When My Kids Are Sick, I Act Like The Mother I Thought I’d Always Be

On my very first date with now-husband John, I leaned across the table and confidently proclaimed that what I really wanted to do with my life was to be a stay-at-home mother. I didn’t want a career. I didn’t want to pursue more education.

I also told him I wanted four children.

Oh, honey. You sweet, young thing.

I have been a stay-at-home mother (sort of). I have had a career (sort of). I did pursue more education.

I most definitely have not had four children.

But I think what I didn’t whisper on that date, but what I felt with every ounce of my being was: I’m going to be such an amazing mom.

Because before I became a mother I thought…actually, I don’t know what I thought? Motherhood was this broad vision for my future; in reality, I was a kid (23!) having a kid. What did I know?

Just a few weeks ago I practically wailed to a friend: If I could just rewind time – armed with what I know now – I’d have been a much better parent.

But life doesn’t work like that. There is no rewind button. I’ve done the best I could with what I knew and understood at the time, and my methods continue to evolve, hopefully for the better. Deep down, I just have to pray the kids are patient with me – and me with them – and that when they look back on their childhood they believe I really did try my best.

I’m not as patient or as fun as I thought I would be. I spend more time with my head buried in a device than I could have anticipated (considering smartphones weren’t a “thing” when I first became a mother. Imagine! All those newborn photos were taken with a little point-and-shoot camera whose sole purpose was to capture pictures, not to manage phone calls or digital calendars or playlists).

But, sometimes, I get glimpses of what I thought I would be like as a mother, and these almost always emerge when my children are sick.

Weeks ago, one of the kids was sick. Like, sick, sick. If you’re a parent you know there are distinct degrees of sickness.

The worst sick – for me – is when the kids are sick enough they need to stay isolated at home, but are not sick enough to rest in their beds. This sick is a form of parental purgatory. They want attention and I know the situation warrants it, but they have so much energy and enthusiasm I spend most of the time doubting whether they are actually sick after all. Without at least a little bit of vomit or a hint of fever, well, my inner Florence Nightengale finds it hard to make an appearance.

But then there is real sick. It’s sad and I immediately wish it away. But, there is beauty in this sick, too. I spend nights beside them on their bed, rubbing backs and running to the bathroom at 2 am to re-wet a cloth for their forehead. My fingers can find the right buttons on the thermometer in the dark; I’m constantly poking my head into the room to offer little dishes of dry Cheerios. I heat up Magic Bags or dig ice packs from the freezer, depending on the ailment. Do they want heat and cold? Sure thing. Mom is on it.

Real Sick Mom is patient and kind and attentive. I close their doors softly and stroke foreheads and they lay there and receive it all with a weak appreciation that melts my heart.

And in those moments I think: This is how I thought it would be all the time. This endless patience, soft voices, quiet afternoons of rest in bed.

It’s not. And Praise the Lord. I am so grateful that, generally, my kids are healthy and vibrant and fever-free. In healthy moments I can send them to the kitchen to heat their own Magic Bags or locate their own ice packs. But I’m also grateful for those moments of connection in sickness. I hope they remember these experiences – not the vomit or the fevers or the rashes – but a soft hand rubbing their back in the night.

We can’t control how our kids recall their childhood; I hope they’re gracious and round out any of the hard edges. And maybe, someday, they’ll be tossing and turning all night beside their own feverish offspring and whisper: You know, little buddy, when I was little, Grandma used to sleep beside me when I was sick too! It always made me feel better. Would you like to hear a few stories about that while you try to fall asleep?

Header photo by Kristine Wook on Unsplash

Your turn. Do you remember being sick as a child? Are any aspects of those memories pleasant with regard to how your parents related with/tended to you? If you’re currently raising kiddos – share your best suggestions for helping little ones cope with illnesses without losing your own mind!

