A friend once told me a story. Her husband, due to set out the next day on an extended business trip, complained of feeling achy and flu-like. He further admitted to feeling nauseated and generally unwell. I’m sure he expected her to send him off to bed. Perhaps he hoped she would make him a hot drink and a cool compress, tuck him in with kissy noises and tuts of sympathy. Instead she packed him an overnight bag and made a reservation for him at a local hotel, fearing, as she confessed, that he would infect her and the children and leave them not-so-merrily vomiting while he recuperated half way across the world.
“See!”, I said to my husband triumphantly, “At least I let you sleep in your own bed!”
Florence Nightingale, I am not. Though I have empathy in spades, (I still sob loudly when watching ET), there seems to have been a mutation on the gene sequence that controls sympathy. At least when it comes to non life-threatening illness. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not sadistic. I may not be Clara Barton, but I’m not Nurse Ratched either. It’s just when one of my family falls ill, I shift into high-efficiency mode. Rest assured that the injured party has clean sheets and that all medicinal intake is accounted for. It’s more that I have little patience for moaning, a low tolerance for complaining, and take a somewhat harsher, just-give- them-the-shot-it-won’t-kill-them approach to illness. I probably would have made a decent battlefield nurse, one who triaged and nursed with brisk efficiency, but little bedside manner. As my husband once said, he is grateful when I open the sickroom door and hurl a piece of toast at him.
And now, at long last, the 8 month Danish winter seems to be on its last legs. Yet there are stubborn streptococci and virulent viruses that refuse to fly south. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before our door gets marked by a black X and the children are quarantined. All that toast to butter and sheets to clean and surfaces to disinfect. I get tired just thinking about it. Of course I don’t want my children to feel bad or to be sick, it breaks my heart. But as I told you, I go into high-efficiency mode, like a modern appliance, and it’s exhausting.
Then there is the dreaded man-flu. (Note to male readers: your wife, your girlfriend, your partner, your mother and/or any other female you come into regular contact with is LYING if she says we don’t all sit around and make fun of you when you get ill. We do.) I will give my own husband credit. He is quite a good patient, most likely because he knows it is nigh on impossible he will get much out of me in the way of kissy noises and tongue-clucking. He would struggle to the window and look for signs hell freezing over before he expected me to say something like “Oh, you should just stay home and rest up. Let me make you a cup of tea. Mwah, mwah“. Of course I don’t think he should go to work and spread contagion with abandon, but I have enough faith that he can make that decision without me justifying it. Still, I am consistently stumped by the fact that even when my husband is ill he is well enough to catch up on movies and television and internet shopping. When I am sick, I am out for the count, feverish and having bizarre dreams in which I have to piece together falling parallelograms that are raining down upon me. There is no middle ground. I am either sick enough to be asleep, or I am going about my day. I think this is the core of women’s complaints about men and man-flu. If you’re well enough to watch another episode of Breaking Bad, then you’re well enough to read the kids a bedtime story.
(Anecdotal example: This phenomenon can best be illustrated by telling you about the time my husband had gall bladder surgery. He was given a ten-day leave of absence from work. Ten days!!! After eight days of watching him snack and watch television on the couch, chauffeuring him around Nicosia while he made sarcastic comments about my driving, I made him go back to work. Ironically, a woman in his office had the same surgery around the same time and went back to work in two days. Two.)
Perhaps I am unsympathetic because I rarely get ill myself (and here comes the jinx). Perhaps it is because I gave birth to two children, one without drugs, and frankly, that shit hurts and there is the sense of “well, hell, if I can do that, what else are you going to throw at me?”. It could be because I hate going to the doctor, primarily because I worry I am making mountains out of mole hills. When I do end up going, I often get a comment along the lines of “I can’t believe you lived with (fill in the blank) for so long without doing anything about it.” Perhaps it is fear. Fear that someone I love is ill, that they hurt, that they are in pain, that they may not recover. I hope it is fear that trips the shut off button. The one that converts me from fluttering caretaker to brisk pillow fluffer. A bitter little pill to swallow perhaps, but like most bitter pills, it gets the job done.
I will take care of the necessitates, change bandages and administer doses. I will make soup for delicate tummies and buy ginger ale to combat nausea. I will tuck you in. I will even make you a warm drink. But don’t expect a side order of sympathy to go with it. It’s just not my cup of tea.
For a different perspective, check out Man vs. Woman being Sick, a blog post I stumbled upon recently. Though this one had been on the back-burner for a while, tis the flu season and the above post inspired the timing of this one.