When Whooping Cough Attacks

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The Center for Disease Control announced last week that whooping cough was on the rise again. Whooping cough is one of those conditions, like "morning sickness," that's terribly undernamed. It sounds like the sort of disease a clown might have, instead of the sort of disease that can make you cough so violently you break a rib. Pertussis, the name used by people who have medical degrees and are therefore too dignified to use "oop" words, is a little scarier, but still could be a scalp condition.

As a mother, one becomes something of an expert on scary disease names. Shortly after giving birth, some switch in your brain opens up a cerebral vat into which you pour the name of every horrific childhood ailment yet discovered. And they stay there, stewing and bubbling over every time your child looks the tiniest bit wan.

Illnesses were just icky or a bore before I had kids. Now if my child so much as clears her throat, it's straight to the Cystic Fibrosis section of the "Mother's Guide to Life-Threatening Conditions That Your Child Almost Certainly Has" book on my shelves. I usually work back from CF, through lung cancer, pneumonia, asthma, pertussis, bronchitis, and finally, good old upper respiratory tract infection, which is what a cold gets called these days. Is this some weird corollary to the whooping cough rule — the less scary the disease, the scarier the name? I've even had my baby tested for anthrax. She didn't have it, even though we live mere blocks from a post office.

Now that I know whooping cough numbers are up, I'll have to linger over the list of symptoms in that part of the chart to try to project them on to my offspring. The baby + phlegm cocktail is one of the most brutal for mothers. Once stricken, infant nasal passages are so small that any mucus makes their breathing sound like Darth Vader in the final stages of emphysema. You keep wishing: "if it only it could be me who has the cold, instead of her." And before you know it, presto, it is.

But here's the weird part: Once I have established that the little tot is not on the brink of petering out, I think, "I can still go to work, right?" Sometimes the journey from "Fifi is about to die" to "I'm abandoning Fifi before I miss my train" can take less than three seconds. And then there's the hideous clash of wills between wanting to cuddle said sick child and not really wanting sick child's snot all over your only presentable blouse. There's a marketing opportunity here. What working mom will want to go through life without the Phlegm-Phighting Apron or SnotAway spray?

One of the secrets a lot of us are too ashamed to admit is that actually it's nicer round the house when the kids are sick. They're a little dopey and tired. They want more hugs. They go to bed early and nap lots. You can get stuff done. If you could stop worrying for a second, it's almost like a vacation.

So I'm going to stop being anxious about whooping cough. I'm too busy anyway, what with the outbreak of a mysterious rash in elementary schools in Philadelphia. That's only two hours drive from my place.