Oct 8 2015

Confessions of a Parent with Emetophobia

It’s October, which means it’s almost Halloween, which means I’m allowed to tell you a horror story.

For most of you, this will not be a horror story at all. This will sound like a standard, Duh-You-Have-A-Toddler-What-Did-You-Expect? story, and if you have kids, no doubt you will have been there, done that. But I am a parent who has an irrational fear of throwing up, and I can only see this experience through that lens.

Sensitivity Note: To any fellow emets who may have stumbled across this site, please be warned that there are details ahead and that I do not censor “trigger words” in any of my posts (though there are no triggering photos). I understand if you need to leave. On the other hand, you might want to stick around; I know I’ve found comfort in reading other phobics’ stories, to see that they handled it, that they are still alive, and to know that I am not alone. (Look: even some celebrities like Blossom are “terrified,” too. Um, told you I was a child of the ’90s.)

Okay, so here’s the thing about emetophobes: we tend to be notoriously nervous around kids, since they’re too inexperienced to understand their own bodily signals and can therefore vomit without warning. Weird, then, that I ended up a teacher, eh? Though I’ll admit it: my fear is at least a small part of why I chose secondary education instead of elementary. I figured teenagers would have more control over their digestive system. (This turned out to be only partially true — I was lucky enough to make it twelve years without a student getting sick in class, but many of my colleagues cannot say the same!)

When I first decided to have children of my own, of course I worried about what would happen when they got sick. (And spit-up doesn’t count, by the way — if it’s not contagious, it doesn’t bother me.) For this reason — plus the possibility of morning sickness during pregnancy — some phobics decide not to have kids at all, but I refused to let it dictate my life that way. I knew, though, that at some point I would need to comfort my own sick child, and I had no idea how I would handle it. This past weekend, I found out.

Back in Michigan, I would have already visited a cider mill by this point in the fall…maybe a couple of them. Mmm. They’re so abundant back home — there were several within a twenty-mile radius, and our favorite was practically walking distance from our house. Of course, I knew before we moved out here that cider mills would be hard to come by in California, but I did a little research and found the next best thing: a pumpkin patch. It was by no means in our backyard, but I figured it would be worth the ninety-ish-minute drive to give Peaches a semi-Michigan fall experience.

On Sunday morning, she was still asleep at 9 AM. It’s not unusual for her to wake up at 8 or 8:30, so even though it seemed a little strange, I didn’t overthink it when I went into her room and bent over her crib. “Good morning!” I whispered, rubbing her back. “Guess what? We get to go to the pumpkin patch today! Maybe there will even be a pony ride!”

Any grogginess dissolved when she heard the word “pony.” She started chattering excitedly about what the day would bring, and Al and I packed up the kids and got on the road. We stopped for some quick breakfast sandwiches — P’s appetite was fine, and she was completely normal for most of the long drive: singing her usual songs, telling stories, asking questions.

But just before we pulled into the pumpkin patch, she became suddenly lethargic. It seemed somehow different from her usual naptime sleepiness — plus, it was about two hours too soon for that. As we unloaded all of our gear and unbuckled the kids from their car seats, I felt heat radiating through the back of P’s shirt. I put my hand to her forehead. “Do you feel yucky, honey? Do you want to go home?”

“No. I wanna go in.”

Knowing she probably didn’t have the words to describe how she felt, I tried a silly approach to try to figure out where she was hurting. “Does your knee feel yucky?” I teased, squeezing one leg.

She didn’t laugh. Normally she loves this kind of thing.

“Does your…elbow feel yucky? Does your hair feel yucky?” She just shook her head. “Does your tummy feel yucky?”

“No,” she said, but she was almost whispering.

I looked at Al. “Should we go home?”

“I don’t know.” He thought for a minute. “I mean, we’re here now. We can give it a try. That long drive might have just made her tired.”

