Your Kid Just Barfed—But You Have Dinner Reservations

If my ultra-normal hero, Norma Normalstrom, were to read the above statement, she would say, “Duh. That’s a no-brainer!  Cancel dinner. Your child’s sick!”

For people who grew up like us, it’s so not a no-brainer, it’s a dumbfounder.  It’s like, “What do I do?  I don’t know.  My brain has stopped.” You don’t know how to react to the change in reality, so you try to bend it, wish it away, and think things like, Well, maybe he’s not sickI mean, is he actually sick, or is it just my imagination? Maybe I’m over-worried and making myself think he’s sick!  Yeah, yeah.  Maybe he threw up from running too fast, or eating candy.  We rationalize the unpleasant change in reality by trying not to ‘give-in’ to it.  We think, Well, this is no different than if a babysitter is here versus me, right? He’s not going to be any less sick if I’m not here—what’s a few hours?

Enter stage right:  Characteristic #13

Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
–Janet Woititz

(The whole list of Woititz’s Characteristics of Adult Children is here (opens in its own window.))

We are so deeply compelled to stick to our plans that even in the face of illness overcoming our children we’re not certain about the right thing to do—and, in situations where change occurs, we think sticking to the plan feels best, because it feels like steering through a storm, feels like staying on-track…in control.  But, we’ve got it wrong. (People who grew up like we did don’t handle it when plans change too well–until we grow and learn and then we get much better at it!)

Cancel your plans. Call the babysitter, the restaurant, etc., and communicate about the change of plans.  Be with your child.  Be present with your child.  This is where the real parenting happens, when you get the opportunity to respond to the needs of your child. Stroke the hair off their foreheads and temples.  Give the love you didn’t get, give and give and just love them.  Look at them.

It’s in these moments you’re needed, no matter how confused or tired you are, and your decision-making is needed, your taking charge of the situation and your loving confidence is needed.  Just be present—you don’t need a book to learn that.  Just be present.  That’s easy.  It takes one breath in, one out, and looking into your child’s face.  That’s it.  And it’s rich.

(This isn’t just about illness–it’s bigger, of course.  The same is true of sick relatives, or (gasp) parents, in that we get confused about whether or not to drop everything and go to them.  We don’t find these decisions easy to make and it sure doesn’t help that (in the case of a dying family member) that the very people “helping” us make the decision are the very cast of characters still living under the influence of old, sick rules.)

The Show Must Go On!

What happened when you were sick as a child?  I wasn’t sick very often, but I had the feeling that unless I was completely overcome and obviously sick, there was no pity for me.  It was like, the show must go on and the weak will be left behind.  The general vibe was, “Buck up, don’t be a drag and interrupt the flow.”  The couple of times I remember being sick, I got ginger ale and ice cream and blankets, uncomfortable thermometers under my tongue, and freedom from chores and dinner at the dinner table (a welcome break). I didn’t grow up with my mother, and my stepmother isn’t a warm “motherly” type, and my father didn’t take on that role when I was sick, so I was never doted on or indulged when I was sick. My parents were very matter-of-fact about any illness I had, doing only what was necessary. There was also the general attitude in our household that being ill was, somehow, evidence of an inherent weakness within.

You cannot over-indulge a sick child. Period. (Well, unless you habitually hire circus performers to entertain your child, bake thirty-layer cakes, juggle fire, and give them a bell to ring and call you The Help.)

The same goes for you, of course—if you’re sick, cancel your plans, stay home, and nurture yourself.  Be a good parent to yourself.

Parent Your Child, Parent Yourself

I became much more of an advocate for my own needs after I had a child.  Before, it was hard for me to cancel plans I’d committed to for reasons of feeling ill or just exhausted.  The reasons never felt compelling enough (inside my biased mind) to expect my friends to respect my reasons.  I just couldn’t bear the possibility of being disappointing or risk not being included in plans again soon.  But, when it comes to championing the needs of my son, it’s easy—no hesitations, no wavering, it’s all clear-cut.  The thought, “Will they scoff at my reason?” never enters my mind as it does when it’s just me whose got the needs. So I learned through doing.  I learned by way of advocating for my son, seeing that indeed I already had the voice, words, and sense with which to do it for myself as well as on his behalf.

Parenthood may very well shake free any remaining notions we have about being in control.  And I believe that’s good for us.  Children are spontaneous.  We came late to learning about the value of embracing our spontaneity.  Children feel their feelings.  We learned late about feeling and honoring our feelings, not till adulthood.  In honoring, and allowing, the highs and lows of the phases and moments of our child’s development process, we get to show respect for our own inner child in the process, too. 



Read Parenting Anew about parenting as an adult child of dysfunctional parents, or How to Be Your Own Loving Parent about treating yourself right, or my post about a book about Parenting Ourselves now that we’re in charge of our well-being.


  1. mary says:

    I can SOOO relate to this. And yet my husband is dumbfounded
    I remember being in 3rd & 4th grade and being left home alone when i was sick — all day while my parents were at work –with instructions to stoke the fire when it got chilly. until recently, i thought it was normal that I was left home alone so much at such a young age. then a therapist insists i was neglected. . .i guess for me the quiet was better than the chaos!

  2. Jennifer says:

    This rings so true for me. I react instantly to care for my son, but when its me that needs the care that’s another story. Slowly I’m making progress, but I still have trouble dealing with my boss, telling him my son is sick. As if it’s my fault. Add in his comments of “he sure has been sick a lot this winter” and you find me apologizing– remnants of growing up in a family where it seemed like everything was my fault no matter how much it wasn’t.

    • Amy Eden says:

      I think we tend to learn how to nurture ourselves by doing it for our children often times. That can provide a map for how to lovingly parent our own selves.
      I cringed at that comment, about “he’s sure been sick a lot…” because it’s so relatable, so common, so simple but also so, so complex. Some people say that and are trying to send a manipulative message or passive-aggressively “complain,” while other people say something like that and just mean exactly what they say (to which the answer could be – yeah, Oct – April is basically sick season for kids across the country!) … or, “yep, he’s building up immunity to stay well in adulthood.” ;-) Ugh.
      When we no longer believe we’re responsible for everyone else’s stuff, we actually stop noticing those kinds of comments. They don’t stick to us.

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