Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Shoo, flu... Don't bother me!

It's flu season. No kidding.
Despite spending hours on the phone tracking down the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines and waiting in line at health clinics in an attempt to protect my family preventively, our household has been pestered threefold by one strain of stomach bug or another in the last year- twice just since Thanksgiving.

The first hit was the most crushing. This was one of the inevitable moments I most dreaded as a new mother, how to care for a sick child when I myself felt miserable. We called in favors and relied on the generosity of family, friends and neighbors to help us muddle through the worst of it. By the third time, I knew what to expect for the twenty-four hour crisis period and we managed with much less anxiety and a little more grace. But then what? How were we to pass the remainder of our self-imposed quarantine at home when our bodies were still weak from illness and our spirits made delicate by the onset of unseasonably cold temperatures?
The answer, at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, was to "make special" and seemingly new again that which had become routine. This required attentiveness and creativity; my infirm body and mind rallied to the challenge.

First priority was to give AS an overdue bath. This usually involves him sloshing around in the suds for 20 minutes drowning his water toys while I take care of the washing part. I typically sing some appropriate bath time ditty such as "Rub a Dub Dub" repeatedly, and we wrap it all up by reading our sole bath book, Barnyard Bath by Sandra Boynton, for the umpteenth time. The usual toys were swapped out for others I was not in the habit of putting in the tub anymore. To rejuvenate the tired song, words were changed to reflect my son's name, "Rub a Dub Dub, AS in the tub...". My new approach to reading the book was perhaps the funnest part; I turned it upside down. The Boynton book rewarded AS's efforts to perceive and name the inverted farm animals with an image of a right-side-up chicken (which appears upside-down when the book is viewed correctly- Silly Chicken!) on the last page, so it turned out to be the perfect choice of book to interpret in this unusual way.

Since AS turned his nose up at flavorsome toddler vittles in favor of blander foods he knew instinctively were gentler on an upset tummy, I cautiously chose not to tempt his taste buds with a new menu. But every seasoned cook knows that appropriate presentation of a meal is only second in importance to its taste. AS was already playing with the food on his tray, so here I took my cues. Now was the time to dust off Gramma's fruit boat recipe, if only for inspiration in cutting bananas and grapes into small but festive shapes. Re-hydrating a sick kid was a cinch with a novelty straw in lieu of the standard sippy cup. The piece de resistance was Cheerios cereal, ideal for stacking in towers and pyramids that AS knocked over repeatedly in a fit of giggles. After two enduring days, this endearing sound was music to my ears.

Going outdoors to play was out of the question, so we brought the playground inside. An indoor sandbox was easily fashioned by pouring two or three cups of puffed rice cereal (the "sand") into a small portable tub that we bathed AS in as an infant. Plastic measuring cups were handy scoops and appropriate for developing AS's fine motor skills by filling and emptying them with cereal. Pouring grains back and forth between smaller and larger size cups became a rudimentary lesson in the math concept of volume. I then plopped AS in the tub, clothes and all. He took joy in the tactile sensation of the grains in his hands and under his feet. The look of surprise on his face when he discovered this play material was edible was priceless; he scarfed it in handfuls. Unlike real sand, there were no repercussions (No! Yuck!) for putting it in his mouth. And the added bonus... I had inadvertently discovered another way to encourage a child with a suppressed appetite to eat.

As the day wore on, AS and I both showed signs we needed to rest more. I caved and turned on the T.V. to WETA Kids, a local public television channel, without sense of guilt. We cuddled up on the couch together and enjoyed an hour of developmentally appropriate, commercial-free children's programming. Classics such as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers hold court with new The Electric Company (now featuring hip celebrities like actor Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock and rapper Wyclef Jean) and educational shows with animated superheroes like nerdy-cool "Word Girl". Unlike commercial networks, WETA Kids content is free of violence, including the cartoon sort. During the episode we watched Becky Botsford, aka Word Girl, champion literacy while foiling her nemesis "The Butcher" (who butchers the English language and whose powers are nullified by tofu). The Butcher wore a bandoleer of sausages, not bullets, and his greatest assault was to the vanity of know-it-all art collectors who he hoodwinked by selling forgeries of famous masterpieces sculpted in... chopped liver.

As we woke from restorative naps dreamscapes were on my mind, the kind of fanciful places I called "castles" or "forts" and contrived with sofa cushions and throw blankets in the living room of my childhood home. Relishing the thought that AS might be just old enough to appreciate this form of imaginary kinesthetic play, I began to deconstruct his crib bedding. The lightweight mattress, fitted sheets and flannel blankets would serve as our building materials along with a small easy chair and cushy ottoman. Memories of a former college professor provided added inspiration; he once recalled from his days as an elementary school art teacher transforming the infrastructure of his classroom with sheets and desk chairs to introduce students to architectural design elements, such as form and space. Imagine a child's wonderment as they entered this fantastic environment, crawling on hands and knees like hamsters in a Habitrail through an improvised tunnel that magically appeared one day where they expected to find the door to their classroom. One at a time, they channeled through a maze of cloth partitions sweeping from the ceiling and, at last, joined their classmates in an open area carpeted in floor pillows for the remainder of the lesson. These children had already internalized the contrasting concepts of open/closed and inside/outside before their teacher even said word one about form and space.

Of course AS's humble fort was built on a smaller scale, but the outcome was the same. He had the added benefit of seeing the theory of cause and effect in action as he gleefully took a flying leap on top of the structure and brought it down around him. The fallen mattress and ottoman provided soft surfaces of varying heights to climb and tumble across. Then AS rolled to a stop on his back wrapping himself in one of the sheets, handy for the ensuing game of "Peek-a-Boo". By the end of the day, we'd almost forgotten we weren't feeling well.


  1. Leave it to you to draw from your tired self, many moments of creativity! Word Up!! We love Word Girl and Huggy Face. We read the books and watch the show sometimes. My kids are great at making forts. My couches are not places to sit, they are mere building tools. Now if I could just relax and rejoice in their moments to be creative and not worry about the anxiety that comes when I say, "o.k., time to clean up!"

  2. Thanks for hipping us to the "Word Girl" books! Looks like they are recommended for ages 4 to 8 by the publisher. Did you know that the PBS website features a "bookfinder" search engine for parents? You can use it to find book recommendations for your child by age or theme. WoW!

  3. I will return to this post for inspiration during my baby's first illness. I hope it isn't anytime soon.

  4. I hope so, too! Helps to plan ahead a little, though, just in case. Some parents suggest "saving" one or two special toys or activities just for occasions like this. My father played with a favorite wooden puzzle set in bed when he got sick as a boy, and I still crave the foods my mother prepared for me when I wasn't feeling well. Other children seem to find comfort in what is most familiar, like the blanket or stuffed animal they sleep with every day. It took some experimenting (that's partly why the first time was the hardest- no personal experience to draw upon) but I eventually discovered a few surefire ways to make these tough times a little easier on us. Stay well!



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