There are a number of reasons why this blog has been quiet but the past ten days can be summarized with two words:
On Saturday April 8 we invited friends over for dinner. The kids seemed unusually fussy that night and I was suspicious they might be ill. As they were undressing for bed, I noticed spots on Abigail’s and MIchaela’s backs. Two weeks earlier, the girls had been exposed to an adult who had shingles so I had been looking for signs. The older two came down first and are now returning to their normal activities along with their scabs although we have dropped out of our swimming lessons this month. Elisabeth our youngest started her spots on Wednesday night and now also seems to be in the scab state.
When I called the nurse that Saturday night, I was frightened by the list of potential symptoms and complications. But so far the girls have done well. The nurse said that 400 pox was average. Abigail had at most 275 or so, while Michaela topped off around 150. Elisabeth does seem to be having a more intense response than Michaela, perhaps because she was exposed more to the virus. She is the only one who had places on her body where all I could see were pox, but these places are few.
For a few days though I didn’t know whether Elisabeth would get the chicken pox too. I wanted her to get them this time, so I encouraged her sisters to cough in her direction and share utensils, practices this mom-with-some-microbiology-training usually avoids. At one point I was begging and joking with Elisabeth to get the chicken pox. She replied “I’ll get some soon.” It’s a bit strange to experience the definition of contagious, and to see it in visible red bumps on backs. It’s a bit strange to see a disease spread across my family members, to know I encouraged it, and to be okay, perhaps even happy about it. I’m actually happy they are getting it now, before they are older, and during a time when they are not missing many other activities or events.
Toolkit for surviving chicken pox
I’ll make note here, in case it is helpful to future chicken pox sufferers, of products and tips we found helpful:
At first I made oatmeal baths from wrapping oatmeal in washcloths, then I thought old socks would be a better vehicle and also disposable. Finally I discovered Aveeno Skin Relief Bath Treatments (100% colloidal oatmeal) which are convenient although expensive (about $1 a bath packet) compared to oatmeal-in-a-washcloth.
Baking soda is also an excellent bath aid – stock up! A 1 lb. box is good for 8 baths or so.
Aveeno also makes an Anti-Itch Concentrated Lotion that was easier to apply than the (cheaper) calomine lotion (generic Safeway brand).
Frozen foods can be helpful aids for numbing painful areas. I will spare future embarrassment by not naming the child, but one of our girls has gotten a lot of comfort from juice concentrate placed in a strategic place against lots of pox.
Popsicles are great for swollen throats and fevers.
A fleece nightgown came in handy. I had bought some for the girls for Christmas, stocking up on a sale, but I had to open Elisabeth’s and give it to her this week. She couldn’t wear any other clothing for a few days.
And finally, lots of amusements can distract from the pain and help pass the time. Puzzles, games, construction projects, art helped the days disappear. Giving special treats helps motivate the kids too. Stacks of library books were enjoyed. A special CD sent by a friend entertained them multiple times as they peered over the pictures of the musical. (yes, you can survive chicken pox without tv or DVD!)
Survival guide for parents
A few tips too for parents and caretakers of chicken pox children. Here’s what has helped me get through the past ten days:
1. Having time to myself became crucial, especially during the itchy pox phases (days 2 through 5) when the kids needed my constant attention. Because Ted works from home, I was able to get out to run errands during naptime (this was mostly stops to pick up more Tylenol). Getting up early enough to exercise and have some time to think helped me survive the rest of the nonstop day.
2. Stopping soon after the kids went to sleep so I could take a bath and get enough rest for myself.
3. Telling myself and the kids that the pox wouldn’t last that long. My kids were like textbook cases and each one was better by Day 6, as the nurse told me. (This lifehacker piece on how to stay calm fits well: this too shall pass)
Everyone has a chicken pox story
Once I tell someone that my girls have the chicken pox, the stories start. Everyone has a chicken pox story. I’ve got a chicken pox story too. It’s a tale of irony and humility. In eighth grade I was still a varicella virgin. I had signed up to take chorus that year only because I wanted to be in the musical the eighth graders performed in the spring. The eighth grade musical was the place to be. Even though my singing skills needed improvement, I auditioned for a role in The Mikado (I think it was Katisha). I can still remember auditioning before my classmates: I was competing with one of my best friends. When I wasn’t selected, I then decided to work behind the scenes as the set manager. I was determined to participate in the musical. Of course, in this context, the punchline of this story is obvious. I came down with chicken pox at such a time, that I missed the entire musical performance. Both weekends of it, I believe. It felt a bit like one of those James Joyce short stories where the character looks at her reflection and sees how vain she is. Only I saw chicken pox dots in the mirror.