P is an independent little thing who always wants to RUN ahead of us wherever we go and then waits for us to scream, “P! Too far!”, but today she wanted to sit in the stroller. It was a bit of a walk from the parking lot to the patch, and eventually the hard-packed dirt turned into a trail of two-inch-deep gravel. The wheels sank into the stones; this made the stroller impossible to push with P’s extra weight, so she had to get out and walk again for a little while.

The pumpkin patch was actually a really cool place. There were pony rides, in fact, and a corn maze and a little train to pull the kids and about a dozen other things P would normally love.

“Do you want to ride that horse?” I asked, pointing. “Look! It has a pink tail!”

She shook her head. “I just watch,” she said. I tried to climb with her to the top of a stack of hay so we could take pictures and see the ponies better, but she was NOT into it.

I was at a loss. I had no idea what a sick P looked like — she’d had ONE fever when she was an infant and has only experienced the occasional runny nose since then — so part of me kept trying to make up other excuses, especially because she kept insisting she was fine. Is she just afraid of the horses? I wondered, but she didn’t want to feed the farm animals or taste a snow cone, either. We’d been there less than ten minutes and participated in absolutely nothing, but Al and I knew we had to turn right around and leave.

Since I’m not at all map-savvy, I often drive so Al can navigate. This also meant he was on active Peaches-watching duty. He set my diaper bag on the floor at P’s feet — its usual spot — but I moved it away from her. “Just in case,” I said quietly to Al. “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

We had JUST turned out of the parking lot when I heard gurgling behind me. “What is she doing?” I asked, my eyes on the road.

As he turned to look, there was an unmistakable sound: a burping, liquidy, splattering explosion.

“Annnd there it is,” Al said.

When phobics see or hear vomit, the immediate reaction is to RUN. AWAY. Your adrenaline floodgates split apart before there’s even time to have a conscious thought, and suddenly your heart is thudding so hard that you can see it through your chest, and it renders you almost paralyzed. It’s an INSTANT panic attack, even though you know, logically, that there’s nothing to actually be afraid of. Your body just takes over.

Because of the semi-paralysis, all I could do for a moment was grip the wheel and keep driving. Al started issuing commands. “Roll down the windows,” he said. “We need to find somewhere to pull over.”

From the backseat I could hear her little voice: “What IS that? What is THAT?!” she kept asking.

“It’s just a little spit-up,” Al said. “Just like baby B. Doesn’t your tummy feel better now?”

She proceeded to point out every recognizable component of her breakfast sandwich. Then she said, “You have to clean it up! My seat is really messy!”

My poor, sweet baby. I felt so incredibly sorry for her. The maternal me shoved aside the phobic me, and I pulled into the first parking lot I saw. Glory Be: of all places we could have passed just then, it was a REST AREA. There were trash cans and bathrooms and running water, and it was not pouring rain or snow like it might have been in Michigan, and we were able to take her out of the car and strip her down in the sunshine. Baby B, bless him, slept through the entire thing. The Lord was looking out.

Even though it was eighty degrees, P had goosebumps. We zipped her into a light jacket we’d brought, and Al got to work cleaning what he could. I’ll spare you the details, but it was a DISASTER back there — we went through an entire pack and a half of wipes, and Al completely disassembled the car seat.

In the meantime, I was in charge of my daughter. She kept begging Daddy to “clean my seat! You have to clean it!”, and it was awful to see her so miserable.

She looked at me and said pitifully, “Pick me up.”

I did. But here is my confession: I was afraid. I lifted her into my arms and stroked her hair for a little while, but then I put her down and sat next to her on the curb instead, just in case she got sick again. I rubbed her back and kissed her sizzling forehead and held her curls away from her face when it looked like she might vomit a second time (she didn’t) — but I was a little bit afraid of my own daughter and it was the best I could do.

All things considered, things weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been. What if she had thrown up more than once? What if I had been alone? What if both kids were sick, or the whole family got sick simultaneously? Parents deal with this all the time. No one panics. They just handle it.

