This finally happened. Cue the drum roll and the applause, please. My daughter finally let me clean her puke! I’m actually not being sarcastic at all. This happened. I am overjoyed. I got to clean the puke. Finally! Victory is mine!
Let’s back up about 18 months. Mary was just 7 when she came to live with us from foster care. Although she had a good foster home, she had a distorted view of what a “mom” and “dad” were, and what they were supposed to do. Her experiences had taught her that parents get drunk. A lot. Parents leave. A lot. Parents may love you, but they will hurt you physically. A lot. Her schema for “family” was so distorted that she was at a loss as to what to do in many situations.
Mary hates getting sick. In her view, anything that makes her weak will leave her vulnerable and defenseless. She feels the most vulnerable in the bathroom and in bed, the 2 places you usually go when sick. Initially she hated sleeping because she would be vulnerable if unconscious. Mary never slept for more than 45 minutes at a time when she first came home. If she fell asleep in a random spot in the house, we would try to carry her to bed. This would cause her to awaken in a heightened panic, crying and screaming and swinging wildly. Being sick caused all of these things to culminate for her. I may not like the stomach bug, no one does, but Mary HATES it.
Last year, she got the stomach bug. It was the only time she had vomited around us, at all. She ran off of the carpet and bolted onto the tiled foyer, collapsing to her hands and knees. She vomited in great quantity in a pool on the tiled portion of the floor. She hadn’t said a word, or even indicated that she was sick in any way. I rushed to her side, only to realize that her panic was mounting and she very much needed me to back away. “I threw up!” she kept shouting. “Go away!”
I’m sure I muttered soothing nonsense to her, in order to ground her to this reality. “It’s OK, honey, Mommy is here.” I spoke my steps aloud so she would know my location. Mary was always afraid to lose me from her line of vision in those days. “Honey, climb into bed. I’m getting a glass and filling it with water. I’m getting you a wet wash cloth.” In this way, I gave her the physical space she requested while giving her the support of my presence. I could hear her sobbing and stumbling to her feet. I ran over with the aforementioned items saying over and over, “It’s OK honey, let’s get you to bed.”
I was shocked to hear her yell at me, “I’m TRYING, stop yelling at me!” My only view was of her little hunched over back. As she slammed her little fist against the ground, I could see that she held her own roll of paper towels. She was cleaning. Cleaning the puke and sobbing. Mary angrily got up and slammed the soiled items into the trash. “Leave me alone. I’m doing it!!” she yelled. Mary grabbed a spray bottle of cleaner and stomped back to the foyer. When I tried to halt her efforts she became even more enraged, yelling, “I can do this, I can!” through her sobs. I was befuddled, to put it mildly.
Was she angry? At me? At the puke? Eventually she calmed down as I sang to her and bundled her into the couch with a bucket to puke in. I put on her favorite show and promised her she did not have to go to bed. As she nodded off on the couch, only to ferociously open her eyes a minute later, I paused to reflect. Why was she cleaning up her own puke? Why was she mad?
Her older brother relayed a story to me that helped me understand. He told me about a time that he had gotten sick in his bio home. He’d thrown up on the carpet in his bio mom’s room. She had been mad about the carpet so she yelled at him and held his face in it. Then she left him to clean it up.
All the pieces fell into place for me. Mary had interpreted the events differently than I had. She had been in a heightened state of fear because she didn’t want to ruin the carpet, and she hadn’t made it out of the door in time. When I urged her to come to bed, she interpreted it as my rushing her through cleaning and telling her she was too slow. She thought she was being punished and sent to her room, when I was urging her to go to bed. The poor little thing thought I was upset about the floor and punishing her.
When she had recovered, and was more regulated, I assured her that she was not in trouble. I explained that she was way more important than a carpet would ever be. Then I asked her who’s job it was to clean the puke. “Mine,” she answered definitely. “No, honey. You don’t clean up when you are sick. The mom gets to clean the puke.” We talked about this often, along with other “mom” jobs for the next year and a half.
Today was the day that it finally happened. She marched in a parade and was stuffed with candy and cookies and junk food all day. She was resting on the couch when out of nowhere, she bolted for the bathroom. “I need a hair tie,” she cried, “I’m going to puke.” I rushed over, just as she vomited onto the tile floor of the bathroom. She didn’t cry. There were no panicked sobs. She let me sit with her and hold her hair back while she vomited. I rubbed her back in circles and brushed the hair from her neck. I muttered soothing mom things, and she leaned into me.
When she finished, she let me guide her to bed. She accepted my nurture, and it helped her. Gone was the little girl who yelled, “Leave me alone!” I gave her water and tissues and fussed over her. Carl came, too, and he brought her things and rubbed her back. I gently queried, “Who cleans the puke?” Mary looked at me uncertainly, “You do?”
“Yup,” I beamed at her, “the mom gets to clean the puke!” And I did. Gleefully.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your own puke-filled adventure today!