The last time I went out of town on business it was a nasty stomach virus. It struck the night before I left and I foolishly thought it was food poisoning from a fast food stop the night before. Surely it would be over quickly and Chad and the girls would be fine for the couple days I was gone. I was in Tampa and Chad was at home taking pictures of this:
That wasn’t the first time Lauren puked that day, or the day after. And it wasn’t the last. Grace was puking too. Annie was fine and apparently stopped by the bathroom to keep Lauren company. But poor Chad. He is a devoted, hands-on father. But he is also a man with a very touchy gag reflex who is almost brought to vomitus maximus himself just by smelling the stuff. That week I was in Tampa and there was no way to get home any faster than what was already scheduled, so he soldiered on.
This time it was an unexpected fever that hadn’t been there this morning. Right before I interviewed a family whose son had been severely burned five days ago I got a call from daycare that Annie had a fever and seemed a little lethargic. No infant Tylenol was in her diaper bag and daycare only had the children’s kind. My stomach clenched. Not because a fever is so big all by itself, but because I knew that Grandma was at work and Chad was in the middle of transporting Lauren and her classmate to their afternoon childcare. Daycare is a half-hour round trip from his office and mine. And his day was already overscheduled.
I interviewed the family. These interviews are hard sometimes. It’s impossible not to put yourself into the shoes of parents who have gone through something shocking and catastrophic, even though you absolutely don’t want to consider going through what they have. Inevitably I think of all the bullets dodged in the birth and development of Annie, and I think it makes me even more acutely sensitive to these parents. But today her fever did me a favor. I listened. I asked questions. But the back of my brain was mulling over how to get Annie home, Tylenoled up and into a nice nap, and I didn’t get pulled into the emotional drain because I was already in a different one.
The minute the interview was over it was a flurry of phone calls and text messages. To Chad. To daycare. To my Dad’s office to figure out how to adjust a dose of children’s Tylenol for a 21 month old. A text came. Chad was taking Annie to see my Dad (also her doctor – a wonderful thing in so many ways). My stomach knot twisted. The client came back and we talked about the next few shots and who we would interview this afternoon. I talked with my phone clutched in my fist and under my crossed arm, gripping it as though squeezing my phone would both hold me together and make Annie alright.
A few minutes later a voice mail. An ear infection. I turned my back to my crew and walked away, choking back a sob.
With Anne, every illness could be the beginning of disaster or it could be nothing. For me, an ear infection is nothing. Yes it’s painful and no I don’t want her to have a whole bunch of them, but when compared with all the other things that could befall my beautiful, funny, sweet and yet still fragile micro-preemie it’s pretty benign.
My feelings of guilt, however, are not so benign. My guilt is mostly a feeling of helplessness manifesting itself as guilt. Annie was fine when I left. She will be fine when I get home. She will probably be mostly fine by tomorrow morning. But in her moment of feeling awful, feeling feverish and lousy, and needing to go home for a snuggle and a nap I was not there. I hate that. Her Grandma got off work and got her home. She napped and was snuggled quite lavishly. But now it’s night time and all moms know that night time brings every illness to life. Annie is still feverish and weepy. And I’m not there.
I keep repeating to myself something I read in Good Housekeeping earlier this week. It was an interview with an award-winning research scientist who is also a mom. What she said was this: sometimes you have to be a mom and sometimes you have to work. Sometimes the dishes don’t get done. She said balance is found over decades, not days.
Here’s another thing I keep thinking about, this one from my imaginary best and funniest friend, Tina Fey: working moms have a big old cry about three times a year. Stay at home moms do too. So there’s no perfect answer or ideal way to do things.
I don’t know why it seems like my girls only get sick when I’m out of town. Chad hates it. (The sick girls part. He’s extremely supportive about the travel, although not so much today…) I hate it. The truth of being a mother is being there for their worst moments. Anyone can get teary-eyed over the spring music program or cheer at the softball game. But mothers are truly there to be a port in the storm, a cool washcloth on a hot brow and a soft voice whispering into an ouchy ear. It’s funny because I only just realized this now, but when I’m away from my kids it’s the verb – actual mothering – I miss.
So here I am in my hotel room, antsy with helplessness and exhausted from a day that started at 4:30 am. I’m a mother with no one to mother, half-watching American Pickers and wondering if I’ll actually be able to fall asleep. I’m feeling guilty that I’m not there to solve everyone’s problems, take Annie’s temperature, sign the school papers for tomorrow and pack the lunches. And maybe I’m also feeling just a little bit useless because they are all figuring it out and getting it done without me.
Today I had a big old cry, even if it was just really one big old, gulping sob. Today my psychic dishes didn’t get done. I had to work.