28 thoughts on “When My Kids Are Sick, I Act Like The Mother I Thought I’d Always Be”

  1. I think the moments with a really sick child that bring out the best of our nurturing are the movie or insta versions of mom. My daughter is sick now, yesterday with a fever and I was bringing the ice pack, attentive and getting her toast and ginger ale and comforting her.
    It requires a lot of energy and that is not sustainable 100% of the time with all the other demands of life.
    I think that’s what I’m enjoyed most from Tranquility by Tuesday is adding in the small and big adventure each week. That we can’t be “on” every moment but we can make those memories.
    You have created a home where love resides and that is the biggest memory they will take with them from childhood.

    1. Great point – we’ve been led to believe (sometimes) that this level of engagement is typical. But it’s NOT sustainable long-term. Also, given the personalities of my kids (quite high-energy, loud, vocal)…it’s such a shift from their normal life. Maybe if I had kids that always liked to cuddle up quietly on the couch for hours it wouldn’t be such a shock to my mothering system?
      I’m so glad you liked TBT! Such a great book and I think about the “rules” all the time. The adventure one is probably my favourite, too – though giving myself a bedtime + 3x/week = a habit are the two rules that have tangibly impacted my decisions the most!

  2. “If I could just rewind time – armed with what I know now – I’d have been a much better parent.” – but that is true for everyone, not just for parenting, but for life! If we knew then what we know now, in life, everything would be different! But as you say, that’s just life.

    I’m not great when the kids are sick, not that they are sick much these days or even need anything from me when they are sick. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be the best nurse!

    1. I think the “Mom Nurse” role gets easier as they get older. There are still the perks (this feeling of connection and nurturing), but they can wipe their own butts and vomit independently.

  3. Oh, this brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I really hope that when my kids look back on their childhoods, they’ll realize that I tried my very best. There are so many things I wish I had done differently. I think having kids helps you appreciate your own childhood more as well. My parents were definitely not perfect, but I can understand how hard certain things must have been for them, and know that they did the very best they could.
    It sounds to me like your kids are having an incredible childhood- just keep doing what you’re doing. Oh, and if there’s anything you really regret, you can do it all over again the “right” way when you have grandchildren! I’m already looking forward to that.

    1. I really have tried my best, but motherhood has also been so, so much harder than I expected. The fact that from the instant your first child is born you are a parent for the rest of your life? I just didn’t realize the weight that brings with it. There is no day off. It’s a 24/7/365 job – even when I am away from them, I still think about them constantly. This is great and normal – part of the wonder of being a parent and loving someone so much. But it’s also a shock to the system (at least for me).

      Like you, I feel like I understand so much more of my childhood/my parent’s decisions now that I’m a parent myself.

      Sometimes we do “hard resets” (this is actually what I call it) when something/someone needs to make a big pivot. But, mostly, yes, I’m just trying to do my best and set them up for success as they grow and make more and more decisions on their own.

      And I DEFINITELY think about the grandchildren bit; if my kids choose to have kiddos of their own, I think I’ll be a much more fun Grandma then I have been a Mom.

  4. I vividly remember being allowed to watch TV on the couch with all my blankets when I was little and being allowed coke without the sparkles (this was before there was Gatorade).
    I don’t have any good advise for when the kids are sick – I usually just learn as I go myself and hope my children will forgive all the mistakes I made along the way. I feel like there is so much no one tells you before you have kids (or maybe I just did not listen well enough?). I would not change anything for the world but it’s also much harder I thought it would be at times.

    1. I don’t actually have that many memories of being sick as a child; I remember my Mom doing some home remedies to help with ear aches, and I remember being grumpy that she would never take my temperature (she was a nurse, but was very much wrist-to-forehead check and I had a friend who regularly had her temperature taken and I thought that was the epitome of a good Mom – haha). But my parents were very patient when I was sick, which thankfully wasn’t very often.

      In terms of parenting in general, YES – it is so overwhelming. When you’re pregnant, everyone tends to you for everything. Regular appointments with doctors, pamphlets, lamaze classes. And then you have a baby and a day or two later you walk out of a hospital with a tiny infant who will be in your life FOREVER and there is no instruction manual. Or, in the case of one of our kids, we joked they were the “asterisk” in all the baby books. You know – when they say that all kids love car rides or walks in the stroller when they’re upset. This child was the opposite or asterisk of those books.

