Parenthood comes with many surprises that most are unprepared for, but no one made me realize I was going to be the host to so many germs. Over the past few years, since our oldest child started kindergarten, our home has become a spinning virus factory, passed from one family member to the next with varying degrees of severity.
From the very first sign of a runny nose, we know the cycle has returned, sometimes leaving us just days between the next bout. And before you say it, yes, we sing Happy Birthday as we wash our hands ten thousand times a day. We know that children need to build their immune systems, but in the process our adult bodies take a toll.
Any parent will tell you how much harder it gets when their kids are miserable as you navigate the night awake, cranky babies, and the dreaded puke bowl. But it enters near-impossible territory when Mama finishes for the count. For me, as a full-time working mom, it takes superhero energy to keep things on track.
Although my partner and I share family responsibilities, the house of cards shakes and falls when I am crushed. Logically, for the sake of my family, I should take more proactive measures to maintain my own health. But sometimes the level of commitment that it takes to do this kind of self-care feels like just another full-time job and comes with a great deal of guilt for taking some time off for myself. I’ve felt bad about the smallest of things like the cost of multivitamins or going for a walk.
Guilt, a deep theme in many women’s motherhood experience, is present when I’m ill and can’t be as energetic and on-topic as I want to be with my children. The ever-growing pile of laundry gets bigger and the sea of toys deeper on the floor as we face the second night in a row of waffles for dinner.
The reality is that kids need ALL of you, and it can be really hard when you’re not at your best. As I write this I am on antibiotics, knee deep with a chest infection. And even though my body is asking me to slow down, like most moms I know, I’m pushing myself through my full-time mom and full-time job life. Meave McDonald, a registered nurse and mother of two who is originally from Greystones but lives in Perth, reiterates what I’ve felt about her health:
“No matter how bad I feel, I have to take care of her, there’s no other way. Meals have to be prepared, homework done and clothes washed. It’s like I have this ability to push myself further than I could before now that I have little kids. There is no time to ever recover and the cycle just keeps going.”
Many parents may need to take time off work to care for their children when the children are sick, but are afraid to take time off for themselves. As working from home has become the norm for many, it seems that taking a sick day has become an even more guilty decision.
As a healthcare worker, Meave feels she has limited options: “I get really worried when I get sick and have to call in sick. I realize that now that I have children, I call in sick far more often. Many, many times I’ve walked into work uncomfortable because I feel like I’ll be judged if I don’t show up. I also don’t want to let my colleagues down and be understaffed. I feel like I’m empty handed most of the time and not progressing as far in my career as I could.”
I wonder if that’s what they meant when they said ‘It takes a village’ and if our more isolated modern life is taking a toll. Without the help of family and friends, many of us operate without the support systems that once provided vital aid.
I have with Dr. Amy Morgan, GP at Centric Health Bryanstown, Drogheda, who says it’s important to recognize that: “It’s an added challenge when a woman is a single parent or parent without a good support network. Increasingly, I see women who have moved to an area but far from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. so they lack that extra help that we may have seen more of in the past.
“Mothers who have had premature babies or who have had to go through the pregnancy and birth period without the support they were hoping for due to Covid restrictions may feel under additional pressure. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s been a really challenging time.”
Despite these challenges, according to Dr. Morgan, expect your kids to get a lot of viruses, probably more than we think. “Children can get between eight and 10 upper respiratory tract infections a year, which are usually viral in origin. This is often much more than parents expect and I often hear in practice that “my child is always ill”.
Younger children or those with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible to the more serious effects of an illness. So when you have a child in the crèche and work outside the home, it can often seem like a constant struggle to care for them when they are not doing well and you manage the work and care of other children, often with the extra challenge of having less sleep.”
So what can women do to boost their immunity? Mallory Adams, a nutritionist at St Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown, explains, “Many mothers I work with adopt routines for their children but don’t establish them for themselves. The immune system can be affected by many dietary factors, including energy, protein, fluid, and antioxidant vitamin and mineral intake.
The easiest way for moms to boost their immune system is to focus on structured and balanced meals.” Mallory says it doesn’t have to be complicated, but we should aim to have a grain/protein/vegetable diet – or fruit food group is present when we eat, as this provides variety and improves the nutrient balance of meals. She also stresses the importance of staying hydrated, saying water is usually best but other liquids like hot beverages, juice and milk count.
Cliona O’Farrelly, Professor of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, says sleep also plays a big part in our health. She explains that lack of sleep or poor quality sleep, as well as stress, affect our immunological mechanisms. But she also acknowledges the challenges women with young children face when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. As a mother, Cliona remembers the time 30 years ago when she had three children under the age of four and got up at least six times a night and started the day at 6am. She assures us that we can function adequately for quite a while with little sleep.
Her suggestion for how we can take care of ourselves is an important one: “Probably the most helpful and practical suggestion is to spend time with others — with other moms so you can share frustrations, tips and baby worship, and older people who give you.” being able to assure that as a parent I am fine.”
She goes on to say that support was vital in raising her children: “I had a huge extended family at the time who helped me with my kids – the mother, a neighbor, was the main caregiver, but she also had a huge extended family of three own teenagers who loved all the kids.
Without a doubt, all of that goodwill and built-in experience has been incredibly important to my mental well-being and happiness levels and, by extension, that of my husband and children.”
How to build good immunity
dr Morgan reminds us that there are three important factors when it comes to good immunity; Age (the time to build it up, babies are born with immunity inherited from the mother, which declines in the first few months), rest and good nutrition.
In terms of protecting against disease, Dr. Morgan that we have all learned a lot over the last few years. “In terms of prevention, one unintended positive effect of these last two years and the pandemic is that people in general have gained a better understanding of how viral diseases spread and why treatments like antibiotics do not work against viruses.
“While it is really difficult to stop transmission when your child is in childcare/creche, sensible practices such as maintaining good hygiene are a good idea and children themselves have become much more aware and relate to hand washing, coughing -Etiquette, etc.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/since-my-eldest-started-playschool-our-house-has-become-a-revolving-virus-factory-41556968.html “Since my eldest started kindergarten, our house has become a spinning virus factory”