Have you ever heard of Munchausen syndrome? It’s a mental illness which causes people to fabricate illness so that they can get support, approval, caring. They make themselves seem sicker than they are, just so you’ll feel bad for them.
You know what this is. It’s the person who constantly talks about his bad back/heart disease/ulcers so that everyone in your social group is constantly taking care of him. It’s the old hypochondriac pattern that we’ve all seen. Someone who is constantly suffering from a broken bone/allergic reaction/torn muscle/rare syndrome. The one who at first seems so stoic and strong, but later seems just plain determined to be suffering at all times.
If you’ve known this syndrome, you may also know about Munchausen by proxy. In this case there is a caregiver, almost always a mother, who becomes so fixated on her role as the parent of a sick child that she goes to incredible lengths to keep that child sick.
I have known some of these moms. They were all incredibly devoted, completely involved and impressively knowledgeable about the challenges faced by their young children.
I knew a Mom who used to show me a huge three ring binder of medical notes about her two year old son. She showed it to me every single week when I came to do speech/language therapy with her son. She went over it every week for over a year. She used to smile gently, and give a little shake of her head as she told me, “The gastroenterologist thinks I should have a medical degree by now!”
It took me a long time to realize that her sense of pride was incompatible with what should have been her desire to make her baby well. In fact, I came to realize over many months, she didn’t want him to be better. She wanted him to continue to be her beautiful, fragile, brave little guy. She wanted this because she wanted to hold onto her role as his brave, smart, caring, patient mother.
And you know what?
He WAS beautiful, fragile, and brave. And she absolutely WAS brave, smart, caring and patient.
I thought that it was all just crazy.
Until I started to understand her desires and motivations.
It happened to me when I had two little boys of my own with chronic severe asthma. And I became the Mom who was told by our allergist, “I hope you don’t mind, but I have two med students here for your appointment. I wanted them to meet a Mom who does everything right but still has boys with severe asthma.”
If you don’t think I swelled up with pride over that visit, you don’t understand maternal motivation. I LOVED that day.
So now I find myself a grandmother. A Nonni who takes care of her two little grandchildren every day so their parents can go to work without worrying about them. I find myself the doting Nonni who took care of not one, but two sick babies last week. Both of them had a bad cold, coughs, congestion, head aches.
I took care of them.
They were sick. And suddenly, so sweetly, my independent, self assured two year old Ellie looked up at me and said, “Nonni pick Ellie up? Nonni make Ellie feel better, please?” I scooped that beautiful little one into my arms and started to rock her in my soft red rocking chair. She put her head on my chest and sighed. “Nonni make Ellie feel better,” she said, and my heart almost swelled right out of my chest.
I was happy that she didn’t feel well. I was. She needed me. She asked for me. She told me that I was the answer to what ailed her.
Her baby brother, little three month old Johnny, caught the same cold, and the next day he could only be soothed by my arms and my rocking and my off-key singing. There was more than one point in that day when Nonni held one child in each arm, rocking and singing and kissing warm, fevery foreheads.
And that is why I understand the allure of the Munchausen by proxy set. I know what it means to feel retired, old, out to pasture, not quite anyone’s Mom. And I understand the incredible power that comes through in the moment when a soft, warm cheek is pressed to mine in search of solace.
I have never, ever, ever, in my entire life, felt more important or more valued that I have in the moments when my children or theirs have needed me to make them feel better.
I promise, I swear on everything I love, that I will never, ever do one single thing to make my little ones sick or hurt. This is why I am not a Munchausen Mommy.
I will absolutely and positively revel in those few sweet moments when my little loves need me to comfort and care for them.
I guess I am just the tiniest bit “munchy”, but I don’t apologize. Rocking a feverish toddler is one of life’s great pleasures, and I don’t mind the fact that I love it.