23 March 2011

Beware the green-eyed monster

It remains a mystery to me how families with young children manage to take winter vacations; in my experience if there is a school break, invariably at least one of my children falls ill. Sacha had a fever for the better part of Christmas break, and in February, with the schools closed for two days, Sarah spiked an honest to god fever, as opposed to her recent attempt to will one into existence.

When I took her to the doctor she tested positive for strep. Does anyone else find it strangely validating to take your kids to the doctor with non-specific viral symptoms and leave with a prescription? I always want to high five the doctor and say, “Yes; I made the right choice coming here!” Sarah’s fever did not break until the end of the week, so she spent her second consecutive week home.

When Sarah started to improve, Sacha got sick. Now I had two sick children, and a third who was going to feel mightily put upon in the morning when he discovered that he was the only one going to school.

Gabriel is the middle child, and possesses a naturally unguarded, emotionally open temperament. He is both empathic and extremely sensitive, keenly feeling any possible slight or exclusion. With Sarah and Sacha home, he envisioned missing a day of debauchery spent lounging in pajamas, eating in front of the television.

Predictably, he feigned ill in the morning, and when I refused to indulge him he became weepy. I began addressing this with a tautological approach, reminding him that it sucks to be sick, because you are sick. This of course failed; adults are barely rational where emotional matters are concerned, children even less so. I pointed out that he had a class trip, play date and birthday party to look forward to throughout the week, which was also unsuccessful. I tried consoling him that given the odds, he too would be sick soon, but delayed gratification ranks just below reason as an effective strategy for reassuring children.

Then he asked me, “Do you ever get jealous?”
“Of course I do.”
“What do you do when you’re jealous?”
As I struggled for a way to explain mindfulness, I began talking more or less out my ass. “Sometimes, I like to imagine my jealousy like a ball,” I said, which is not at all true.
“What kind of ball?”
“It doesn’t mat--” and then I realized I might be on to something. “It's different sizes, depending on how jealous I feel. Sometimes it’s big and heavy, like a medicine ball, or if I’m only a little jealous, it’s light, like a ping pong ball. And I play with it; I toss or throw it around, or bounce it really high. When I get tired of playing with it I throw it as far as I can, or maybe roll it down a hill, so I won’t see it again.”

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for spinning bullshit into a possibly useful metaphor.

Gabriel considered this, then asked, “Can it be a cat? And if I’m only a little jealous I just pet it softly, or if I’m really jealous I can pet it hard.”
“Are you talking about a real cat?”
“No, a pretend one.”
“That’s fine then. You know you have to be gentle with a real cat.”
“I know.”

Acceptable parameters of aggression release on metaphorical cats established, I walked him to school. When I picked him up that afternoon, he asked, “Mama, did you see anything beautiful on your walk home this morning?” Later, on the way to Hebrew school he asked our neighbor, “So, how are you doing in middle school this year?”

This is the flip side of an empathic child: sensitive, vulnerable, and singularly effective at detonating a mother’s heart.


Gabriel finally got a stomach virus, and spent a few days at home enjoying the pleasure of television and my excellent nursemaid services. Once he was feeling better and back at school, he made a confession.

“Mama, remember when Sarah and Sacha were sick and I really wished I was sick too?”
“Well, it wasn’t actually much fun being sick. It was kind of boring, and I didn’t feel well.”  

I did not say I told you so.

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