Soothe the child, inflame the parent

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The Independent Online
I HAVE spent the past week tying blindfolds around my four-year-old's head. I was hoping to have a quietly efficient new year, paying off the credit card bills, making time to read proper books, and putting a healthy distance between myself and December's ravages of cold and flu bugs.

But then my daughter was sent home early from school with a fever and the first symptoms of an itchy rash. Everyone is coming down with chicken-pox, said the school's head.

In the morning, after a night of tossing, turning and moans, her body was liberally sprinkled with a crop of inflamed, fluid-filled blisters. It was the first stage of an unmistakable attack. And the start of an extraordinary period of disruption.

Until you have tried to nurse a small, ill child it is hard to grasp how much disruption this can impose. Efficiency flew out of the window. The whole family's routine was up-ended by her dictatorial shrieks.

Perhaps my daughter is rather fastidious, but the sight of her spots caused her deep distress. There was no point reassuring her that they looked far worse than they actually were. This only produced louder sobs.

She could not bear to look at them, especially as lots of new ones in horrid places, such as along her hairline, and between her fingers, popped up for three days. This created a challenge for me because she refused to undress, or have a bath. But unless she did, it was impossible to dab on ointment (which is four times the price of old- fashioned calamine lotion but much more effective), to reduce the itching.

After many hours of hysterical sobbing, I found that the only way to coax her to change was to tie a blindfold around her eyes so that she couldn't see the spots: the early ones were already turning into red crusted horrors.

She would then step into a bath, provided the water had a liberal topping of bubble-bath foam and was deep enough to cover her. After bathing she insisted on wearing her larger sister's nightdress, which has a ruffle at the neck and falls modestly to ankles and wrists. The only problem was that this still left exposed clusters on her hands, face and neck.

Chicken-pox, of course, is one of the few childhood illnesses that are not vaccinated against, unlike measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough. It is regarded as comparatively mild, something best to catch when you are a small child. With children freed of most of these once-common infections, every parent I know worries, probably unnecessarily, about the far rarer meningitis.

Perhaps we are too sheltered, but the sheer visual impact of chicken-pox makes it seem like a visitation from medieval times: one sight is enough to cause other mothers in the playground to shrink away.

Because of the trauma, discomfort and recurrent high temperatures, my daughter would not sleep in her own bed. She kept appearing by my bedside, until I crumbled, and made a concession because she was ill. This meant broken sleep for me as I administered spoonfuls of the infant medicine Calpol and what seemed like hourly reminders that she should not scratch her spots (it makes scars). My husband migrated to the spare room.

No wonder the world belongs to high-achieving singles and childless couples. Anyone who achieves anything knows how to apply their energy effectively: once you have children, how on earth can you sustain this focus?

I am fortunate enough to have someone to help with the children, including a baby. A working mother would have had to take time off work, or find a minder. And even with help, there is no avoiding the exhaustion. Bliss, for me, would be an unbroken night's sleep.

It seems an unlikely prospect. For the point about chicken-pox is that it is highly infectious. Just as my four-year-old is asking to go back to school (on condition that she doesn't have to undress for gym, so that people can't see her now uninfectious scabs), the baby has come out in spots, and is sounding very grumpy.

So we are about the enter a second phase of sleepless nights, as the germs work through the family. When the Government next tries to swing the axe at child benefit, remember chicken-pox. Shouldn't there be some small reward for having children?