I recently made a similar deal. But I’m on the end with leverage.
As I wrote last week, we’ve had some instances of our little one awakening for no reason in the middle of the night. This past weekend, we were again jolted from sleep by a sudden screaming on the monitor. I nudged my spouse – it was her turn after my previous experience rocking her back to sleep for several hours in the wee small moments of a night – and she trudged upstairs to begin the arduous process of convincing her to return to slumber. I rolled over, briefly annoyed that once again she woke up for no reason.
Oh, but this time there was a very clear reason. “Could you help me?” my spouse hollered down the stairs. As I trudged upstairs, she started down towards me. “She threw up,” she said to me.
“Where are you going?” I asked as she passed me.
“To get some rubber gloves.”
The smell overwhelmed me as soon as I walked into her room. She was sitting up in her crib, crying, her arms held up to me. She was covered in vomit: her pajamas were soaked, it was caked to her cheeks and lips, on her fingers, in the curls of her hair. On her mattress were two distinctly different piles: the dinner pile (black bean burger, puréed spinach, chopped strawberries) and the lunch pile (I didn’t feed her lunch, but it looked like tomatoes and carrots and pasta). Her loveys were soaked as well, her poor white kitten lying in a pool of tomato-carrot blood. “I’ll hug you in a minute, baby,” I assured her as I lifted her out of the crib and transferred her to the changing table, where I stripped her out of her pajamas and started wiping her face. It became clear she needed a bath, and so into the tub she went. Meanwhile, my spouse stripped the sheet off the crib and promptly through it in the trash can outside.
I suppose we’re long overdue for a stomach bug, although I’m still not convinced that’s what she had. She never ran a fever, she had no diarrhea, and after a few failed attempts to keep down Pedialyte, she slept through the rest of the night and ate her breakfast without problem the next morning. I suspect the strawberries I fed her for dinner had turned, harboring some ill-intentioned bacteria that picked a brief fight with her stomach lining.
I tell all of this not to turn your own stomach, dear reader, but rather to explain the circumstances of my own bargain with my partner in parenthood. If it hasn’t become clear to you yet, my spouse is terribly squeamish when it comes to vomit. Rubber gloves, subsequent disposal of crib sheet, followed by a refusal to stay in the nursery without the windows open – she does not do vomit. Shit all over her and she can manage. But puking? No no no. She can hardly stand the idea of vomit. This is someone who, when someone throws up on TV, has to leave the room.
You may also be wondering, what about all those times she spit up as an infant? If you are wondering this, you probably haven’t parented an infant in a long time. Spit-up is not the same as throw-up. Spit-up does not smell like bile. Spit-up is what happens when milk and puréed food don’t make it all the way into the stomach. Spit-up does not come up after a few hours tossing about in the stomach. And my lovely partner does not do throw-up. No way. Which meant that I was the one scrubbing the crib mattress, disinfecting it and sniffing it to gauge my progress. I was the one scrubbing the carpet and picking bean skins and pieces of corn out between the carpet fibers. (During which I had to ask myself, why cut all those teeth if she’s not going to use them more?) And then when we decided to put her back down to sleep, I’m the one who slept with her. On the spare bed. With several layers of beach towels underneath us. And no pajamas on and a very washable and possibly disposable blanket over us.
But when she woke up – I didn’t really wake up since I didn’t sink lower than semi-consciousness for worry over her – she sat up, looked briefly surprised to see her daddy by her side, and threw her arms around me in a sudden good morning hug. Upon which I realized: all of it was worth it. Being a nurse is awesome. That wonderful feeling you have when you realize that you are not feeling as awful as you were feeling is easily transferred onto another person who cared for you in those moments of awful sickness. And I loved being the recipient of that grateful joy that comes from feeling better.
The next morning, my spouse was apologetic for not being better at dealing with vomit. “I’m an awful mother,” she concluded, “if I can’t help hold her hair back when she’s throwing up!”
“That’s crazy talk,” I told her. “You helped. You threw away the crib sheet. If you hadn’t been there, I’d have washed it and saved it.” But seriously, I assured her that her squeamishness around vomit in no way invalidated her mothering. “We all have our weaknesses. Your weakness about throw-up is not a surprise to either of us, and I’m happy to handle it. Just let me be the nurse in this parenting partnership.”
“Okay,” my spouse agreed. “What should I do in exchange?”
“Oh, we’ll figure that out later,” I said. And then erupted in devious, maniacal laughter.
A parenting partnership is really all about the midnight deal. I suppose single parents have their own versions of this, either with friends or other family or even with their children. But raising a child with another person requires you to strike deals, to negotiate the division of labor according to each other’s interests, gifts, and weaknesses. Some of these things are obvious before the enterprise even gets started, but most of them you have to figure out as you go along. And when the crisis occurs in the depths of the night, when the house ought to be sleeping and still, well, the stakes just feel higher. I’m happy to be the nurse in this partnership, to clean up vomited dinner piles and wash half-digested spinach out of curly hair. But somewhere along the line there will be something I cannot do, and I will be able to call my spouse to cover me. The midnight deal is the secret currency of co-parenting, and right now I hold the chips. But, as always…
To be continued…