work-life balance

When The Kids Are Sick and the Parents Work, Nobody Wins

sick kid

“Remind me again when you have work calls today?”

My husband has already answered that question at least twice this morning, but I am too distracted by my own mental Tetris to hear his response. I have clients at 10 and 11, and a meeting at 1. I can call into the meeting, but not to the clients. Josh can work from home, and although some of his calls overlap with my meetings, the girls are old enough to reliably zombie-out in front of the TV without needing help with snacks or tushy-wipes.

Fortunately, the stars are aligning. Today, we have cobbled together a plan that isn’t ideal, but is good enough. Josh will take the morning shift while I meet clients in my office. I will relieve him in the afternoon, managing the girls while calling into my meeting. After that, I’ll take the girls to the pediatrician for their (apparently) monthly throat-swabs for strep while my husband works.

We knew this was coming. Just yesterday, I negotiated with the school nurse (the closest thing I have to a work husband, if that tells you anything about how often our girls get sick) about whether the little patient could loiter in his office long enough for me to see one more client. She could. I was grateful.

For the past eight years, I’ve worked from home, so I stayed home when we had sick kids. But now I’ve opened a private therapy practice, which means we have joined the ranks of families with either single working parents or two parents who both work outside the home. This decision was a good one for my career and our finances, but it dramatically decreased our bandwidth for managing sick days and other last-minute disruptions.

We got lucky today, but there will be other days when I have clients and my husband won’t be able to work from home. I wanted to know how other families managed this kind of situation, so I typed out a quick question on Facebook. By the time I arrived home to take the parenting reins, there were over 60 responses. Not surprisingly, my fellow parents had a lot to say about this predicament.

As I sorted through the comments, I was struck by a few issues that came up over and over again. In addition to the logistical challenges of figuring out who was going to cover what and when, my friends described all the ways in which these sick days are immensely stressful. The most fortunate parents (like my husband) had salaried jobs with flexible schedules and bosses, meaning they didn’t have to use a sick or vacation day to stay home with a sick kid.

Other parents (like me) had relatively flexible schedules or bosses, but get paid by the hour, which means that they lose income on sick days. And then there were the teachers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals who quite simply don’t have the option to work from home. The most stressful situation happens when parents not only lose income when they don’t show up, but they also have to worry about losing their jobs.

And it’s not just about the time and money. Parents expressed concern about the long term impact on their jobs, careers, and professional reputations. They didn’t want to seem like unreliable or irresponsible employees and they worried about their “employer’s goodwill wearing thin.” But they were also, of course, worried about their kids, and wanted to take care of them when they weren’t well.

Each family who responded to my Facebook query managed it differently, but their answers to my completely anecdotal survey seemed to fall in one of four categories: The Default, The Savior, The Juggle, and The Shitshow. Each of these categories seemed to apply to families with either one or two working parents.

In families with a Default, the same parent almost always stayed home with sick kids. The default parent either works from home, has a part-time or flexible schedule, or makes less money per hour than the other parent, when there is one.

The Savior is the nanny, au pair, on-call babysitter, or local grandparent or other family member who is willing, and able, to hang out with sick kids at the last minute. Needless to say, having a savior is a total game-changer, but unless he or she is a family member, it can be quite expensive.

The Juggle is what many families (including those with divorced parents) end up doing, and it’s what Josh and I did this morning. Some take it day-by-day, comparing schedules, discussing and debating whose meeting or client or deadline is more important and/or less-missable. Here’s how one friend described it: “First we basically fight it out to see who can most easily miss work… then we weigh who has already taken the most time… then we beg and plead with one another, offering bribes and favors…” (And let me remind you all that my friend and her husband were bribing each other to be able to go to work. They’re not angling for a trip to the spa here, folks.)

Other families take turns staying home on sick days, and some create shifts, with each parent trying to squeeze an entire day of work into a few hours or half a day. The Juggle is almost always a headache; as one mother noted: “The spouse negotiation over who has the most un-missable day ahead really stinks as well. No one walks away from that conversation a winner.”

In situations where one parent can work from home or has some scheduling flexibility and the family has enough financial cushioning to absorb a few hours of lost wages, the Juggle generally works well enough. When it doesn’t, the family is left with The Shitshow.

The Shitshow is most common in families where neither parent can work from home and there is concern about job security or finances. There is virtually no wiggle room for these families, and they are forced to resort to solutions that are barely good enough. Parents fortunate to work in sick-kid-friendly environments (such as pediatrician’s offices) took their children to work and had them rest under desks and in empty offices, but most folks don’t have that option. Other parents messaged me privately to share that they were ashamed to admit that they had dosed their feverish children with Motrin and sent them to school because they weren’t sure they’d be able to cover their rent or other bills that month if they missed another day of work. Another mother in this situation reports that the school where she teaches is close to her home, so she has left her middle-school aged kids home alone when they’re sick. She checks on them every couple of hours throughout the day, but even that “feels awful.”

Having a sick kid is always distressing, even under ideal circumstances. And the reality is that most Americans are dealing with situations that are far from ideal. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the changes that could help. While I have yet to come up with a brilliant solution, I have gotten clear on one thing: this is not a family-level problem. Parents in this country are already doing everything they can to manage both home and family, and for many of us, it’s still not working.

This is a societal-level problem that requires societal level solutions, including extended parental leave, incentives for employers to offer childcare for sick-kids, or vouchers for childcare. Given our current administration, these changes are unlikely to happen any times soon. And so we are left to stressful negotiations with spouses and other family members, as well as the mercy of understanding employers who allow us to work half-days, care for our sick children without using up vacation days, and telecommute whenever possible. When that’s not possible, it’s nothing short of a shitshow.

Either way, as one mother put it, “Nobody wins except Daniel Tiger.”

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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