the perspective of puke and the tales we tell

I could tell the story of my week like this:

For the first time since I became a parent, I spent the morning cleaning vomit out of the crib.

(At which point I would pause while the Interwebs finished laughing at me. “Seriously?”)

And that would be true.

Because in some strange stroke of luck, we’ve never had a stomach bug tear through this house in the almost-four years since we’ve had kids.

Sure, we’ve had common colds and croup and thrush and other typical childhood ailments. And we’ve got at least one boy who’s prone to car-sickness, so we’ve wiped up car seats and coats aplenty. But never before had our doorstep been darkened by the Evil 24-Hour Stomach Virus, as sponsored by Lysol and the sanitizing cycle on the washing machine.

I know this sounds naive. And trust me, ever since I became a mother I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, the quintessential moment when I would wind up catching some kid’s puke in my cupped hands and realize, while choking back my own gag reflex, “So this is motherhood. Huh.”

And yes, that happened. Exactly as you’d expect, exactly as I’d always expected. One frantic knock on the office door from the nanny while I was working mid-Monday, one boy throwing up in the bathroom, one brother felled by the same bug the next day, more vomit on my sweatshirts than I care to remember, more hot water loads in the washer than I care to count.

You know the story.

Or do you?

As I pondered the wretched (wretching?) events of the past few week, I realized that I could spin the story any number of ways.

It could start like I did above, that I’d never been puked on before, so four years after first giving birth, I felt like a newbie parent all over again. And behold: a tale of maternal rite of passage.

Or it could take another twist: after my youngest had his 18 month check-up on Monday, and his doctor was closing the door to say goodbye, she called out, “Great to see you! It’s been so long – I can’t believe you’ve never had this kid in for anything but well-baby visits since he was born!” And behold: a story of sour irony.

Or it could travel down this road: at the beginning of birthday week, all I dreamed of was a weekend away with the beloved spouse who stole shares my natal day, but by week’s end I was reduced to begging divine intervention to please just keep my kids from puking today so that we can salvage some shred of the celebration slipping away before my eyes. And behold: a reminder of reversed expectations.

All of these tales are true. What matters is which one I pick.

The more I ponder the intersections between parenting and spirituality, between mothering and writing, the more I realize how the lens through which see the world matters. And how the tales we choose to tell matter, too.

Whether or not we recognize it in the moment, we choose to narrate every experience according to certain scripts or slants. Here’s my Tale of A Terrible Day; here’s my Glowing Reminder of Life’s Beauty; here’s my Gut-Punch Reminder of Fleeting Mortality. The same day spun six different ways.

In her book Composing A Life, Mary Catherine Bateson explores the various versions of our life that we create – when we introduce ourselves to a group of people at a meeting or make a new acquaintance at a party, for example. She claims that our self-introductions, our autobiographies, even the everyday stories we tell each other all have multiple versions – and this is not only good, but necessary:

What I want to say is that you can play with, compose, multiple versions of a life.

There are advantages in having access to multiple versions of your life story. I am not referring to a true version versus a false version, or to one that works in a given therapeutic context as opposed to others, or to one that will sell to People magazine as opposed to ones that won’t. I am referring to the freedom that comes not only from owning your memory and your life story but also from knowing that you make creative choices in how you look at your life….

The choice you make affects what you can do next. Often people use the choice of emphasizing either continuity or discontinuity as a way of preparing for the next step. They interpret the present in a way that helps them construct a particular future.

The art of composition and improvisation has the power to reshape our world as we reshape our point of view.

Pondering this truth mid-sick-week helped me to remember that I still held a teeny bit of control over all the situations slipping out of my hands. My perspective on the pukefest mattered, and the lens I chose to view the vomit could color the way things turned out in my mind and in my memory.

Because I could have spun this week as woe-is-me, worst-possible-timing, what-could-be-crappier. Or I could choose to see it as minor-inconvenience, mostly-manageable, much-lighter-than-burdens-others-bear.

Or maybe, just maybe, I could focus all my energy and hope and even prayers that the story of this week might end up being the one I wanted all along: the perfect prelude to a weekend without kids.

The story of the stomach bug that almost stole our birthdays.

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