Love Actually Isn’t Pretty
You’re asleep at 2:00 a.m. when you hear a strange sound. You sit upright, hoping it was a dream, but then you hear it again. It is the sound that every parent dreads – the sound of a retching child. Childhood is packed with viruses, but the puking one is the worst. You care for your child while trying to keep a safe enough distance not to be infected; you clean up vomit, dirty sheets, and dirty clothes while trying not to touch them. You run around your house with Clorox wipes and Lysol, frantically disinfecting everything that your little germ might have touched. Suddenly your home is an incubator, your beloved child a carrier, and you want to flee and come back in 72 hours when nobody is contagious. But it’s your job to clean up the mess, disinfect it, and console your child instead of making them feel like a leper – all without catching the virus yourself. Which is particularly challenging since puking viruses usually strike when you’re supposed to be sleeping, so you’re running on adrenaline and coffee.
This is the reality of parenthood, and it is what no one tells you at your wedding or baby shower when they want you to be fruitful and multiply. Before you have children, you see pictures of other people with their kids, or you run into families at the park or church, and you think, that doesn’t look so bad – cute kids dressed in their Sunday best, smiling with trophies, riding bikes, or snuggling with their caregivers. It might be fun to be loved that way; to have an excuse to go to Hershey and eat a dozen candy bars or go to Disney World and pretend that you’re riding It’s a Small World for the kids. You’d like to hide Easter eggs around your house and wrap piles of presents on Christmas Eve. So what if you have to change a couple of dirty diapers or stay home on Saturday nights?
If people knew what they were getting into before they had children humanity would have become extinct a long time ago. Some of us with younger siblings or nieces and nephews thought we knew. Those of us who babysat thought, I know what it’s like. I’ve got this. I was a nanny. Ha! Until children are exclusively your responsibility twenty-four hours a day seven days a week – living with you, depending on you for every need they have (emotional, physical, financial) – you have no idea.
Before I had kids, I never got sick. I had never been hospitalized, and had never broken a bone; I thought my sick days at work were just bonus vacation days. Now between orthodontist appointments for my son, hematologist appointments for my daughter, physical therapy for my son, gastroenterologist visits for my daughter, colds, flus, puking viruses and the like, I worry that I won’t have enough sick days.
My children have given me Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, rotavirus, a broken toe, strep throat, the flu, and countless colds and sleepless nights. I’ve scrubbed blood out of my carpet and thrown away an entire bedding set after unsuccessfully trying to get the vomit smell out. I spent years inspecting bowel movements so I could track the status of Crohn’s disease. I spend my vacation days, my money, my time and energy trying to ensure that my kids are as happy and healthy as possible. It’s stressful, it’s expensive, it’s exhausting and sometimes disgusting, and at the end of the day, it’s always about them and never about me. The things I’ve sacrificed to the altar of parenthood – relationships, dreams, jobs, money, food, exercise, vacation days – are innumerable. And yet, when I’m exhausted from work and all of the cleaning, cooking, and driving required to keep these tiny humans afloat, and I finally collapse into bed, an hour later, when I am deep in much-needed REM sleep, I awake to the sound of retching.
This is parenthood: when I think I can’t give anymore, can’t do anymore, and I am on the verge of collapse, I have to tend to a sick child and clean up vomit. Then after being up all night with that child, I have to make the other child lunch and drive him to school and sign his homework slip. And I have to call my boss and explain why I can’t come to work today, I have to miss the meeting, and I have to use a vacation day to clean up vomit and disinfect my house. The office work will pile up while I’m not there; I will pay for this tomorrow. This “vacation day” of scrubbing my house, doing multiple loads of laundry, and trying to nurse a sick child back to health will cost me in myriad ways.
You won’t see pictures of that on Facebook. No one will tell you that at your baby shower. What they should be giving you instead of adorable onesies is a box of latex gloves and a lifetime supply of coffee and disinfectant.
But all is not lost. There is another thing that is impossible to comprehend before you have children: how they fill up your heart until you think it might burst. The second your child’s life becomes real to you – whether because you heard the heartbeat, saw their image on the ultrasound, or felt that first tiny kick inside you – everything changes, and the things that used to matter fade in comparison to the magnitude of your love for this miniature creature that you haven’t even met yet. After they are born, you will love them even more, and protecting them will become your number one priority for the rest of your life. That is what gets you through the sleepless nights, the relentless parade of viruses, the cash drain, and their destruction of every material possession that you own. You discover that those things you used to obsess about were just placeholders for the true loves of your life, your children, and you know that no matter how tired, broke, stressed out, or grossed out you are, they are worth it.
That is the reason this love is so strong. It has to be because what parenthood requires to do it well is everything: your time, energy and money. Your patience. Your utter selflessness. Your saying, “don’t worry about it, it’s not your fault” as they puke all over your favorite shoes, on your birthday, and you have to cancel the weekend that you’ve spent six months planning. On Friday night, when you’re exhausted after working all week, and cooking and cleaning up dinner again, and all you want to do is watch Netflix in your sweatpants, they will ask you to drive them somewhere and pick them up at midnight, and they will ask for money to take with them. Then they will complain that they’re tired, and they won’t clean up their rooms even though you’ve cleaned the whole house plus paid for it by working all week. And you will keep loving them anyway, and get up and do it all again tomorrow because they have captured your heart, and you’re never getting it back.