“My stomach hurts,” Sophie whines, picking at her bowl of oatmeal. Then, she bends in half, clutching her stomach and starts screaming, “OW! OW!” at the top of her lungs.
One would think her appendix was exploding.
I stand there, waffling:
On the one hand, we have just had another long weekend, due to the 900th snow day this winter. Both Kevin and I stayed home, each taking a turn playing with Sophie so that the other could work. We baked cookies. We played board games. We snuggled in front of the fire and read books. Sophie was in heaven.
On the other hand, Kevin just had a stomach bug a few days ago. I was sick the week before that. Sophie doesn’t usually complain of illness. And she isn’t eating…
Is she sick or is it the back to school blues?
Kevin walks in, grabbing a banana before heading out the door. “She’s fine. Send her to school.” He says, kissing me on the forehead. And he’s gone.
Sophie gives me a pained expression, “Mo-om! Please can I stay home?” I have a client scheduled at 9:00. It’s 8:20 right now. I have exactly 10 minutes to get her out the door, so that I can drop her off at school and beat my client to the office.
It’s likely the back to school blues. But what if it isn’t? What if she’s really sick and I bring her to school and she starts barfing. And what is her teacher going to think of me, dumping Sophie off in her classroom, while she’s carrying on like this. I’ve been a teacher. I know what they are going to whisper behind my back:
Worst mommy ever.
It doesn’t help that I’ve got a really messed up relationship to illness. In the 8th grade alone I missed a whopping sixty days of school—one third of the school year. (I still have the certificate of commendation that my best friend made for me, congratulating me on this feat.) Most years, before and after, I was absent from school for weeks at a time. Bronchitis. Sinusitis. Long, lingering, upper respiratory infections that seemed to take on a life of their own. To this day, I am uncertain whether I was truly sick, a skilled malingerer, or just deeply anxious and depressed.
I can remember the anxiety that grew with each passing day. It would start out fairly innocently. I’d be out for a couple of days, with congestion and a terrible cough. My mother would take me to the doctor, who’d give me a pill and a written excuse, validating the illness. My mother would coddle me, making Lipton tea and playing gin rummy with me in the afternoon. And I wouldn’t get any better. One week would turn into two, two into three. Meanwhile, the make-up work would mount—piles of textbooks would sit untouched on my desk. Due dates would come and go. Entire units would be reviewed. Tests would be given. The longer I stayed away, the more impossible it seemed to return. Despite my loneliness. Despite my boredom. I was never quite sure where the illness ended and my anxiety began.
My husband, on the other hand, rarely missed a day of school. He graduated from high school with perfect attendance. A couple years ago, he actually did go to work with appendicitis. A colleague made him go to the hospital just before his appendix burst.
Back in the kitchen, I tell Sophie, “Honey, I’m sorry your stomach hurts. Maybe you’re just nervous about going back to school.”
“Mommy, please? I want to stay home with yooooooouuu.”
I want to take her seriously, but I don’t want to feed into malingering. Hoping that Kevin is right, I usher her out the door and into the car. Once at her school, I share my dilemma with her teacher, who promises to keep me apprised of Sophie’s condition. She sheds a few real tears as I head for the door.
Oh, the guilt.
Later I get a call. She’s been listless all morning. Didn’t eat her snack. Has been asking for me. I wrap things up and rush over to the school. When I get there, she’s running around with her friends, smiling.
“Mom?” she begs, “can’t I stay a little bit longer?”
This post was inspired by the novel The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Young lawyer Sophie unwillingly takes her first divorce case with an entertaining and volatile client in this novel told mostly through letters and legal missives. Join From Left to Write on March 18 we discuss The Divorce Papers. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.