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A Mother’s Day--and Night

I’m asleep, but feel a presence hovering next to the bed.

“Mommy, I threw up,” my youngest daughter says before I can open my eyes.

It’s everywhere: the front of her pink Hello Kitty nightgown, in her stringy blond hair, behind her ears. “Can I sleep with you, Mommy?” she asks, pale and shaking.

“Oh, honey, let’s get you cleaned up,” I say, not knowing where to start.

Stripping her down, I decide a shower is our only option, given the situation of the matted down hair. After toweling her off, putting on fresh pajamas and peeling soiled sheets off her bed (she’d had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner), we head back to my room. I put some towels on the pillows, just in case this bout has some staying power, and strategically place a trash can next to the bed.

“Am I going to throw up again?” she asks before drifting off to sleep.

“I hope not, sweetie,” I try to reassure her—and myself. “But it’s okay, I’m here. Mommy’s right here.”

Moments later, the heaving begins and I race to raise the wastepaper basket closer. I reach for her hair, holding it back.

Holding back her hair. It’s what we do as mothers. Of course there’s more to motherhood than caring for a sick child, but at this particular moment, I’m a mother through and through. Gone are the usual doubts about my ability to be a good parent, the ambiguity over whether or not I’m cut out for the job. To be sure, those doubts will return, but for now, my need to nurture has kicked into action. I feel needed, not needy.

A child with the throw-up bug, despite the clean up involved, can be pathetically adorable. They’re weak, compliant, apologetic—if only temporarily. And you’re their hero— if only temporarily.

I remember my own mother holding back my hair as I hunched over the toilet as a child. My mother wasn’t an effusive, huggy kind of mom (Dad was the hugger), but when we were sick, she was there, nurturing us back to health with saltines, ginger ale, and hair holding. When I stayed home from school, Mom would prop me up in their bed while I zoned out on “I Dream of Genie,” “Bewitched,” or “The Brady Bunch.” That’s what I still want—even in my 40s. Even when I know it’s no longer possible. Many of my friends, mothers or not, say they, too, want their mothers around when they’re sick. And it seems the feeling can linger long after a mother is gone.

While the need for our mothers never permanently fades, at some point, our mothers begin to need mothering. That’s what happened with Mom and my grandmother in the years before she died. Driving more than four hours every two weeks to visit, Mom would take 95-year-old Nana on jaunts through their old neighborhood, talk to her about grandchildren and great-grandchildren, help bathe her and brush her thinning hair. Seeing them together, I realized how much my grandmother needed her daughter to mother her. But I also wondered if there was a voice inside Nana that still wished for her own mother. And I wondered when it would be my turn to start mothering my mother. Our roles are constantly shifting.

It’s close to 4 a.m. and Katherine’s battle with the stomach virus has reached a cease-fire. She says she’s feeling much better and might be able to have a few sips of Gatorade. “I’m okay, Mommy,” she says softly. “I’m okay.”

This time, she’s the one reassuring me.