      It’s the totality of all the energy it takes that just can’t be relayed in a conversation. It has to be lived and there are so many small nuances to everyone’s experience with motherhood. But I found it very, very isolating because I was so overwhelmed and wondered what I was doing wrong. I felt like such a failure in early motherhood and I just wish I could go back in time and hug New Mom Elisabeth and tell her it was all going to be okay eventually and that motherhood is just really, really hard and exhausting sometimes!

  5. i am exactly the same, i’m in my best state as mom when lizzy was sick. patient, caring, loving and protective. but inside I was so worried that I wish it’s not happening. I guess it’s possible to be that mom because we are in a crisis mode and our priority is to comfort the kid with zero expectation about what they need to do, how they need to behave as long as they are healthy. But when they are back to themselves, our expectations are back, thus we start losing patient and demand more. that seems to be a cycle that I go through over and over again.
    i never had a dream to be a mom until my early 30s.. my dreams as kids was to be a professional. Who knew I’d enjoy so much motherhood.

    1. I think having a sick kid sends me into auto-pilot mode. I truly hate vomit (I mean, does anyone NOT?), but I tend to get very calm and deliberate in those moments. Not sure why/how, but I’m thankful for everyone’s sake.
      And you’re 100% right about the expectation thing. I guess maybe my expectation as a parent is also so clear when the kids are sick – it’s JUST to tend to them (not to entertain etc).

  6. I remember that I never had to stay in my bed but got a bed made up on the couch in the living room when I was sick – with all my pillows and blankets. I thought it was glorious (although I really don’t remember being sick that much).

    I agree with Nicole, I think the if we knew then what we know now” feeling applies to a lot of areas in life, but all we can do is learn and grow with every new experience. I am 100% sure from what I can tell from this blog that you’re a terrific mother and your kids will have a lot good memories!

    1. Awww…We do the same thing with our kids and the couch. They want to be in the “action,” not holed up in their rooms alone. One Christmas we had sick kids and moved a mattress out to the living room floor so everyone could be together in front of the tree. It made for a sweet, albeit slightly sad, memory. Our poor kids seems to ALWAYS get sick at Christmas – basically every year. Sigh. Fingers crossed for this year. We currently have sick kids in the house, so maybe they’re getting everything out of their system now? That seems like wishful thinking on my part…

  7. You know I dont have kids so relating at times is a bit more difficult but I do remember being a kid and how Mom took care of me. And those moments are indeed very cherished ones and also some of the more intimate ones. Soul food is is food mom served when not feeling well. While bing sick was never really fun the attention from mom sure was nice.

    1. Awww – such a great point about the food on offer. I can 100% relate when you say it wasn’t fun to be sick, but that different sort of attention and patience and “pampering” really does feel nice.

  8. Oh Elisabeth, this post resonates so deeply with me.

    This: “ If I could just rewind time – armed with what I know now – I’d have been a much better parent.” Oh yes. Very much.

    1. It’s hard, eh, to not look back and think: Woulda, shoulda, coulda. But that’s not how life words, so onward and upward!!

  9. I don’t remember being sick a lot when I was a kid. My parents always said I was very healthy. I do remember having the Chicken Pox and it was fun to stay home and have my mom fuss over me. I got to sleep on the couch all day.
    At our house, we have a “sick bell”. It’s a little brass bell with a light and melodious ring. It used to belong to my Husband’s family. When he was growing up, the little bell got put on one’s bedside table when they were sick and they could ring it when they needed something and mom (it was almost always mom) would come. We use it now with our kids (and the grown ups). Being sick here also means tv and couch time. I can always tell how badly a kid feels by how much tv they watch…

