The litmus test of parenting

     The high point of parenthood is hard to select.  Is it childbirth? Baptism? Graduation?  The riveting portrayal of a cow in the church Nativity play? 

    There is no such indecision about the low point. It always concerns vomit.

     Sorry to be indelicate, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the topic.  What comes out the bottom of a child is nothing compared to the horrors that can spew forth from a vomiting mouth.  In my 18 years as a mother, I have come to believe that there is, in fact, a divine litmus test for parenting.

      It is called the stomach flu.

    We had it here over the weekend.  A decomposing  pizza (how come no one ever gets the stomach flu when they’ve just eaten soup?) came up all over the bathroom floor, on the side of the tub, along the baseboard, on the scale, inside the unsuspecting radiant heater, and  in the child’s — and in my own — hair.   As I am comforting her, and mourning the floor, I think, there is nothing in any parenting book that prepares you for this.  There is no “What to Expect When Your Child Slips in Her Own Vomit.”    There can’t be, or no one would ever have kids.  But it’s just as much a part of parenthood as bedtime stories, and our response to it, equally important.

     This is why I came down so hard on Caitlin Flanagan a few years ago when I reviewed her book for The Wall Street Journal .  (

    I couldn’t wrap my mind around calling for the nanny, and then standing in the doorway, watching, while your child throws up. Mrs. Flanagan is a fine writer, and no doubt a wonderful human being, but I can’t get past that image.  I may, at times, have to temporarily outsource my mothering, but it’s never going to be while I’m in the room.

     Not that I don’t understand her revulsion.

    I’ve long believed that a woman’s nose is genetically engineered to forgive any horrific odor that emanates from her own brood.  It’s why we can smile and coo while changing our own baby, while the full diaper of a stranger’s child makes us gag.   Why I can shovel donkey manure for an hour with nary a grimace, but when I kept someone else’s horse for a few months, I hated cleaning his stall.

     But regurgitated food is a whole other level of olfactory assault: repulsive, no matter the source.  It is, I think, why women were so sympathetic to the character of Vivi Abbott Walker in “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” when Vivi walked out on her family the morning after her children woke her in the night, three of the four of them vomiting.  Who doesn’t think about a few days alone in Mexico after a night like that?

    But most mothers (and yeah, sorry, guys, but it’s usually the mothers who are smoothing sticky heads and crouching by the toilet with a vomiting child) ride through it, control their revulsion, and the next day, cheerfully boil water and apply bleach.   

       I have a friend who, when asked for a favor, always replies, “It’s a joy and a privilege.”  I’m trying to think of the stomach flu that way.   Got the “privilege” part down;  it’s easy to be grateful for one’s normally healthy kids.

      Still working on the “joy.”  Wondering if the dish detergent counts.

4 thoughts on “The litmus test of parenting

  1. Absolutely! You are right on every point. The cool thing about this, for me, is that because I have always done the kid excrement, my husband does the animals. No arguing. “Your turn,” my husband says offhandedly when one of our three animals upchucks, pees or something worse in the house. “Not on your life. I did every single kid throw-up and diarrhea. You got a long way to go, buddy.” Good job, Jennifer.


  2. You are so right about the “genetically engineered” nose thing… No matter how you slice it, it is the mom that takes that call. The child always wants the mom when they are sick and the mom is usually the one who can handle it….even if she is internally falling apart, she is there and she is calm. I hesitate to say it, but it is a privileged place, motherhood….I hope you are all well again.


  3. Hi Jennifer,
    I love your blog. Your description of the vomit scene put we right there with you! I told my husband that he definitely did not want to read this entry because he is one of those husbands who gags and vomits himself when cleaning up messes, whether it be a baby’s bottom or a newly baptized floor. I have learned to do take on those challenges myself or I am stuck cleaning up two messes – one considerable larger than the other.


    1. LOL …”newly baptized floor” … too funny! I just came from the second-grade science fair, and I’m thinking someone should do a project on why all vomit smells the same, regardless of what foodstuff has been thrown up. Meanwhile, the virus is still making its rounds here; the third child came down with it this morning, aaaack! Right now, the barn is about the most sanitary place on the premises!


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