“Mummy, can you kiss me?” my five-year-old son just asked me at bedtime.
His eyes were closed, his little face flushed with (fever?) sleep. I’d whispered my way through several Dr Seusses, and waited until my son’s breathing was deep and rhythmic before trying to slip away. But then he turned his face to me, cast his arms about for me, asked in a tiny voice for a kiss. And I almost said no.
Readers, I was already planning to write about parenting through the prism of the coronavirus outbreak – documenting the trials of instilling the sort of rigorous hand-washing techniques in my children that I’ve not seen since George Clooney last scrubbed up for surgery as Dr Ross in ER.
My five-year-old, unless nagged most intensely, will do no more than wave shyly at a running tap from across the room, whereas his two-year-old brother runs full-pelt at the tap, yelling “I MAKE WET MESS, MUMMY” as a sort of battle cry.
Days later – as coronavirus sends Italy into lockdown, then spreads across the UK – I’m navigating life in semi-isolation, under GP’s orders to stay home as much as possible and “avoid where people congregate”, thanks to my tantalising bouquet of chronic health conditions – including diabetes, asthma, and joint disease.
I spent a full month in bed last year with viral pneumonia, then contracted sepsis from a scald from a hot water bottle I’d used to relieve a MIGRAINE – which is all to say I’m at risk of developing complications if I contract the virus, whether through weakened immunity or plain idiotic bad luck.
But less than 24 hours later, the premise has changed again. The World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
At this point, the UK coronavirus death toll, very sadly, stands at eight people and, I won’t lie, things feel rather hell-and-hand-baskets. In addition to my Yellow Pages-thick list of chronic illnesses, I have pretty severe anxiety, and stemming the flow of 3am worry-nuggets is a Herculean task.
I’m isolating myself, but should I be isolating my family, too? Judging by the weekly runny noses, intermittent coughs, and low-grade fevers my immediate family’s been trading internally as though they were Pokemon cards since the start of term, surely schools and nurseries are already hotbeds for disease? Especially as we don’t know how many people with mild coronavirus symptoms aren’t tested, because they think it’s just a cold, and are mingling freely in the community?
I am having these chats with other mothers in my WhatsApp, on Instagram, on Twitter; with husbands undergoing chemo; post-op children; hospital workers in the family. “What if, what if, what if?” We’re asking, and no one has an answer.
And then there’s the children. Apparently, spending two minutes within two feet of someone with coronavirus puts you at “significant risk” of contracting it, and we’re advised not to come into “close contact” with anyone with the virus. But what if that person is your child? Your small child, who just wants his mother?
So, yes, today, my five-year-old son was sent home sick from school. And I have no idea whether I should kiss him.
Truthfully, it’s hard to know whether he’s actually ill, or just a bit under the weather and fancied a day on the sofa watching Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons. And my mum-radar isn’t helping me out at all – the boy hasn’t spiked a fever, but is complaining of a sore throat. He’s a bit quieter than usual, but also occasionally given to careering around the house and garden.
It could be a cold, the flu; an ear infection; or full-blown coronavirus itself, which reportedly shows up with milder symptoms in children – but he’s under the weather and he wants me to kiss him and hold him and make him feel safe.
And the thing is, for better or worse, I can’t not.
If it was the other way round – if the kids had the risk factors, and I was the potential cesspool of disease – I would staunchly isolate myself and weather their cries, knowing I was protecting their health. But for some reason the idea of not attending to them because I might get a bit iller than usual isn’t incentive enough to withhold being their mum right when they actually need their mum.
Tomorrow, my husband and I will see how the kids are, and how I am, and what the world is doing, and decide whether to keep them home in the interim. Other than that we’ll just continue to employ common sense.
I stay home but go for walks to take the edge off the cabin fever – which is only ever mild as being told to stay home in comfortable clothing is literally a dream come true. My husband covers all crowd-based interactions (school pickups, supermarket shopping etc), and in exchange I do the kids’ bedtimes. We continue to juggle the parenting and working load.
And, of course, everyone washes their hands a lot. I finally got my kids on side by investing in some roaring Incredible Hulk liquid soap, and performing the hand-washing technique each time to the lyrics of their favourite song –inexplicably, Blue by Eiffel 65. All of which may be moot now.
“Mummy, can you kiss me?” my son asks. “Yes,” I say. “Of course,” I tell him, kissing him, ruffling his hair, and holding his hand till he falls asleep. He coughs; I cough – the same coughs we’ve had for months now, on and off. Coronavirus isn’t the only respiratory bug doing the rounds, of course.
Later, I wash my hands and mouth, which may be too little too late, but how do we know? How can any of us know? In the meantime, we do what we can, while carrying on the business of being humans.