Chicken pox is a choice
Yes, I made a choice that my kids would come down with chicken pox. I could have had them vaccinated but I thought that the natural immunity could be obtained with low risk of serious complications. From what I remember, I had a mild case, and it seems so far at least my older two kids survived the virus well too. I also believe that the current vaccination schedule is rather intense for young children, so I preferred to postpone the chicken pox immunization. However, if my kids had not come down with it by age 10 or so, I was planning to give them the vaccine then, to spare them the possibility of a more intense case during puberty or shingles in adulthood.
It is strange, I confess, to have chosen this path. Chicken pox is becoming a disease of the Stone Age so to speak. People are no longer familiar with it. People have been surprised that I didn’t vaccinate my kids. It is a disease that seems to be disappearing.
Guilt, every parent’s companion, is also present in this decision. Looking at my kids covered with epidermal eruptions, at moments I wondered why I had let them get sick. It has been hard to see them suffer, knowing this was a choice I made.
A matter of convenience?
I remember hearing on the news that the chicken pox vaccine had been approved. In this news report years ago, one of the reasons given for this new vaccine was convenience. It was more convenient for families, specifically for working parents, to avoid the varicella virus.
Since we homeschool, and I am at home with the kids, it didn’t seem that inconvenient to take a week’s break to be sick. We did have to drop out of swimming lessons for a month. But my older two would have only missed four days of work/school. And while they were ill, they painted, shaped clay, watched tadpoles grow, built a replica of an American fort (from a kit) and read stacks of books.
Yet I can see why health providers and many families would prefer the vaccine. A week is a week and it can be quite inconvenient, as my own story proves. A week of sick time for a working parent could be a crisis. And I can understand why health providers who are already incredibly busy and pressured would prefer to have fewer chicken pox complications, office visits and phone calls. There can be complications and infections. Kids do die from chicken pox. Why risk it?
I believe there is solid science on both sides of the vaccination debate and I’m not going to enter into that discussion here. But I will say that while I have a better appreciation for immunization, I am also grateful that I am allowed to make choices for my children’s health. I’m glad I can make choices that I believe are the best for our family. And I’m glad I chose chicken pox.
Community and generosity
Two families from our new church stopped by with gifts for the girls. I know not everyone has time or gifts to spare, but we appreciated the visits. It meant a lot to me, especially because we have been attending this church a short time. To see that people care about us and our family comforted me too. Of course the girls loved the treats, and the paper dolls and toys amused them for hours. Most of all I saw what generosity and care can mean during a rough week. I want to try to do the same for others.
Chicken Pox Box
In my bedroom closet I had accumulated a number of treats, gifts I had planned to give the kids for their birthdays this year or for amusement during conferences or rainy days, . This box of gifts was helpful this past week. I gave the girls one treat a day, sometimes two. The puzzles and toys kept us going through the days. I realized the importance of having a few extra gifts on hand, the importance of having a stocked Chicken Pox Box. You never know when you might need it!
Most of all, as our schedule has slowed, I’ve enjoyed quiet moments with my children. I spent Easter morning cuddling on the sofa with Elisabeth in my lap, playing games she invented with her Doodle Pro. The slower pace of the past several days has refreshed me, and reminded me of the simplicity we once had. In the past year, the kids and I have added more than 15 hours a week of lessons to our lives, including the time spent practicing piano and the transitions in and out of the pool. On the one hand, we want and need the lessons. Yet I’ve liked the extra time we’ve had in the day. Time to organize closets and refrigerator – time to discover long-lost items. Time to read books without looking at the clock. I want to see if I can find more of this.
This is the first time my kids have been this ill, with the exception perhaps of one or two infections in infancy. Opposites emphasize each other. And it is this time of sickness that makes me grateful for health and life. There are moments of slowness I want to savor, cuddles I want to keep, a closeness I want to continue as long as we can.