When life gives you barf, make emotional progress.

You want to know what’s *actually* the most annoying sound in the world?

Coughing.

Like when you’re at the office and one of your coworkers just. won’t. stop. Or you’re at a movie. You glare at the offender, thinking “Can’t you just STOP DOING THAT?”

Whenever I’m around someone with a cough, I think of this scene from the show “Monk,” in which the main character is trying to have an important conversation on a busy street in New York City, but (understandably) keeps getting interrupted by jackhammering.

Full disclosure: Ask any of my colleagues and they’ll tell you that annoying person coughing is usually me. I have self-diagnosed with an unfortunate combo of allergies, acid reflux and some weird post-nasal drip thing that often leaves me with a tickle. And, in my defense, I can say with great certainty that no, in fact, I cannot just stop doing that, but, trust me, I really would like to.

But let’s talk for a minute about the dreaded URI — the Upper Respiratory Infection.

AKA the Utterly Relentless Illness.

AKA Undoubtedly Results in Irritability.

AKA Um, Really Inconvenient.

There’s a reason my last blog post was over three weeks ago. I have been tending to not one kid, but two suffering from URIs.

Children are often annoying under the best of circumstances. But they are quite literally intolerable when they have a cough.

First of all, they have zero awareness of non-germ-spreading behavior, so they have absolutely no problem coughing straight into your open mouth, onto the screen of the iPhone they just yanked out of your hand, or all over the stash of pacifiers belonging to the child you are desperately trying to keep from getting sick. They pick and wipe their noses with reckless abandon all over whatever surface is most convenient for them. My kids have the unique talent of rubbing their runny noses straight up into their eyes, thereby landing weird eye infections on top of everything else. They also become deeply needy, demanding full mouth smooches at all times from you. Don’t even try to offer up a cheek instead.

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When I think of children suffering from coughs, I think of three distinct sounds:

  1. The normal “cough cough” carry on — annoying but manageable.
  2. The “cough cough whimper” — annoying but it does force you to get up several times in the middle of the night to provide comfort.
  3. The “cough cough… BARF” — this truly separates the men from the boys when it comes to parenting. It not only requires a seriously strong stomach, a dormant gag reflex, a healthy relationship with Windex and paper towels, the ability to function on very little sleep, and a boatload of patience.

There are few things that get me moving quicker than the sound of a child’s cough morphing into gagging and retching. If you’re lucky, you have at best one dry heave before shit gets real. If you’re crazy lucky, your kid will already be sitting somewhere easy to clean and not, say, in their bed at 2 AM. If you’re an actual ninja, you will be able to get them to a toilet or sink before all hell breaks loose. I have taken some Samurai sword classes… but they have proven useless on this front.

As his nickname, “Luke the Puke,” might suggest, my youngest is a yakker. He barfs if you look at him the wrong way. And so when he starts to get the sniffles, I know we are entering into the gladiator games of parenting for the next 3-4 weeks. Every coughing fit devolves into that pie-eating scene from the movie “Stand by Me.”

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Please help me.

This last round was among the worst we’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t saying much because the kid only very recently turned one. During his last bout over Christmas, we just incorporated a mop and bucket into the living room décor, and dubbed one section of my in-laws’ hardwood floors the puke spot. We would basically just hold him there during every coughing spell. By the time he was on the mend, that one square foot had been cleaned so many times you could conduct open-heart surgery on it.

This time, I actually did start to develop some basic ninja training, managing to get Luke the Puke over a sink for one out of every five barfs. Occasionally this would happen while I was mid-chew during dinner. There are few things that kill an appetite quite like turning the garbage disposal on a sink full of regurgitated milk and puréed kale.

And to make matters worse, as one might expect, administering medicine the traditional way to a barf-happy infant is an exercise in futility. We would wrestle the Children’s Tylenol in, only to have it come right back out, projectile-style.

And so, to add insult to injury for all parties involved, we resorted to using suppositories. Not only was the poor kid having coughing/barfing fits every hour, we were now shoving things up his rectum against his will. AND, not only were we elbow deep in puke and Windex every hour, we were now being forced to stick our fingers in a bum against our will.

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Let’s never speak of this again.

It is my nature to find a silver lining in everything. As I mentioned a while back, I have a really severe fear of vomiting. Not just a mild aversion, similar to how one might feel about getting a tetanus shot. No, no. I have a LIFE-CONSUMING preoccupation with it. So imagine my horror when faced with the all-day vomitorium my house was turning into.

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But instead something interesting happened. I found myself trying to start a self-imposed regimen of aggressive exposure therapy. Like, I would watch Luke barf, and really try to focus on it (I’m sure he was thrilled). I threw myself into the act of comforting him, forcing myself to not shy away from holding him, or freak out if I got puke on me. I took great reassurance in the fact that, most of the time, when he’d gotten it all out, he returned to his goofy, happy little self. He didn’t appear traumatized by it, and was often inexplicably playful, and eager to eat immediately thereafter. Meanwhile, I naturally assumed I would be curled up in the full PTSD position, unable to eat, sleep or leave my house ever again if it were me.

While I’m certainly not rushing to stick my finger in my throat any time soon to test out if I’ve made any actual progress on conquering my fears, I like to think my little Luke the Puke has helped me start to face them. We always think our kids are the ones who need us — and they do (that diaper’s not changing itself); but it’s amazing to think of all the times we are the ones who need them the most. In many ways, they save us.

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