Given that there were no other indications of gastrointestinal illness, we have concluded that she ate some bad food. Again, my money is on bad strawberries mixed with the spicy black bean burger, but there’s no telling at this point. In fact, there’s no telling even right after it happened. Despite how disgusting this prospect seemed to my spouse, who is still recoiling every time our little girl makes a strange gurgling sound, I did find myself curiously examining the contents of the sick all over our little girl’s crib (and our little girl). I really couldn’t determine the offending foodstuff because, well, all of it came up. I mean, how can you tell who pulled the fire alarm when every person in the building is standing outside?
There is something strange and seemingly self-defeating about the reflex that the body has in rejecting every single piece of food consumed in a twelve-hour period simply because one thing doesn’t agree. I mean, if the strawberries were the main offenders – and that is only a unsubstantiated allegation at this point – then it seems unfair to all those poor carrots and tomatoes to have to vacate the premises. Not to mention how revolting it is to have all of that food all over everything in the middle of the night, with a helping of stomach bile on top for good measure. But sometimes the first or second line of defense for weeding out offensive foods (or, in some cases, not even food – buttons, dirt, whatever) may fail. Sometimes we can taste when something is wrong, and we spit it out. Or we gag on it as it’s going down. Or maybe, if something is really bad, we can smell it and we don’t even put it in our mouth. Or if you’re my spouse who is so averse to nausea to the point of hyper-vigilance and paranoia, throwing food out even before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, something slips by all of these other checkpoints, something we may not realize we can’t stomach until it’s too late. And by then, the only recourse our bodies have is to completely clear the room and start over from scratch, because by then there’s no way to sort out the good from the bad.
This is not a fun place to be. Here, dear reader, is where I’m really shifting my metaphor to the figurative. Of course, actual vomiting is no fun, but emotionally this experience is even tougher. Sometimes we don’t weed out difficult truths until we’re trying to digest them, and when we can’t stomach them, it overturns everything else in our life. And, like those first few hours in the middle of the night, nothing, no matter how clear or soft or easy, can stay down.
So why was it so important for us to figure out what had made our little girl sick? Of course, in the immediate, we wanted to make her feel better. If it was a stomach virus, we wanted to take the appropriate steps to care for her and mitigate the impending hours of fever, nausea, and diarrhea. Thankfully, that was not the case. And so then we want to know what she ate that made her sick so we could not feed her that food again. Our first fear was that she was allergic to tofu, which she’d had for dinner two nights prior. As vegetarians, our little girl will be eating a good bit more tofu than many of her peers, and it was a grim prospect that she might not be able to eat this food at all. And if there was good that has gone bad, we want to take better precautions to keep from making her sick again. Whatever it is, we don’t want to be making her sick.
We learn about our bodies when we get sick. We learn what’s good for them and what’s not, what foods and behaviors we should repeat or avoid. I don’t mean to suggest that all illnesses are preventable or avoidable or, on the converse, somehow necessary for growth. But when we find ourselves responding violently to something, it serves us well to examine the underlying cause. And this might require studying the disgusting sickness a little closer than a normal person would choose.
Those of you who know me know that I am currently processing an experience in my life that I am not able to stomach. I don’t need to unpack those details here; I imagine that if you don’t know me (or even if you do) you have your own experiences in life that have been difficult or impossible for you to metabolize, and I invite you to ponder those instances for yourself. Sometimes we just shrug, hope whatever is going on is just an aberration in our daily lives, and decide not to think too hard about it. But the invitation I am currently struggling to accept is the same calling I felt at two in the morning a few weeks ago: figuring out what can’t be digested and learning how to live and work around it.
Now, to look at this metaphor from the parental perspective: our little girl eats what we feed her (mostly). And so the onus of figuring out the offending food is on us; as her parents, we’re the responsible parties. I wonder to what degree I accept without question what other people feed me. When I try to swallow something I can’t stomach, what is that about? Do I think that it’s really good for me? Do I know that it will make me sick? Do I even stop to think about it? These are the questions with which I’m currently wrestling. It’s not a lot of fun, and it requires me to sort through some pretty disgusting, repulsive contents. But I do have to wonder: when I find myself eating shit, who is it that I’m doing that for? And what do I need to do to recognize shit before someone feeds it to me?
Just like my little girl’s stomach recovered after only a few hours, I know that my emotional stomach will recover and I will be able to go back to eating my normal diet. This is true for us all, I imagine: you can probably remember that one time at that seafood restaurant that something made you sick; it turns your stomach for a moment as you remember it, but you learned from it and you will still be able to eat your lunch today. Learning is what it feels about for me, at least in this moment when I’m still lying on the bed feeling stomach cramps.
Who knows, maybe it’s really all just a random, unavoidable flu bug. Maybe there’s no learning here. But it’s an image that has legs for me at the moment, and that’s the beautiful, brilliant thing about parenting. Everything I do as a parent somehow mirrors my own development and growth. I know that’s a function of my own outlook on life, and parenting isn’t the only relationship that mirrors human development. But I blog about where I am. And if I feel like I’m lying awake in the middle of night with the taste of bile in my mouth, then I’m going to reflect on that. Because that’s what I do when something shakes me.