It’s inevitable that, at some point while raising children, you will be used as a tissue substitute, thrown up on, or pooped on. But it’s what we do as a society when we or our children get sick that highlights a lack of flexibility in our lives.
Lack of sleep never stopped anyone
Everyone has a sick kid tale to tell. My mother tells me about staying up all night with my ill brother when he was a baby. She talks about standing in the shower with him as he coughed, the endless checking of his temperature and the worry for my sister sleeping in the next bedroom.
My mother didn’t sleep that night. By the time the sun had risen, her temperature was rising, too, and she felt that familiar thumping in her head that precedes influenza. That same morning, she drove to the next camp where my father was working, not so he could take over – he was busy building a road and couldn’t take time off – but because it was the agreed upon plan, and illness doesn’t stop motherhood.
What are the options?
Whilst I never drove cross-country with a fever, a sick baby, and an excitable child, I certainly know what it feels like to wake up ill and have that sinking feeling that it can’t make any difference to my day. I’ve begged my husband to stay home, citing a thumping head and a stomach-ache that turned out that night to be appendicitis.
He went to work. He had to, and I understand that. People rely on him, and his work requires a significant amount of notice to enable him to take a day off. This is not about who should or shouldn’t take a day off, or who deserves to be cared for when they’re ill, or exactly how ill you need to be to justify staying or leaving. This is an examination of what we all do, what I’ve done myself, and how I wish we could do better.
Because it feels awful to watch your loved one leave and know that you have to get through at least nine hours without throwing up on your child. It feels awful when you’re the solo parent and you can’t even count down nine hours until you see another adult and have some help.
It feels awful to leave your loved one behind, knowing they’re going to have a terrible day, but that money or your boss’s goodwill just can’t stretch for a day off. It feels awful when your kid says they’ve got a sore throat on the day you’ve got back to back meetings. Dosing them with medicine and sending them anyway becomes a viable choice.
These are all options people routinely choose. Yet, none of them are ideal.
There is no illness!
Many parents have made the choice to ignore their symptoms and just get on with it. In two parent families where one parent is at home, most of the time the other parent will still go to work. Currently, there are no legal requirements for paid sick leave in the U.S. Families are entitled to unpaid sick leave instead. This forces people to choose between leaving their child with an ill care-giver, relying on a support network (which may or may not be available), or losing a day’s wage.
We would never let our children stay with a caregiver who could barely walk, so why do we consider it acceptable to care for our children ourselves when we’re so sick? We do it for two reasons: lack of flexibility in the workplace, and cultural expectations. Our culture is entrenched in the idea that sickness is weakness. We power through. Advertising for medication isn’t about getting better; it’s about masking symptoms and getting on with your day. Stay-at-home parents put a movie on and hope for the best, because really, what other options are there?
I’m not sick, it’s just pneumonia
This ‘powering through’ isn’t limited to stay-at-home-parents. When working parents get sick, they go to work. Time off for illness is rarely available. Given the nature of sickness, it’s not as if you can book a sick day a fortnight in advance for a head-cold. Illness takes us by surprise and often leaves us with the choice of going to work or missing a day’s pay.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that people in low-paying jobs are the most likely to go to work even when they’re sick. This is likely because the consequences of missing that day of work are monetarily more severe than for workers in high-paying jobs. However, 45 percent of people in high-paying jobs still go to work when they’re ill, but they more frequently cite reasons such as letting down co-workers.
The culture of the workplace has a big impact on whether workers come in if they’re sick or not. Companies who have procedures and policies in place involving back-up staff and the flexibility to work from home are less likely to have sick staff in the workplace. Interestingly, companies who have better policies also have workers who take less time off overall.
Families who have found workplaces with flexibility surrounding illness want to keep their jobs, so they work harder even when they’re working from home with sick kids watching a movie. Flexibility is they key to providing families with viable options.
They’re not sick, it’s just...pneumonia
When kids get sick, guess what happens? They still go to school or childcare or wherever they usually go. Four out of 10 working parents say they might send their sick child to school. Six out of 10 do this because they fear they’ll lose their jobs if they take time off to care for their child. Clearly, workplaces hold some of the power here.
Families with children will get sick more frequently throughout the year. A study found that, in childless households, viruses were present four to five weeks in a year, whereas households with children had viruses present up to 45 weeks in a year – that’s 87 percent of the time. We all know that once one person in a family goes down, it’s inevitable that everyone will.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to have a solid plan.
Make a plan, and make it good
Talk to your spouse about what you’ll do when you or the kids get sick. Find out how you both feel about illness and responsibility. Figure out who will do what so you’re not left simmering with both fever and resentment as your partner drives away to work.
Also, find a really good takeaway place, stock up the freezer, or sweet talk Grandma into watching “Moana” on repeat with a sneezing toddler. Try and strengthen your immune system in preparation for flu season. Build up your support network. Even if your friends or family can’t watch your sick children, maybe they could leave a lasagne by the door?
Perhaps most importantly, talk to your workplace about flexibility. We all deserve to know that we’re worth receiving care when we’re sick, whether that’s from a partner, a parent, or an employer.
Planning for sickness will pay off. The way we do things now? It’s a bit sickening.