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National Editorials & Columns

Mad Calf Disease

“How do I gauge whether it’s a little or a lot?”

I was one week postpartum, covered in newborn vomit and on the phone with the pediatrician, trying to stifle the hysteria boiling beneath my painted smile.

“Are we just talking spit-up here?” the doctor asked. “Or are we talking ‘The Exorcist’?”

It’s shocking how quickly we adjust and settle in to situations that previously were terrifying. Just 10 short months ago, I was clinging to my newborn, confident that a little acid reflux meant impeding doom. Death at the hands of incompetent parenting. Obviously, no other baby in the history of the world had ever vomited before. Sleep-deprived, hormonal and scared, I was convinced that my parenting mishaps would become infamous and notorious. Mothers would shuffle their children past my house on Halloween, scared that my evil touch would cause their beloveds to choke on their Smarties. And I would be forever alone, gluttonously gorging on Grapeheads and Tootsie Rolls.

Nearly a year later, I’ve found my footing. Long gone are the days when I would jump at every whimper. My heart no longer skips a beat when I realize 20 minutes have passed since I last checked to see whether my son still is breathing. Gone are the nightmares of spending Halloween alone with my basket of cheap assorted candies. I’ve become the mom I foolishly thought I would be on day one. Cool. Calm. Confident. Capable. ... Negligent.

Yeah, about that last adjective. Um, whoops. That whole negligent thing wasn’t part of the plan. It just sort of slipped in there. But it isn’t my fault!

When you become a new parent, if you’re lucky, you’re surrounded by supporters. They praise your parenting and reassure you that every symptom you are convinced comes equipped with its own body bag and half-price coffin is perfectly normal. It’s sweet. And helpful. But it comes at a cost. The problem with a community of supporters is that you start to believe them.

Assuming that every symptom is a normal stage of development, I neglected to catch the signs that my baby was sick. I casually mentioned to my pediatrician that my son had a fever and difficulty eating. No big deal. I was working under the impression that his symptoms were related to his two tiny teeth breaking through. My doctor wasn’t so sure. After a short examination, she told me he had hand, foot and mouth disease.

“My baby has mad cow disease?” I asked.

“Not exactly. This is a normal virus that we see go around in the warm months,” my pediatrician said. “He doesn’t need any medicine, just lots of hugs.”

Truth be told, it felt as if a rug had been pulled out from underneath me. Or, perhaps more accurately, it felt as if cow seat covers had been pulled out from underneath me. For days, I had wrongly presumed that I knew what was wrong with my baby. It stung like a betrayal.

Obviously, it’s not my fault that I misinterpreted his symptoms. I blame my community of supporters for my son’s latest trip to the doctor. (They should expect to be receiving my bill shortly.) If my supporters had just let me stay in my neurotic new-mom phase, the doctor would have seen my child in her office the day he got sick. She would have had no choice but to see him; I would have been living there. A nice little cot, tandem mommy-and-me sleeping bags and a George Foreman grill and I believe we could’ve camped quite comfortably in the waiting room for some time.

While the nurse made copies of the doctor’s orders, I hugged my son tightly, apologizing to him for my negligence.

“This doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent,” the nurse said. “It just means your son is social.” Yes, but I’m the one who let him play with diseased hooligans! I always knew that drooling 6-month-old in day care looked devious.

When I got home, I read the doctor’s instructions. My son was temporarily put on a frozen yogurt and smoothie diet. It’s no bowl of Tootsie Rolls, but it’s a little too close to my nightmare of confectionery confinement for comfort.

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