Last week, when I dropped Arty off at kinder, I felt like I was leaving him at a hospice for emphysema patients. Almost every child there was coughing like they’d been born with a pack-a-day habit, and for every one that covered their mouth, there were at least four that didn’t. Not that the mouth-covering made much difference. As soon as a disease-catching appendage was removed from a child’s face, it would immediately be applied to a communal toy, smearing its bacterial load there for all the other children to share.
In the past, walking into a giant petrie dish of this kind would have freaked my shit out. These days… well, it still freaks me out a little, but I’ve come to accept that three year olds are gross, and there’s nothing to be done about it. They’re as willing to share their germs as they are unwilling to share their toys.
Eventually, Arty’s immune system will get better at fending off the many bugs he’s exposed to as he plays with his adorable grotty friends, but in the mean time, we’re just taking it as given that every month or so we’ll be stuck at home with a coughing, puking, feverish child. It’s just a stage we’ve got to get through.
Having passed through the valley of the shadow of voms many times now, we have come to really value the help of family and friends along the way. Feeling supported by the people around you while you’re feeling isolated and strung out is so important. But it’s not always easy for others to know what to do for a family with a crook kid, so out of our mounting experience, I have produced a list.
1. Do a mercy dash
Dragging a grizzly, limp, uncomfortable child out of their bed and through the shops makes you feel like a monster. Being glared at by strangers as said child coughs all over them makes you feel like Typhoid Mary. One of the kindest and most helpful things a friend can do is say “Hey, I’m going to the supermarket, what can I drop around?” or “Do you guys need any medicine? I can swing by the chemist on my way home from work if you like.”
2. Provide a meal
When you’ve spent your day up to your elbows in puke, or smeared with various shades of mucous, the actual last thing you feel like doing is handling food. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean you haven’t worked up an appetite. Someone taking the job of preparing a meal out of your hands is such a gift. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or something you’ve gone to a lot of trouble over – a serve of whatever you’re making for your own dinner will seem like a dish from a Michelin star restaurant to a tired and hungry carer.
3. Clean something
The incidental chores that keep a house in order are the first to get neglected when illness strikes. Getting the vomit splattered sheets clean takes priority over emptying the dishwasher, and the little things just get ignored and accumulate. On top of this, sick kids tend to be very clingy, so you often spend the majority of your time holding and comforting them, and literally don’t have to physical liberty to do anything else. Dropping by to chuck a load through the dishwasher, or hang up some washing goes a long way to making the parent of a sick child feel that their world hasn’t descended wholly into chaos. (That said, nobody would expect a friend to expose themselves to infection, so this is one that’s best left to non-contagious illnesses).
4. Treat them
Looking after a sick child means anxiety, loss of sleep, and a greater degree of familiarity with someone else’s viscous excretions than any sane person would ever willingly choose. You feel like every ounce of energy and fortitude you have is being given over to this little creature in your care. So, when someone does something to nurture you in the midst of it all, it can be powerfully uplifting. Drop over flower from your garden so they have something pretty to cheer them. Leave some chocolate or cookies on the doorstep. Share a funny video that they can watch with their kid and have a laugh. You don’t have to spend a lot of money – or any at all – it is absolutely the thought that does the magic.
I’d already had a roughish week the last time Arty got sick. Then he spent 24 hours vomiting and feverish. Nobody in the family slept much, and by the time he was better I was so overtired and overwrought that I was constantly teetering on the edge of tears. Some of my best friends had a game of D&D scheduled that night, and before we sat down to play, all four of them listened while I spent a good ten minutes venting about how awful I felt, how worried I’d been, and a whole bunch of other related stuff. Not one of them gave advice, or tried to make it better – they just heard me, and validated what I was feeling. It helped more than I can say. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the restorative power of being listened to.
We all feel like we want to do something practical to help when people we care about are having a hard time. I promise you that any of those five things will be a good choice next time you want to turn that desire into action.