The Girl Who Cried ‘Owie!’

Sick kid

The Girl Who Cried ‘Owie!’
JM Randolph


Bio-parents may have an edge when it comes to kids’ health issues. By the time they get to their second child, people tend to be calmer, less paranoid, and more informed, mainly due to gradual, cumulative experience.
Since I got all the kids all at once, I did that ramping-up on the job. Some things I adjusted to quickly: the fact that most bumps and bruises don’t require medical attention, the knowledge that Band-Aids make everything better, and not being afraid of puke because the faster they throw up, the faster they’re over it. But as far as what exactly did demand a trip to the doctor, I was mystified.

I personally had never paid a great deal of attention to my own medical care and was determined to treat the kids differently than I had treated myself in the past. However, one of our kids–the middle one– always seemed to have a complaint. Every other day she needed a Band-Aid for a cut she would point to but which could not be seen with the naked eye. Random body parts– earlobe, belly button, nose, baby toe– were always bothering her. Frequently she said she had a sore throat, or an earache, or that her tummy hurt. We obliged those last complaints with doctor visits.


I have to tell you how much I disliked that pediatricians’ office we used then. They were 45 minutes away, always made you fill out the paperwork–including medical history–every time you came in no matter how recently you’d been there, and we never saw the same doctor twice. You couldn’t call and actually speak to anyone; you had to leave a message and then wait by the phone until they got back to you. It was an ordeal taking this one as frequently as we were, and every single time the doctor said, “She’s fine.”


All her ills seemed to be cries for attention; understandable, given the circumstances. We started to be more discerning.


In late spring, she began complaining about yet another sore throat and developed a cough that sounded so god-awful we were positive she was faking it. I mean, not even croup sounded that bad; it couldn’t possibly be real. We tried to be sympathetic but weren’t even entertaining a trip to the doctor. We gently scolded her for coughing that way, telling her she was going to hurt her vocal cords. But by the time she was into day five of it, her sister started coughing too–and then I started coughing– and we had to face the reality that we were wrong.
I took the girls to the doctor. Turned out both the younger one and I had bronchitis. And my little hypochondriac?


If you were wondering why you didn’t receive the Stepmom of the Year award that year, it’s because it went to me. Obviously.

The truth is that I will never forgive myself for this one. Even though her father thought she was faking too, and even though she recovered very fast, I will always carry the weight of it.

My only experiences with pneumonia were with adults who had it so severely they were hospitalized, or should have been. My mom was down with it for six weeks. My high school music teacher died from it. Yet kids are amazingly resilient. After just a day and half of antibiotics we couldn’t keep her on the couch anymore and she was asking every five minutes when she could go outside to play with her friends. Her sister recovered just as quickly. But me?

I couldn’t shake the bronchitis. I spent an entire month barely able to breathe, running a fever, and languishing in bed every moment when I wasn’t at work.

My sick time was mostly a blur but I have two distinct memories: one, of being outside work in the summer sun on the streets of New York wrapped up in two sweatshirts but still shivering because I couldn’t get warm, and two, of the day when I finally used a thermometer and found I had a fever of 104.2. That was the day we were supposed to be having a birthday party for one of the kids at a rock climbing gym. I had to call in a sitter to take them and got CC to come back from work and meet them at the party. I could barely lift my head up.
I kept the cough for six solid months.

Through all of this, I believed I deserved it for thinking she was faking when she actually had pneumonia. I’m certainly no stranger to making mistakes, but never before had an error of mine had such an impact on someone else. I honestly believed that I deserved to be sick, and I think that’s exactly why it lasted so long. I started talking to people and discovered that even bio parents make the wrong calls sometimes. There are moms who don’t take their sons to the ER when they fall off their bikes, only to discover the broken arm a week later. Parents who misjudge whether or not something needs stitches. Dads who say, “Walk it off!” when it’s actually a bad sprain that ends up needing a walking cast. We’re human; we screw up. We try not to, but it happens. The best we can do is to make it right as soon as possible and hopefully not repeat the mistake.


Sometimes as step-parents we get really down on ourselves about the job we’re doing, but the “I suck” mentality doesn’t serve anyone. It took me a long time to learn that and I still get reminders of it occasionally. My mental state plays a big factor in my health; believing I was a terrible parent and that I deserved to be sick definitely prolonged my illness. Guess what kind of parent you are when you’re bed-ridden? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Henry Ford was on to something: Whether you think you can, or think you can’t– you’re right.


JM Randolph became a step-mom in 2006, when her boyfriend at the time got temporary emergency custody of his five (yes, five!) children and she moved in to help out. Temporary turned permanent when they were married in 2008. She and her husband both work as stagehands and enjoy (most days) their houseful of teen girls, one 11-year-old boy and two Puggles. She blogs at Facebook: Twitter: @JM_Randolph


3 thoughts on “The Girl Who Cried ‘Owie!’

  1. I get it.

    I had pneumonia two years ago and was SHOCKED at how much it took out of me. I didn’t truly recover for months. My mom thought I was exaggerating, too, even though I was 29 and didn’t have a sub on my show yet so it wasn’t even like I was ditching school or anything. That is no easy thing to go through, and to go through it while beating yourself up and blaming yourself must have been really miserable. I’m so sorry.

    Sometimes as a non-bio parent I feel inherently terrible at this. We struggle with keeping the 4-year old in his own bed, a lot, and a few weeks ago he woke everyone up yelling, which isn’t uncommon; we try hard not to rush to his side when he wakes, but rather to wait a minute to see if he can calm himself down, because otherwise it quickly spirals into totally out of control behavior. But that night, their dad leapt out of bed and sprinted down the hall to the kids’ bedroom. I seethed silently, sleepily, in that just-awake place where emotions seem strangely strong; I wondered how we would ever sleep again if we started sprinting down the hallway each and every time he woke up. I thought, “This could set us back MONTHS.” Eventually my gentleman came back to bed and we fell asleep, but I held my grudge even as I drifted off. Five minutes later, more yelling.

    Followed, immediately, by projectile puking.

    Yup. I felt like a total jerk, for seething at my gentleman’s hallway sprint the first time, for giving him the cold shoulder when he got back in bed. I felt like I proved yet again how unfit I am to do this, any of this. As we cleaned things up, he said, “I knew he was sick, I knew it as soon as he screamed the first time. I KNEW he was going to throw up.” And all I heard was a shout piercing the night, same as every other night.

    I think that in some ways, step-parents feel a burden to be exceptional in order to be considered tolerable – not just by their kids but by everyone. And it sucks to be not-exceptional, and it sucks more to be outright wrong. All I could think, for days, was that their dad immediately knew his son was sick, and I couldn’t see it until the puke hit the wall.

    But it happens. To bio-parents, too, as you know. When that now-4-year old was 2, he fell out of a wagon and his dad didn’t even think to take him to the doctor until the boy was still crying two days later. Broken collarbone.

    There is that old saying about people trying to be more Catholic than the Pope – being so unnecessarily scrupulous that it just becomes absurd. It’s sort of the same with step-parenting, I think. So often, we feel a burden to be more parental than the parent – not out of a desire to, or anything, but just because we read far more into our failures than we do, culturally and personally, into theirs.

    I try not to, but I don’t always succeed.

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