When do you call for Mom?
I had a host of ideas for my first Beijing Baba column, and most of them would have been quite good. I’m certain of that. Really, I am. But nailing any of them down proved virtually impossible once I was forced to turn into Doctor Dad and my brain shut down with the pressure. The deadline for this story, you see, coincided with a brutal week when my wife’s business took her to Taiwan, and my two sons both fell ill and had to stay home from school and be looked after, one of them for days on end.
6-year-old Eli had a fever but not much else and I knew he’d be better soon, so that was a little tiring but not really scary. 9-year-old Jacob’s situation was a different story, however. His stomach was as turbulent as the North Atlantic and he required constant nursing, which was exhausting, frustrating, maddening and occasionally quite frightening. He was going to the bathroom three times an hour and was so weak he could barely manage to watch a movie.
It made for a tricky situation. Ask Rebecca to come back early and I’d be a wuss, especially if things turned around quickly, as I hoped and expected they would. But hang in there and tell her things would turn out fine and I risked being a foolish martyr if they didn’t, and in real trouble if they took a turn for the worse.
A doctor had already examined Jacob and said there was no indication he had anything other than a viral bug that would right itself within two days. But he was barely better after three days of ingesting nothing but crackers and ginger ale. He was still rolling around our bed groaning that his tummy hurt and running to the bathroom every 20 minutes. Eli was home too, but his illness seemed to have been vanquished by sleeping until 10am, and he was bored to tears. While I attended to Jacob, Eli bounded around the house like a caffeinated Chihuahua. It was like loosing a Tasmanian devil in a pediatric hospital ward.
With all the commotion, I forgot I had a Chinese class scheduled and when my laoshi showed up, I figured I might as well throw a DVD on for Jacob and give it a go. It wasn’t a very fruitful lesson (or at least not in terms of my Chinese). We were repeatedly interrupted by Eli playing spy and Jacob screaming, “Dad, I need you!”
After one such interruption, I walked back downstairs to hear my ayi and teacher discussing what a good father I am. I should have been flattered, but they were speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tones and I was suspicious. I felt sure they had seen me coming, muttered the Chinese version of “ixnay on thatnay” and started blathering about my parenting. What they were really saying, I thought, was: “Well, what do the laowais expect to happen to their kids what with the way they leave their heads and toes exposed in the middle of winter? This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing!”
When I noted that Jacob was looking pale and sunken-eyed, I realized that a hospital visit was likely and decided it was time to bite the bullet and call in the cavalry. It takes almost a full day to fly from Taiwan to Beijing, during which time Jacob improved markedly. When Rebecca finally arrived – late at night, with the kids all sound asleep – I felt a little silly, even a tad guilty. It struck me then how much I benefit from a double standard. As a dad on the frontline of parenthood, I receive a lot of praise and admiration, and I’m willing to accept that at least some of it is actually genuine. But when the muck hits the fan, I can cry uncle and my wife will cut her business trip short and come rescue me. It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening if our roles were reversed.
The next morning, Jacob was still unwell. Disregarding my insistence that the doctor had already declared it “just a stomach bug,” sure to pass soon, Rebecca decided that it was time her son see another doctor for some tests. A culture revealed that the infection was, in fact, bacterial and a dose of antibiotics helped turn the tide. It was just further proof that sometimes father doesn’t know best after all. As if any were needed.