If anyone had driven by our house at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, they would have seen a small, fuzzy monkey sitting on her Mommy’s lap on the front step. No, this wasn’t an extension of our Halloween celebrations. I had wrapped my daughter in her monkey blanket and taken her outside to breath the frigid air because it’s the only thing that helps when she gets the croup (other than a trip to the emergency room, which she has also required at times).
For those of you who are lucky enough to have avoided the croup, it’s basically difficulty breathing as the result of swelling around the vocal cords, usually caused by a virus or bacteria. It’s most common in infants and children (although my daughter’s pediatrician diagnosed me with it over the phone last winter). Kids with the croup bark like baby seals when they cough, and when it gets bad, they wheeze. When it’s really bad, they can’t breathe. The symptoms usually manifest in the middle of the night (of course they do) and last 5-6 nights. (Because who needs to sleep for a week when you can stay up all night worrying about whether or not your kid is breathing?) Treatment at home usually consists of either hot steam or cold air, and of course my girls only respond to the cold, which is why I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit sitting on our front step in winter or sticking my baby’s head in the freezer in the middle of summer.
The croup has been an unwelcome visitor in our home since my girls were babies. Frieda’s been to the ER at least twice, and Rosie was admitted to the hospital when she was 4 months old. Listening to my baby struggle to breathe has got to be one of the worst experiences of my life. Yet, somehow, I feel like I am at my best as a mother in those moments. Yes, I am anxious and worried, but my anxiety is focused on something real, something actually worth worrying about. In those moments, when I am holding my daughters, listening to their breathing, watching their chests rise and fall, I am completely present. I’m not checking my phone or cooking dinner or rushing the girls along. I’m focused on my baby, on her breaths, waiting to see if the coughing will stop, if the wheezing will calm.
And in those unfortunate times when we have had to go to the ER, I was fine. Even as I double-parked in front of the emergency room doors, even as I ran (well, “ran” might be generous, given that I was schlepping a 4 month old in her car-seat bucket) through the lobby, calling for a nurse, I had my wits about me. I wasn’t flooded or freaked, and I knew what I needed to do. Even after I had been awake for over 24 hours, cradling an infant who would only sleep in my arms, I held it together. (Of course, once I got home and handed her over to my husband, I promptly fell apart, and then fell asleep.)
I’d love to think that I become a super hero when my girls are sick, but I don’t think I do—not any more than other parents, at least. As I think about it, that’s one of the most amazing things about parenthood, one that took me by surprise. Even when you’ve hit a level of fatigue that you never imagined possible, even when the stakes feel higher than they’ve ever felt before, and even when you’re constantly faced with situations unlike anything you’ve ever managed, you figure it out. You make decisions, you take action, you deal with it. And then, once your baby is back in her crib, breathing easily, you sit back, sip your coffee, let out a sigh of relief, and get ready for the next time, as there will surely be one.