name basis with many of the nurses at our Urgent Care. When you check in, they ask a bunch of questions — if you’ve traveled out of the country, had a fever, and so on. They should ask, “Do you have a toddler?” An affirmative response should lead to the sounding of a klaxon and a platoon of CDC employees in biohazard suits dousing you with fire extinguishers full of Purell.
That message sets in pretty quickly in the Urgent Care waiting room. I mean, when I pick up my kids from daycare, you might as well play the techno soundtrack from Contagion. And the waiting room at Urgent Care? It’s approximately 145 orders of magnitude worse than that. It’s literally a room where sick people congregate. Whenever I get there, the receptionist always seems to scratch out the wait time, scrawling a Möbius strip in its place, and all the little kids are crying, except this older kid, a brother maybe, he’s over at the office’s shape maze toy just ramming the wood pieces together again and again, because that’s what the setting really needs. And then you look up at the other families and see your kid’s future — the 10-year-old with strep, the teenager with mono, the high-schooler with the flu — and you know just how much the bacteria are really running the show.
Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know!, and several others. His writing has appeared inSalon, at Yahoo! as well as atThe Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.