Is it my fault when my kids get sick?

By Nan Mooney

Whenever my kids get sick I feel like I have failed. I look for the hole in the net and then dedicate myself to sewing it tight so this never happens again. At first glance, I realize this sounds silly and self-centered. But there is a practical component. I’m a single parent with three children and illness inevitably equals missed work or other commitments.

But on a deeper level I know that—more than all the emotional traumas we might work through together—my children’s physical fragility scares me. Being sick means being vulnerable in a way we can’t talk through or shake off. Illness has the power to take them from me, in part or in whole. And when they fall ill I feel guilty because their physical health is both my responsibility and my legacy. I created it because I created them.

My two older children mostly cooperate in this fantasy that the right cocktail of supplements, vegetables, and outdoor exercise can equal perfect health. They rarely get sick and when they do they manage to plunge through it quickly. But my youngest son is different. He is physically fragile. Not to look at—he’s built like a fireplug and only recently, at age five, stopped advancing through the world enormous round belly first. But he is ill. Often.

It started in utero. An amnio revealed extra chromosomal material, but they had no idea what it was or what it signified. An agonizing six weeks followed as they ran every test they knew on the remaining amniotic fluid. I switched from a midwife to a high risk OB who specialized in genetics. Elective termination was mentioned. Even the genetic expert couldn’t explain what might cause such an aberration, so I searched for anything I had done differently this third time around. Was it because I subsisted on coffee and cookies for much of the pregnancy? Because I didn’t sleep enough? Because I was too old to still be making babies? My own blood, tested, revealed extra chromosomal material as well but different from his. Had I passed on some dormant flaw?

When the time came, the high risk OB actually delivered the baby, something she apparently usually left to her residents. “Let me tell you,” a nurse whispered in my ear, “that is unheard of.” I imagine it was because she wanted to see what the hell came out. What arrived was an eight pound baby boy with no obvious defects. The doctor told me that most likely the extra chromosomal material was junk DNA, probably just extra stuff that really didn’t do anything. Medical professionals can talk in a way that offers such little comfort—”probably,” “most likely.” Hovering around the edges is always the unspoken flip side: The “or maybe not.”

When he was two, my son was hospitalized for three days after a massive febrile seizure. I will never forget the image of the EMT holding up his tiny non-responsive body, then tucking my son under his arm like a football and sprinting for the ambulance. When we were discharged from the hospital I asked about the mysterious bandage on his leg and was told they had to jam an IV straight into his bone because they couldn’t get a vein. No one could tell me why it happened. Two more febrile seizures followed in less than a year. “Most likely he will outgrow them,” the ER doctor predicted. “Probably nothing to worry about,” the pediatrician reassured me. My little ticking time bomb. There seems to be no concrete explanation for why he’s had more ambulance rides and emergency room visits than both of his siblings combined.

I wish like hell there was something physical, psychological, or spiritual I could do to mend him so that I knew he would never shatter. I do all that I can think of. I cram my children full of two kinds of probiotics and immune boosting vitamins. We eat organic. I practice mudras to strengthen and ground our whole family. I hope and I worry.

We like to think that our kids are their own people, and in so many ways they are. But they’re our people too. We made them. They have our eyes and our hair, our blood and bones, our raging tempers and depressions and cancer genes. I’m not sure what the origins of my son’s struggling immune system may be, but I can feel pretty confident I played a role.

I’ve never mentioned my pressing need to believe that I hold the key to engineering my kids’ perfect physical health. Most conversations on the topic wind up with platitudes about germs and kids and “what can you do?”. Then recently I had a social media exchange with a very spiritual and holistic friend whose daughter had been diagnosed with a serious illness. I had written praising their family’s collective strength and strong bloodlines and she wrote back thanking me. She volunteered that, in the wake of the diagnosis and learning about the poison contained in her daughter’s body, she had been “experiencing feelings of failure,” and that she was “working through them.”

I fully appreciate how lucky I am that, in the grand scheme of things, my children are healthy. At the same time I wanted to respond “I know exactly what you mean.”

Are we to blame for our children’s frailties? The easy response is of course not. The honest answer is yes and no and really we’ll never know the answer to this question and if that eats away at you then that’s just too damn bad. Our children are broken in places. They are complex, flawed, suffering human beings and some of the flaws and suffering, either by nature or nurture, come from us, their parents. The world is such a frightening and breathtaking place. Can’t we at least grace them with their health before we release them out into it?

Just last week I lay awake in the wee hours listening to my youngest wheezing in his sleep, debating emergency room or not. I wanted to bend down and whisper in his ear, “I’m sorry. I wish I could have made you perfect. I tried.” Instead my mind circled. Earlier bedtime? Less junk food? Start teaching them yoga?

Like my friend, I too have been experiencing feelings of failure. I am working through them.

Nan Mooney is a writer, attorney, and single mother of three living in Northern Virginia. In her spare time she eats, sleeps, and worries about things she can’t control.

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