There’s no family drama as terrible as when the whole family gets sick

Every family has its own mass-sickness style. What’s yours?
By Julie Kendrick  Published on 01/25/2019 at 10:14 AM EDT
Does this scene look familiar? Mom, dad and kids are sick—but somehow mothering must continue. Rawpixel

If you’ve ever elbowed your toddler aside from the toilet so you can have more space to hurl, you know the peculiar experience of everyone in the family getting sick at once.

“It’s just an upset stomach,” you tell yourself at first. “His sister is throwing up now because her brother just did,” you add, fingers crossed. “Of course it’s impossible that I’m also—MAYDAY!” you conclude, as the ship of your family turns into the Titanic, upending itself in a big ol’ cesspool of germs, misery and mutual recriminations.

Why is this happening to us?

The odds are not in your favor if you’re living with little kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus strikes about 20 million Americans every year, and many younger children can get two to three episodes of viral gastroenteritis (aka the raging pukes) each year.

If your family is less urpy than snotty, we hear you—well, our ears are plugged up at the moment, but we get the general idea. According to the American Lung Association, adults get an average of two to four colds per year, mostly between September and May. Young children, bless their tiny, germy hearts (and noses), get an average of six to eight colds per year. Parents, you do the math.

Take your turn

Every family has their own sickness style. Some prefer the carefully scheduled one-at-a-time method, passing an illness politely from one to another, perhaps accompanied by a courtly bow. This method has its downsides, of course, since it leaves caregivers on nonstop sickroom duty for what seems like a kindergarten-through-high-school rotation. And it allows for enough space between ailments so that the kid who brought all the germs home in the first place can end up getting re-infected again. This begins to create a Möbius strip of illness that does, we promise, eventually end (or at least that’s what we’ve heard).

Other families aim for the sharp drive-into-the-brick-wall effect of everyone getting sick within absolute minutes of each other. This shortens the total days of quarantine, but makes getting some precious toilet time a real challenge (see toddler elbowing, above).

Often, there will be one person in the family who is spared from the plague. This is often the person with the worst personal hygiene and most odious nutritional habits. Try not to judge, unless it’s you, and then congratulate yourself on your strength and moral fortitude.

A panoramic vista of vomit

Some families wait until the big, glorious family vacation before succumbing to the crud. Erin Anderson, a Brooklyn mother of two, is still gagging a little bit at the memory of a less-than-majestic family trip to Fire Island a couple years ago. “Every day, someone new got sick,” she said. “The only ones spared were the dogs. I think I spent a total of five hours at the beach all week. Otherwise, I was either puking, cleaning up puke or nursing someone back to health after they had been puking. We haven’t been back there since.”

For Nicole Celichowski, a St. Paul, Minnesota, mother of four, it all went down on an epic camping trip to Yellowstone in 2017. “We were in our packed-to-the-gills minivan, 45 minutes down the highway, when the oldest got sick. Our first night in the Big Horn Mountains, the 2-year-old threw up in the tent once, twice … eventually a dozen times. What started at one end of the tent traveled methodically, inexorably, to each and every member of the tent. None were spared.”

By the end of the trip, both parents were, no surprise, flagging. “We took in Mammoth Hot Springs with what we called a ‘car tour.’ It was exactly the kind of thing we would have tut-tutted at those other American tourists for doing. We sat in a climate-controlled car and snapped photos from the windows, weakly. It was perfect.”

Whatever you do, don’t think about white wicker

Sometimes the collateral damage is even worse than the illness itself. That was certainly the case for another mom of three, who asked not to be named. “We were at my in-laws’ house in Hilton Head, which is all white—rugs, walls, bedding—and which also features a lot of white wicker furniture,” she said, with significant foreshadowing.

“One year, grandma baked a chocolate cake for all the kids. We saw it again at 2 a.m., when my son threw it up all over his—again, let me remind you, totally white—room. In his defense, he made it to the wastebasket, at least partially, but the wastebasket was made out of white wicker, of course. Then he ran down the—yes, white—hallway, leaving crime-scene choco-vomit handprints all over the walls. The two girls followed pretty quickly, and then my husband got a very vocal and dramatic case of man flu.

“We ended up paying to have the carpets cleaned and walls repainted. We asked, and they didn’t say no. The one upside is that I’ve learned how to clean vomit out of wicker,” she said. “It’s all in the Q-tips.”

The three things you must have when the entire family is sick

  1. Buckets
    How many buckets are enough? Pretty much infinity, at least according to Twin Cities dad of three Bryan Reynolds. “My family and I recently enjoyed sharing the stomach flu, which was a joyous occasion that lasted the better part of a week,” he said. “I got it first, then graciously shared it with my wife and three daughters. I realized that for years, I hadn’t understood why we had 20 ice cream buckets stored under the sink, but after five days of stomach flu for five people, I finally saw the logic.”
  2. Crackers
    Maybe everyone just has a cold and not the full-on chunders (an actual Australian slang term for vomit, you’re welcome). But still, you really don’t want to cook, do you? That jumbo box of saltines (or, even nicer, Goldfish), will keep everyone alive for a while—nutrition, fiber and Vitamin C be damned.
  3. Corners
    To pile the laundry in, of course. There’s no way you’ll be keeping up with it, so just admit defeat.
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