When my son first told me his head hurt after football practice, I offered my standard response: “I’m sure it’s nothing; take two Advil.” By now, I should know better. I have given this erroneous assessment at least a dozen times, preceding everything from pneumonia to bronchitis to a wicked stomach virus. I am the antithesis of those mothers who rush their children to the pediatrician at every sniffle; mine practically have to bleed out on the kitchen floor before I acknowledge they need medical attention.
Last year, my son kept insisting he had strep throat–just because his throat was sore. “You don’t even have a fever!” I scoffed. “You’re probably getting a cold.” Day after day, I sent him to school, waiting for the runny nose to kick in. It didn’t. Finally, I got so fed up hearing him complain that I brought him to the doctor, just to confirm my suspicions. She didn’t. Ten days of Amoxicillin later, I was still marveling that you could have strep without a fever. The same thing happened with my daughter and her nagging cough, which I attributed to “allergies” but the pediatrician found more consistent with “pneumonia.”
It’s not that I don’t believe my kids when they complain of symptoms–though I do think at least two of them are prone to exaggeration bordering on hypochondria, while the third is skilled at conjuring phantom illnesses at key junctures, such as right before Hebrew school. It’s more that I want them to understand that not everything can be fixed by a quick visit to the doctor. Sometimes, you just have to suffer through it. Besides, going to the pediatrician is inconvenient, and expensive. I’m reluctant to waste 45 minutes and a $20 co-pay just to have the doctor tell me, “It’s a virus.” I can misdiagnose that on my own. I’m sure there’s also denial at play: as long as we don’t go to the doctor, there can’t possibly be anything wrong. I hate when anyone in my house is sick; though I might complain about all their noise and mess and chaos, I find it deeply upsetting when one of them is curled up on the couch in a feverish little ball.
Downplaying their ailments has gotten me in trouble before. When my eldest daughter was in preschool, I noticed a little rash on her belly a few days after she’d run a low-grade fever. “Oh well, you must have had hand, foot and mouth disease,” I told her on the way to school. “But it’s not contagious anymore.” Naturally, she went in and promptly informed the teacher she had hand, foot and mouth disease, which meant I promptly had to go pick her up.
Another time, I was away on a business trip when she complained to her father of a stomach ache. Trained in my school of stoicism, he told her to “have some cottage cheese” and head off to school. Thirty minutes later, when she was in the nurse’s office about to throw up, she told the nurse that she’d felt sick that morning but “my mom made me go to school!” I wasn’t even in town and I was busted.
But I’m getting better. This time I only let my son complain about his headache for a day and a half before I grudgingly took him to the pediatrician, who quickly diagnosed a concussion. Though I know a concussion is nothing to fool with, I couldn’t help but remain somewhat skeptical: the symptoms, all entirely self-reported, include such things as “irritability” “drowsiness,” and “difficulty concentrating,” which any parent of a teenager will recognize as pretty standard even on a good day. But what really got me was the prescribed treatment: total brain rest. No homework, no reading, no activity, no chores. Not even TV, though he had trouble following that part after the first 30 minutes. I would have felt guilty for waiting so long to bring him in if I weren’t experiencing my own “Madeline” moment: Boohoo, I wish I had a concussion, too!