Martha Alexander and baby Robin find themselves in a rather sickly situation

For anyone interested in experiencing the fiery infernos of hell on earth, may I suggest what I assume to be a close comparison: having a baby with diarrhoea and a temperature of 40˚C – on a long-haul flight from Cape Town.

We’d had a lovely holiday taking in South Africa. Robin was a bridesmaid at her godmother’s wedding, we saw giraffes and zebras and I trod in ostrich poo. We went wine tasting and ate biltong for breakfast. We danced in an electrical storm and Robin spent long afternoons in the paddling pool. Everything was idyllic.

At the airport before our return flight, I watched a harassed-looking woman with wild, Rolling-Stones-on-tour hair try to sooth her grizzly baby, who had unleashed lumpy sick onto her shoulder while her toddler threw a purple-faced tantrum on the floor of Departures, grateful that Robin was silently engrossed in an upside-down copy of Where The Wild Things Are.

As I gathered our things and headed to the gate, I was looking forward to reading my Kindle with a hydrating face mask on while Robin slept for the duration of the flight – as she had done on the way out.

Except, no. I’d noticed she was hot that morning, but put it down to the weather. Then, as we taxied on the runway, her upset tummy began. If you’ve ever had to change a nappy in an aeroplane toilet, you’ll know it’s not for the ham-fisted or squeamish. I did it six times in 10 hours, as Robin screamed and writhed and sweated.

By the end of the flight we were all hysterical with worry and exhaustion. Robin was hot and sick, and in pain. We went from the airport to hospital where they checked her over and sent us away with advice to give her Calpol to keep her temperature down.

We took Robin to hospital all week – in and out, in and out. She stopped eating and I could see her ribs. She was listless and sad, and her temperature remained high.

Robin was eventually diagnosed with gastroenteritis, which strangely came as a huge relief as, obviously, I had begun to obsess about the possibility of her having caught an incurable tropical disease from, say, a particle of ostrich poo that had maybe remained on the raffia sole of my espadrilles despite a thorough clean and spray with hand sanitiser, which had potentially leapt onto an object that Robin then put into her mouth.

“Or was it the fruit? Or the water?” asked my mother, over the phone. “I’m not sure,” I said, knowing that the enquiry was not over.

“Do you think she might have caught it from another baby on the plane?”

“I’m really not sure, mum.”

“You don’t think it was a mosquito bite, do you?”

“I don’t know – it could literally be from a thousand different potential sources,” I roared.

“OK, darling,” she sniffed. “I’m off to boxercise.”

When I was confident Robin was better, I went into work. I took off my coat, turned on my computer and sat down at my desk, and had a sip of coffee. Then I was rung by my childminder, Susie, who said Robin was not in fact any better. I stood up again, put on my coat, picked up my still-steaming coffee and off I went, retracing the journey I had just completed not 15 minutes previously. This happened three times.

Then of course, I got ill. Except I couldn’t be ill how I like to be ill – dragging a duvet to the sofa, watching awful telly and saying, ‘urrrgh, I’m so ill’ every few minutes, even if no one is there to hear me. I still had to get up and function. That is to say, survive with a baby. All of my rules about no TV and lots of fresh air went right out the window. We ate beige food and stayed inside. One day Robin slept on me for six hours on the sofa – I didn’t want to move her so I lay there watching shows about women buying their wedding dresses and falling out with their mother-in-laws until my backside was numb and my need for a wee beyond critical.

It was like returning to the newborn days but without the anxiety. At night I slept next to Robin for the first time since she was tiny. She was like a winter mouse, hibernating in her illness.

Then, after two weeks of sickly chaos, I woke one morning to a shout: “Cake! Mummy, cake!”

Want more? Martha discusses the politics of raising a girl

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