On Vomit and Responsibility

One time, when I was in third year university or so, I went to a house party for my engineering class.

It had been in full swing for a few hours already, which meant the basement was full of drunken male engineers. I think I was the only girl there. I was definitely the only non-drinker there.

After a short while, a ripple of awareness went through the room, where we realized en mass that one guy had passed out in a corner in a pool of his own vomit. He was breathing okay but it was a terrible, smelly mess, and we all started to exchange nervous looks, wondering if anyone was going to do anything about it.

Then this happened – a conversation between two of my classmates, Terry and Dave.

Terry said, Hey, how well do you know VomitGuy?

Dave, looking wary, said, Not very well at all.

Terry said, How well are you willing to get to know him?

Dave sighed, and said, Not that well, but if you’re going in, I’m with you.

And then the two of them got VomitGuy up and cleaned him up, then cleaned up the vomit, and took him home.

This event had a huge impact on me. First of all, it absolutely captures the essence of Terry and Dave, two stand-up guys and genuine Good People. Terry is the kind of guy who is very level-headed and responsible and who will step in to take care of things when no one else wants to. And Dave is the kind of friend who has your back, who will answer your call for help, no questions asked.

But I still think of this moment not because the guys were awesome, but because they showed me something. They showed me that doing the right thing isn’t always pleasant and definitely isn’t rewarded. But it’s worth doing because no one else is going to do it, and it must be done. I was pretty nervous that as the only sober person and the only girl, I was going to be asked to do something about VomitGuy, and I admit I was ready to flee the scene rather than step up. But I think I would act differently today, after seeing Terry and Dave in action.

These days, I’m the kind of person who DOES take on the thankless tasks. The kind of person who, when everyone else is giving each other those not me, I can’t do it kind of looks, sighs and says FINE, I will be the one. My year in Girl Guides has shown me that the whole organization is held together with a fragile handful of such people, the kind of people who do too much, but if not them, then who else is going to do it? I have joined the ranks of the vomit cleaners of the world.

This came up last night because Sir Monkeypants went downstairs to let the two older kids know that it was bedtime, and found it a total disaster. The basement is the kids’ zone, and we are pretty casual about it but we do have some basic standards. Although food is forbidden in the basement due to ongoing ant problems, there were food wrappers and other garbage around; video games were all over, drawers from the storage unit were open, toys and board games thrown around.

Of course they got a talking to. But we are left in despair because they don’t seem to have any ownership of things. They don’t look at messes and think, Hey, I live here, I’d like it to be cleaner, I should do something. Instead, they have amazing powers to look the other way and pretend they don’t see it, or to point at others and say it was their fault. I didn’t do it, so it’s not my problem. Someone else – the Vomit Cleaners – will show up sometime and take care of it. It’s the same syndrome that means we have to ask them Every. Single. Night. to do their regular dinner clean up chores – any time we don’t remind them, it just doesn’t happen. And it’s the same syndrome that means that they continue to ask when dinner will be, instead of asking how they can help get dinner started, or to ask when I will be doing laundry because they need more socks, instead of offering to throw in a load.

I think it’s maybe too much to ask them to clean up some guy’s vomit at a party. We can’t all be Terry and Dave.

But how do we make the leap from kids who are checked out, who see the world as someone else’s problem, to kids that want to help? We want our kids to see a problem and then DO SOMETHING. This might be stuff around our house. This might be if a friend gets into trouble at a party. This might be if a stranger falls and is hurt in a public space. This might be trying to address world issues like hunger and pollution and poverty.

These are the kind of parenting challenges you don’t think about when you are nursing a baby or helping your toddler stack blocks or teaching your preschooler the alphabet. For a long time we have been focused on survival skills. Now it’s time to teach them Good People skills. I hope it isn’t too late – and that we figure out how to do it.

6 thoughts on “On Vomit and Responsibility

  1. This is an amazing story Lynn! 🙂 We all know a vomit guy story like that…

    It’s tricky with the kids. I struggle with this too. For one thing though, we pawned out the laundry to the 13yo. He has his own basket and was shown how to do it and the rest of it is hands off. I cringe occasionally but that’s life with teenagers, eh? Basic rules he has to follow: fold tshirts, pair socks. I don’t care so much about the other stuff (it’s all athletic ware)….but here’s the thing. He always says ‘it’s fiiiiine!’. Even when it’s not.

    It comes down to standards. But whose standards? Do I gripe too much about MY standards to him? He leaves his basement corner a mess and his answer is ‘it doesn’t bother me, and you’re not down here’. He’s right but he’s also wrong.

    I don’t know how to make it change. 🙂

  2. Well, here’s the thing. Sometimes they just need agency. Example: when I’m up to my elbows doing a mid-dinner prep load of dishes (which often includes my kids’ lunch containers which I’m washing on their behalf) and I throw out the request, “Please set the table,” my kids will each point to the other and say, “You do it.” Then, I’ll finally have to pick one of them, and that one will sigh and mutter and do a not-very-good job.

    BUT, this weekend my husband and I were at my younger son’s basketball game which ended pretty much at dinner time. The only way to eat at a reasonable hour was to get take-out on the way home, or to have my older son put dinner in the oven while we were out. We explained what he needed to do, and he nodded and said he’d do it.

    That was all I expected. Please, just turn the rice cooker on, and put the chicken in the oven at the right time. When we got home, the house smelled delicious AND he had set the table, AND done a great job.

    I’ve found this many times – when we step back, they step forward.

    So, maybe that will happen (just don’t blame me if it doesn’t!)

    1. Kathleen

      Now that’s a heartwarming story. I think you’re right, kids do more when we give them room, but so much depends on the timing (these children/teens, they are a fickle bunch!) and hitting just the right note in the “ask”!
      Congratulations on this suppertime win, though.

  3. Lynn, I love this post~! A story to illustrate a second story and your theme, and I’ve been thinking about it for hours since I read it. It’s so well written!
    Wish I had some words of wisdom re: the kids. Do you think your eldest would benefit from reading this post? To show him you think he’s mature enough to handle a glimpse into you and something you struggle with as a parent?
    I’m thinking of my own eldest son, who always stepped up when I stepped back. The younger one did NOT, so maybe my idea wouldn’t work…
    Don’t give up!! You’ll make solid citizens of them for sure! You’ll be exhausted, but they’ll be great! 🙂

  4. Zhu

    I must admit I almost skip on the article because I’m just done cooking dinner and frankly, vomit is my yuck factor, more than any other body fluid!

    But hey, reading material… I couldn’t resist. I like your anecdote and I can see why it stuck. These were two really nice guys… good lesson for everyone too. Sometime, you have to step up and be that person. And hopefully, sometime someone will be there for you 🙂

    Man, people are pretty cool, overall. I like people.

  5. Kathleen

    I really loved this post, Lynn, thanks.
    There really are, it seems sometimes, only a handful of people holding the whole world together.
    The go-to folks get “gone to” a lot. Sometimes a person just has to back out for a while.
    No matter how easy a life our teens have, or, at least so it looks, I try to remember that mine seemed pretty overwhelming to me when I was that age.
    So yeah, you have to expect them to stand up and do the right thing. Give them room to make a contribution on their own terms. And they often do. But if they just don’t, its worth considering that maybe they just can’t, just then.

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