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When mum Gets Sick
Parents worry a great deal about how to keep their children healthy. Family schedules are full of dates for check-ups, immunizations, trips for treatment of all sorts of minor and major illnesses. When there are both older and younger children, we worry that viruses and infections brought home from school will travel to the younger ones in the family. Without such concerns, one could not possibly be a good parent.

But what about when a parent gets sick? We are expected to be stoic and self-sufficient, sometimes denying the seriousness of our symptoms until it is almost too late. But, let’s face it, we get sick too. In one sense of the word, healthy motherhood is a quite modern achievement. In today’s world of generally safe child-bearing, we forget that during the early 19th century, about one in ten mothers died of what was caused child-bed or child-birth fever. That produced many orphans. As medical practices have improved so much in modern times (with a profound appreciation of the necessity of sanitary conditions for a delivery), few mothers today die of that condition.

However, even though they aren’t supposed to, they do get sick from time to time. Let’s face it. Many mothers are so over-worked and stressed out that they get run-down and succumb to many of the same viruses and infections that cause trouble for their children. And, in addition, there are many medical conditions—the need for surgery, injury and broken bones, hormonal problems—that can put mothers out of commission for briefer or longer periods of time that will impact their on-going mothering routine.

A sick mother, especially when her children are young, can throw the entire household out of kilter. Although there is much more job-sharing today than there was when I was a young mother, current estimates are that 70% of household and parenting chores still fall on mothers. And that figure applies to families with a father present; it is obviously even higher in single-mother families.

When my children were young, I lived in an area of heavy winter ice and snow, with enough upper respiratory infections to go around for everyone. Furthermore, I directed a child care centre that enrolled even infants and toddlers, a group than tends to have 8-10 URI’s a year. So I was exposed from both sides of the fence, as it were—from those my children brought home and the ones I dragged in all by myself. And I did plenty of exposing; nothing was a one-way street. Fortunately I did not get sick enough to have to stay home or be taken to a doctor’s office very often. But, every time it happened, it was terribly hard on my children, especially my daughter. She and I were great huggers, and it was very hard on her not to be allowed to come into the bedroom, get up on the bed, put her face right into mine, and put her arms around my neck. Resisting and explaining simultaneously, I always felt like a heel. I can’t tell you how many strep throats the two of us ping ponged back and forth.

So what can we do?

Prevent as much as possible. As always, prevention is better than treatment. And many young mothers are so busy and so stressed that they have difficulty finding time to carry out preventive activities that will lead to better maternal health. When mothers work outside the home, the energy drain and the time shortage are even greater. This means that we have to formulate a plan and find the time to engage in activities that will benefit us and thereby benefit our children. The importance of good nutrition has come to the forefront in the last few years, but young mothers may be some of our least well-fed people. Leave the filthy high chair tray alone for a few minutes and enjoy the rest of your food. (For suggestions on nutrition, check out the new column on this Fisher-Price web page.)

Sneak a nap (or at least a brief rest) every chance you get. I am not a napper and tend to become hyper-alert whenever I try to lie down for a nap. But if I were to lie down beside one of my napping children, I could always fall asleep instantly.

And don’t forget the importance of exercise—not only to get those abs back in shape after a delivery but to help you achieve and maintain better health in general. If you don’t have time or near-by facilities to allow you to go to an exercise club, try doing more exercises as you go through your ordinary family routines. Ten trips up and down the stairs compare favorably to time on a Stairmaster. And carrying a young child from the bathtub to the bed qualifies as weight lifting in anybody’s book. And one could hardly find a more beneficial exercise than pushing a child-filled stroller for a mile or so. With that kind of exercise, both generations benefit. With the right attitude, household chores aren’t all bad.

When you’re really sick and know you’re contagious, try to keep your children at a distance. As I wrote above, this isn’t always easy, as your children will want to be with you—and will try to slip into your bedroom if given a chance. But, if possible, have someone else provide their basic care for a few days, including all the rituals you enjoy with them—bathing them, reading stories, tucking them in. This is true even if you are breast feeding. Most pediatricians recommend pumping the milk during the height of your illness to keep the flow going, but do not give it to the baby.

Let your children see you in bed from a distance and hear your “tired and sick” voice. Reassure them that you will be well in a few days (whatever is realistic) and that you’ll soon be doing all the things you did together before you got sick. Ask them to draw you a picture and put the pictures up in your bedroom.

When necessary, make certain you see a physician and get the help you need. Roughing it on your own won’t help you get back to functioning as a competent and loving parent. Instead it may only lengthen the time you will need to disrupt your children’s routine. If you need antibiotics, make sure you take them; if you need extra rest, make certain you get it.

So, even though mothers aren’t supposed to get sick, they do. And attention to your own health needs will definitely make you even more aware of those of your children and enable you to do a better job of helping to meet them.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education