It was a true test of love. There I stood in my new favorite shirt (a ribbed turtleneck, red, white and black, as yet unsullied by the wash). Across from me quivered 2-year-old Lucy, tears in her blue eyes, vomit clinging to her fuzzy purple jammies. She reached up to me. "Hug Mama!"
I would like to say I didn't think about the shirt. I would like to say I grabbed Lucy immediately. In short, I would like to lie. I hesitated. Squeezed her arm. "It's OK, honey! It's OK!"
"Yes, honey! Just let Mama change her shirt, OK?" I took a tiny step toward my bedroom.
"Hug Mama!" She started to sob.
I did it. No need to call the authorities. I got down on my knees, put my arms around her and squeezed. I stroked her back and kissed her soft, stinky cheek. But I couldn't stop that vain little voice in my head from whispering, "Cold wash to keep the red from running? Or warm to get out the puke?"
Things used to be easier. In earlier generations, a mother knew just how much time she should devote to herself: none. Nowadays, we're all trying to find a balance between what is best for ourselves and what is best for our children. Mothers are bombarded with platitudes. Amid the demands of child rearing, we strive to maintain our own identities, meet our own needs, find time for ourselves. Likewise, we encourage our children to be independent: to sleep alone, walk early, spend parent-free hours in day care or preschool. Nobody really knows how much of our time children require. But whatever a mother's choice about work and child care, everyone seems to agree on one point: Mothers need some amount of "Me" time to replenish themselves for the vast demands of "Mommy" time.
But at the first sniffle -- the first bead of sweat on a hot forehead, the first vomit -- the rules change. Children are allowed complete dependence. Mothers must drop everything, forget the platitudes, forget sleep, forget themselves.
On the night of Lucy's stomach flu, I had already switched into Me mode. She'd been in bed a half hour, and I thought the night was mine. It had been a long, napless day of cutting crusts off peanut butter sandwiches and building Lego playgrounds that were promptly destroyed. When Lucy got sick, I somehow managed to shift back to Mommy mode. After changing her jammies, I checked her room. I replaced the reeking Minnie Mouse sheets with a crisp Winnie-the-Pooh set (note to self: Buy a backup waterproof mattress pad). I blotted the floor around Lucy's bed (note to self: Always keep club soda in the house). I threw everything in the wash. I found a U.S. Postal Service bin and placed it near Lucy's bed (note to self: Buy a bucket). I murmured sweet mommy things -- You're my brave girl, it's going to be OK, Mama's here.
My competence grew out of delusion. I told myself that the sweet potatoes and American cheese on the floor, bed and jammies matched the amount Lucy had eaten for dinner, so she must be done. When she threw up the second time (so close to the toilet), I thought, "OK, this time she's really done." The third time (less close) worried me a bit. The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eight times worried me considerably more. I had visions of emergency rooms and saline drips, of calling my husband home from his business trip so he could sit by Lucy's hospital bed.
But then she drifted off, and my happy delusions returned: After two hours of misery, it was over. For the sin of optimism, I skipped purgatory and went straight to hell. Fifteen minutes after she fell asleep, the cat walked in and meowed. Lucy howled. I considered becoming a dog person. Or maybe a fish person. Lucy begged for water. We had our first of several identical conversations:
"I want water!"
"You can't have water. Water will make you throw up."
"I don't wanna frow up!"
"Right. So you can't have water."
"I want water!"
She fell asleep again. Woke up. Asked for water. Slept. Woke. Begged for water. Cried. Kicked. Writhed. I gave her small sips. She yelled for more. Contorted next to her on the twin bed, I found myself drifting further and further away from Mommy Mode.
Somewhere around 4 a.m., I did the unthinkable. "Go to sleep, Lucy! Mama's tired! LET MAMA SLEEP!" Yes, I yelled at my poor, puking, gray-complexioned child. I was Joan Crawford reincarnated. Worse -- I was Joan Crawford with pronoun problems.
The night finally ended, as even the worst nights do. After two hours of sleep, my brain was fuzzy, my immune system ripe for infection. Lucy was surprisingly chipper, unscathed by my outburst. I, however, was worried. Was I such a bad mother that I couldn't remain selfless for one night? I thought about mothers of children who were chronically or terminally ill. How do they do it, day after day, night after night? As violently ill as Lucy had been, I knew it was temporary. And still, I couldn't bear it.
We are lucky to live in a time when a woman is valued for more than the care she gives to others. No longer must we feel guilty for putting ourselves first every now and then. Just as at any other time in history, though, our children need to be loved and nurtured. When our children need us most -- when they are sick or frightened or lonely -- we have to be at our best, to move beyond ourselves, our goals, our favorite shirts. But we don't have to like it. The next time Lucy has a bad night, I will strive to be more Donna Reed, less Joan Crawford. But behind the soft looks and soothing voice, I will allow Donna Reed to feel very, very sorry for herself.