03/20/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012


It is day five of the kids' virus and I am slipping.

It began well enough, aside from the barf, I mean. I was patient, consoling. I mopped their feverish faces, brought them medicine and fed them ice chips laced with Sprite.

I forgave when they vomited over the sides of their beds, just missing the collection basins I'd left for them.

Later in the night, as their aim improved, I shuttled the buckets of upchuck down the hall, and emptied them into the toilet. "My poor, sweet, little angels," I thought.

That was then.

Despite all of us feeling a bit bedraggled, the second sick day wasn't so bad. We gave ourselves permission to lie around the living room in pajamas. I had no meals to make; no one was hungry. We read Harry Potter under a blanket by the fire, and watched a couple of movies. We napped together, cuddling like they were still my babies. They were gracious. "I love you mom," said one. "You take good care of us."

But that night, I began to falter. After they napped all day, no one was sleepy. There was more vomiting, carpet-scrubbing, and holding back hair at the toilet, but my magnanimity was replaced by irritation, then irrationality. I started questioning the validity of the vomit, the frequency. "Look sweetheart, hardly anything is even coming up. You just did this an hour ago. Your tummy is empty. Go to sleep." One of them wiped her sick mouth on my jammies, but I was too tired to change. Sleep was fitful, the scent of bile wafting through my dreams.

On day three, their appetites were returning, but finicky. I brought them homemade soup that went uneaten, applesauce that ended up in the dog. Yesterday's gratitude became entitlement. The children began demanding Sprite by the can, and arguing about which movies to watch. There was crying. I tried to distract them. We assembled jigsaw puzzles on the kitchen table, and concocted a bright purple smoothie that no one drank. But mommy grew tired. Bedtime was grumpy.

On day four, the pink eye arrived. The oldest contracted it first. The rest of her was on the mend -- fever gone, appetite back, vomiting ceased -- but the school would not take her back looking like a crack addict. So she stayed home. Again. She flopped back on the couch and cued up a video. This time, I balked. She wasn't really sick anymore, and I was starting to run out of things. Milk, eggs, patience. We needed to get to the store, and catch up on chores: the laundry; those damn birthday party thank-you notes. There were more tears. I was thinking of the barf I had wiped from her hair, the sodden bed I had stripped and remade in the night. All the while, she hollered, "I never get what I want. NEVER!" On a good day, I would laugh at this statement, rib her for being ridiculous. But yesterday was not a good day. I was cranky, and starting to feel sick myself. I yelled back.

Our trip to the store exhausted us, but at least we now had toilet paper. We straggled toward evening in fits and starts. After days of near-perpetual nose-blowing, the oldest had a whopper of a nosebleed in the bathtub. While we were busy pinching and wiping, the youngest, fascinated by this toxic pink bathwater, began drinking it down in huge gulps.

When they fell asleep, I skipped the dishes and got straight into bed myself, praying the eyes would heal overnight, that tomorrow we could get back to normal, schedule a play date, get to the gym.

But today is day five, and the eyes are worse. No one is going to school. No one is hitting the gym. We are heading to the doctor at nine.

Between now and then, I am recalibrating.

There is something about sick children that gets at the core of parenting. They exhaust you, but you keep caring for them. They smell disgusting, and you love them anyway. These beings you created are broken, and it is up to you to set them right.

On normal days, my girls are full of phantom complaints and imagined insufficiencies. Their lips hurt, so they can't eat any broccoli. The milk's too cold; the bath's too hot. I am forever kissing and bandaging invisible "owies" on fingers and toes. A few weeks ago, my daughter missed the school bus because of "itchy pants." This is not to say that my girls don't experience these grievances as truth. A hypochondriac really thinks he's sick.

But mommy gets tired of catering to madness: towels that are too scratchy, pillows that are too soft, teeth that "feel funny when I try to sleep." It was satisfying to do battle with an actual malady. While I was clearly not at my best, I went to bat for them, and held them when they hurt. We are vanquishing a real monster for a change. I hope it will give me strength to face the many, many imagined ones.