Germs of endearment: When illness invades


Photo: Matt Pamer Photo: Matt Pamer

Early last summer, a little over a month after my daughter’s first birthday, my wife and I felt we’d reached a huge milestone: the achievement of a durable and reasonable baby care/work/life balance. After a year of having to improvise our lives on a day-to-day basis, order, routine, and stability were being restored.

My daughter had just started full-time day care; I was finally getting in more time and doing better work for my business than I had in a while; I’d been able to get to the gym something like 10 times in the previous month (this sounds totally lame to a civilian, but it’s a huge accomplishment for a parent of a young child); I’d seen friends two evenings one week, which felt thoroughly decadent. I was caught up on yard work, too, which was something I could seldom say even before parenthood. But, as it turns out, the light at the end of a year-long tunnel was an oncoming train. Specifically, a train packed to overflowing with various forms of contagion.

First of all, I truly love the place where we send our daughter to day care. We looked at a lot of places in Charlottesville and this was far and away our top choice. Faced with a very long and discouraging waiting list, I’m not ashamed to say I pestered and begged. I dropped names. I may have falsely implied connections to various local celebrities or persons of great wealth and/or power. I left long, plaintive appeals in maudlin voicemails that Charles Dickens wished he’d written.

It reached the point that the owner of this place was left with the choice of filing a restraining order against me or admitting my daughter so I would shut up. Fortunately, she chose the latter (let’s hope I don’t actually have to present backstage passes to the next Dave Matthews show or produce a dinner invitation with Sissy Spacek). But kids get sick at day care. A lot. And they bring those germs home with them.

I knew that kids get sick for the first few months after starting day care or, if they bypass day care, the first several months of school. We tried to anticipate this by exposing our only child to other children several times a week for about nine months before she started going. My quaint notion was that her immune system would gradually be built up so she’d be much healthier than the average kid. The germs we exposed her to were apparently deferential, part-time, amateurs; day care/school germs are ruthless, full-time professionals. We weren’t ready for this.

So the windfall of time my wife and I enjoyed in the first couple of weeks of full-time day care gave way rather abruptly to one damn illness after another—not just for my daughter but for all of us. When my daughter comes home with the sniffles, either her mother or I get sick within a day or two and whichever parent is “spared” wins the prize of having to take care of both child and spouse or at least take care of child by him or herself which, in turn, inevitably means the “spared” parent becomes sick within a day or two. Lather, rinse, repeat. Balance? Hah! We’re back to living like refugees in a Cormac McCarthy novel in no time.

The worst week we’ve had so far went like this: On Sunday morning, my daughter let us know she had a stomach virus by disgorging the contents of her very full stomach in my lap. My wife succumbed to the stomach virus by Tuesday evening and had to call in sick Wednesday and Thursday. Despite being really careful and washing my hands every time my wife or daughter even looked at me, I got hit hard by the virus Thursday morning, shortly after taking my daughter to day care. My wife recovered enough during the day to be able to take care of our daughter after day care and I felt better (but not great) by Friday night, when my daughter threw up again. On Saturday, the three of us started on a new round of colds. True story.

I’ve been sicker in the past three months than I have in the previous three or four years combined. Talking to other fathers, I’ve discovered an alarming pattern: Babies get sick but generally recover pretty quickly; mothers get sick but also recover fairly quickly; fathers get sick and stay sick almost all the time.

I’ve heard this from at least four other fathers, all of whom are younger and generally healthier than I am. Is this our comeuppance for not having to deal with morning sickness? Now I suspect the story of the proverbial father who goes out to the corner market to buy a pack of cigarettes and never comes home has likely just gotten a bad rap: Rather than callously abandoning his family, AWOL dad probably went out to buy orange juice but was too weak to make it to the corner market and succumbed to illness and fell into a snow drift along the way.

Even the most vigilant hand washing is pathetically inadequate when it comes to dealing with my 16-month-old daughter. Clean hands don’t help when my daughter manages to sneeze and/or cough right into my open mouth; when my hands aren’t free for self-defense (e.g. I’m carrying her in one arm, and a heavy bag of groceries in the other), my daughter will frequently seize the opportunity to insert her slime-covered fingers in my unsuspecting nose or mouth. Even when I’m fully capable of defending myself, my daughter, just to show who’s boss, will try to shove a half-eaten animal cracker in my mouth. Sure, letting that happen is pretty much a guar-
antee of getting a cold, but she’s just so darn cute when she does it and it seems like a real bonding moment and I wouldn’t want to pass that up.

Now people tell me to expect not just months but at least a full year of this. But even a full year of misery has a silver lining, in that everyone’s immune system is greatly strengthened in the long run. Assuming I don’t succumb to illness while walking to the corner market to buy orange juice, my daughter can look forward to endless guilt-tripping phone calls by the time she’s in her 20s, along the lines of, “You should come see me this weekend because—guess what?—I’m healthy now, unlike when I was raising you and was still young enough to enjoy it.”

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