    1. I was pretty healthy too – a handful of stomach bugs and…also chicken pox. My Mom was desperate for me to get them because I was almost a teen, so she had me babysit someone who had the chicken pox. It worked. I got them, and it was AWFUL, but likely a lot easier than having them as an adult. I knew a few people when I was a kid who had the chicken pox and they were bed-ridden for several weeks.
      A sick bell – I could not love this more if I tried!! We also do the couch. The kids prefer to be in the middle of the action. We set up a laptop for videos if they’re up to that, or put on an audiobook or music. It also is more convenient for taking care of them and so much more cheerful than being holed up in a bedroom solo <3

  10. So I was a pretty sickly child so I should not be surprised that I am a sickly adult, especially now that I’m immune compromised. My mom was a nurse but then ended up co-running a business with my dad. But she never lost her ability to nurse others. She took such amazing care of me and my siblings when I was sick and I learned SO much about how to care for a sick kid. And I still text/call her and my sister, who is also a nurse, when I have questions about what to do.

    But I agree – I am the best version of a mom when my kids are sick. Will was terribly sick a couple of weeks ago with RSV. And it was so sad. But I did really soak up the snuggles. I know the days of him sleeping on me are fleeting so I soaked it up while also wishing that he would feel better very soon and be back to his usual self!

    I thought I wanted a big family, too, since I came from one. But holy moley am I confident we are meant to only have 2 kids!!! Especially since we got a later start than most couples, at least in my region of the company. I really don’t know how my parents did it, but parenting was so different and way less hands on back then!

    1. Your Mom sounds wonderful as a nurse – both professionally and then applying those skills in motherhood!
      I remember when Will (or was it Paul?) had the awful rash last year and my heart just melted for the poor thing; it’s so hard not to just want to love them so much and take away any aspect of their discomfort possible! And yes – we can soak it up and also hope that it clears up very quickly!
      Two kids…is a lot. I do know several people have said once you have more than 2, it’s about the same amount of work? I don’t know…I can’t imagine that to be true (and it certainly wouldn’t be the same cost financially). I think parenting is very, very different from even a decade ago. I think larger families can be SO wonderful because of the great connections it can forge, but motherhood – especially infancy – was very, very hard on me physically (two rough C-sections) and mentally. So much harder than I could have imagined!

      1. Good memory – it was Will that had the awful rash from an allergy to amoxicillin. Gosh that was horrible! His body body was covered in a rash and it took so long to clear! We have really been through the ringer with all of our illnesses so it’s good I was trained well by my mom!

  11. My mom was always the best caretaker when I was sick. I remember there was a time when I had some sort of stomach flu and my mom had this conference to go to that she couldn’t get out of, so I was stuck home with my father who was not anywhere near the caretaker my mom was. It made me even more grateful to her when she returned home and took care of me. <3

    I think that the fact that you are thinking about motherhood and the legacy you're leaving for your children means that you are a much better mom than you give yourself credit for. The perfect mom, who never loses her patience and is the perfect playmate, doesn't exist. But you give your children a safe place to land and that's what matters most.

    1. Awww. This was such a sweet tribute to your Mom, Stephany. I’m so glad you have such good memories of her care, especially when juxtaposed against your experience when she wasn’t home. I’m sure it was SO hard for her to be separated from you for work when you were sick.
      Also, this was just a beautiful – and perfect – summation of what I’m aiming for: giving my kids a safe place to land.

  12. Oh, my goodness, Elisabeth. You are exactly the right mother for your children at every moment. You love them, you nurture them, you are clearly integral to their lives. They seem to love spending time with you – even when they are not sick – and yet they are also independent enough to “fly” on their own (thinking of Abby at camp, or the kids taking off to play with their friends), knowing that they have you as their true home base.
    That said, illness has a way of crystallizing what we need to do in the moment, and it also seems to sear those moments into our memories. I think we tend not to remember the normal days, the usual days, the weeks that just blend into each other. But when an illness – a mini-crisis hits – you spring into action and do what must be done. And you do it right, for your kids, because you know and love them. 101 OR vomit. Needless to say, I was not sick much. ;>)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *