Priscilla had an appointment so I offered to look after 6-week-old Valentina alone for the first time. She slept for the first hour and I took cocky photos and posted obnoxious comments about how this babysitting thing was a breeze. Then she needed her diaper changed. I removed the diaper with confidence, wrapped it up and deposited it in the trash. Before I could acquire the new diaper, however, Valentina started peeing on the changing table mattress. What is it about taking off a kid’s diaper that makes that happen? Is it a “Pavlov’s dog” kind of thing? I panicked and put my hand over the pee fountain to try to contain the mess but that just spread it all over her clothes. I sighed in exasperation and asked her if she was done. One of us thought it was funny. I had carefully begun removing the urine soaked onesie when she started to poop. Again, I can’t explain my reflex. I pulled her up by her ankles with one hand and stuck my other hand under her bottom. As I stood next to the changing table, staring at the growing pile of poop in my hand, I had a flashback to the Great Vomit Incident of 2006.
I don’t talk about it much, although I’m told trauma therapists promote sharing your experiences as a path to healing from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I feel that burying them deep inside is also pretty effective. Back when my brother’s first child was two, I flew out from New York in hopes that the next kid would arrive on her due date and I would be there for the birth. She was very late and I missed the whole thing but that’s got nothing to do with my trauma. I was sitting in the back of the car on the way to a BBQ, trying to keep my nephew, Rider, distracted and happy. He was fussy but I did my best. I sang the stupid animal songs my brother, Jim, had running in the CD player and made faces at Rider for his amusement. I don’t know whether aunts have anything like maternal instinct, but a moment came when I realized that this child was about to throw up. Before I had time to consider the implications of my actions, I stuck my arms out and cupped my hands together in front of him. Rider immediately ralphed into my hands like I had given him a bucket. He sat back in his car seat clearly relieved, like that went well.
I, on the other hand, was now holding a bowl of vomit. Had I minded my own business on the other side of the car, this vile slime would have been all over the back of my brother’s seat, an alternative I should have chosen in retrospect. I sat in shock, staring at my hands while Jim pulled the car over in a fancy neighborhood. Because this situation wasn’t humiliating enough, I carefully climbed out and deposited my load on the grass in front of someone’s house in Beverly Hills. Jim dumped out the overflow that had spilled into the car seat, while I went through an entire package of wet wipes hoping no one was watching us. Back in the car I sat in stunned silence thinking to myself, “What just happened?”
This memory raced through my mind like a thunderbolt as I stood holding Valentina’s excrement. It’s called a flashback in the world of PTSD. Shock had rendered useless the signals from my brain and I stood frozen for a minute, looking from my hand to the baby in bewilderment. When I regained full use of my faculties, I cleaned the perpetrator and put her in new PJs, and everything within a 5-foot radius of us went into the washing machine. Note to self: next time grab a towel, or a wipe or something. Seriously.
This baby thing gets less . . . disgusting, right?