I’m disappointed in myself. I thought that when it finally happened, when my own child finally threw up, I would rip open my layman’s clothes and there would be a SuperMom emblem underneath. I thought that my need to protect her would override every single ounce of fear I’d ever irrationally felt. Instead, I was somewhere in between. I did not run away, but I could have done better. I need to do better.

My precious P slept the whole way home, and we set her up on the couch in the living room with a huge bucket beside her. She never needed it, thank God, but her fever spiked sharply — it went from 100 to 103 in under an hour. I called our pediatrician and got through to a nurse.

“Her temperature is rising really quickly,” I said. “At what point do we need to take her to the hospital?”

“Not until about 106,” she assured me. “Kids’ temperatures can be much higher than ours, so you’ve got a long way to go before you need to be worried. You do need to keep her away from the newborn, though. Before eight weeks, we really don’t like to mess around.”

So I spent the majority of the evening upstairs with B while Al stayed downstairs with P. She took some baby Tylenol, and her fever was gone by bedtime. Al stayed home from work the next day just in case; but when she woke up the next morning, she seemed completely back to normal. “We still need to take it easy today,” Al told her, though she was acting as if nothing had ever happened. My car told a different story, though — it took two full hours to disinfect that sucker.

man hosing off car seat while toddler rides tricycle

P’s version of “taking it easy.”

“Let’s go to the pumpkin patch,” P said later that evening, “and I will ride a pony with a pink tail and I will not be sad this time.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “We will definitely try again. I promise.” And I meant that in about a hundred different ways.

About Melissa

Melissa Bowers is a high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. Her days used to be filled with great works analyses and discussions of intricate film and literary techniques, but they are now consumed by two spirited children and the desperate urge to write ALL THE THINGS -- which generally occurs a paragraph at a time whenever the kids happen to nap. Since moving to California, her work has been published by Writer's Digest and The Writer, and her articles are regularly featured on The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and others.

11 comments on “Confessions of a Parent with Emetophobia

  1. Ha! I am sixty. Taught in Kdg and other elementary grades. Have raised two children and baby sat the step-grands on occasion. I STILL cant deal with puke or poo.

  2. I don’t know if I have a phobia or not, but I definitely have involuntary reactions to bodily fluids–I’m a sympathetic vomiter and do not do well will blood or vomit. I potty-train as quickly as possible and take my children to the bathroom a lot to avoid any accidents. Nice to know I’m not alone!

      • Thanks! You’re a great writer. I found you when my sis-in-law posted your love your spouse challenge post–very appropriate timing as I was partway through the challenge and had forgotten to finish it. ;/ Keep up the good work, despite silly people who take jest too seriously.

  3. Sadly, I want to have kids with my whole heart but reading your story raised my heart beat. Now I’m imagining how terrifying it would be to have kids as an emet. Of course it’s something I’ve thought about for years and I’m trying my best to get rid of my phobia. Therapy mainly, and I dont think about it most days but when husband catches a cold for example, even then I get nervous and start imagining what hell it would be if I had kids. 🙁

  4. I so deeply identify with this, Monica. I put it off for a long time. But the phobia doesn’t deserve to have that kind of decision-making power — it already interferes enough with other aspects of our lives, you know? The difficult days are definitely much trickier with kids, though, that’s for sure. I hope you follow your heart wherever it leads!

  5. I have a six month old and I’m currently laying in bf it’s a horrible stomach ache… praying I’ll be fine. Just like you said I’m finding other mothers and their stories to help with my emetophobia. I think you did an amazing job and I hope I’m that calm when my daughter gets sick one day.

  6. Thank you for this! I know it’s an old post, but I’m really struggling with my phobia, and it helps to know I’m not the only one who goes through this. I’m counting down the years til my kids can handle their own vomit/make it to the toilet.

    • Glad to know I’m not alone in this, since having children (I have 2, a toddler and a newborn) this fear has all but consumed me. The winter (longer nights and the dreaded norovirus) seems worse but it’s definitely an all year round anxiety that I just can’t explain to people who don’t understand. Thank you all for sharing, like I said – it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

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