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04th May 2022

The working parent dilemma: When a child is sick

How to deal with a sick child or childminder and a busy work schedule

My heart was in my mouth as I answered – had something awful happened?

Week two, back at work after my first maternity leave. I was settling in nicely. I had remembered how to switch on my PC, caught up with some friends, and was getting through four thousand emails. I was thinking this working mother thing mightn’t be so bad after all.

Then my mobile rang. ‘Creche’ flashed up on screen.

My heart was in my mouth as I answered – had something awful happened? No, nothing awful, thank goodness. But they reckoned my daughter had developed an eye-infection. There was one going around the baby-room they said. Could I come and pick her up they said. Of course, I said. And of course I would – what else could I do? I sat for a moment wording an email to my boss. I explained what had happened, apologised profusely, and silently thanked the universe that it was Friday, while writing that I’d definitely be in on Monday.

Almost definitely. My daughter had never had an eye-infection before, so I wasn’t sure how long it would last.

I arrived in crèche and found my little girl sitting in a bouncer in a far corner, away from all the other babies. To make sure she didn’t infect them, they said. It made perfect sense of course, it was the smart thing to do. But my heart broke just a tiny bit, seeing her isolated from everyone else. Any resentment or doubts I’d had about the necessity to collect her were swept away – I scooped her up and brought her home, back to a place where she’d be hugged and kissed and free to roam without fear of contaminating other little people. I knew instinctively that quite apart from having no choice in the matter, she was in the right place.

I was lucky – my boss was very understanding. But I also knew not to push it – I didn’t want to take his latitude for granted, nor did I want to use up all my “work from home because child is sick” cards too soon (note that these are informal, non-transferable, largely invisible cards)

So when I returned to work after my second maternity leave, I arranged with my husband that as soon as the first inevitable sickness struck, he’d take time off. He stored up annual leave to do so, and I went back to work feeling reasonably confident that we’d manage.

And manage we did, over the ensuing years, using a mish-mash of informal solutions each time a child was sick:

A course of antibiotics for a chest infection: book a week’s annual leave, so as not to have to stress day to day about how to manage.

A cold: ask to work from home.

Another eye-infection: ask for help from family.

Tummy bug: definitely the husband’s turn.

But of course it wasn’t easy – in the same way as parents all over Ireland face this problem every week – there were times when family couldn’t help or we didn’t feel it was a good time to ask. There were times when one or other of us had to travel for work or meet an immovable deadline. There were times when asking to work from home just wasn’t an option. And times when annual leave simply ran out.

So it was with great relief that we switched from crèche to childminder a number of years into working-parenthood. On balance, it seemed likely that our three kids would be ill more often than the childminder would be, so overall there’d be fewer sick-day dilemmas.

Of course, a month in, our poor childminder was struck down with an illness that had her on bed-rest for four weeks. The gamble had not paid off. I vividly remember that first day when she didn’t show up – I drew the short straw and worked from home. I remember sitting at my lap-top with a teething baby on my knee, trying to answer emails while he bashed at the keys. I remember the two girls asking me to play with them – excited that I was at home for the day; unable to understand that I was supposed to be working. I remember feeling bad that I couldn’t get work done. Feeling guilty about the kids, guilty about work, and worrying about the childminder. Wondering how on earth if one day was so hard, I was going to get through the next four weeks. Miserable and anxious and guilty.

Isn’t that ridiculous? Yet it’s so common. Parents being pulled in all directions – trying to do our best for our kids and for our bosses, but feeling we’re letting everyone down. Not because of something we’ve done; not because we’ve been selfish or thoughtless, but because someone – a child or a carer – is sick. If I’m sick myself, I can take time off work to recover. But if someone else is sick, necessitating my stepping in, there’s very little in the way of formal leave.

In Luxembourg and Germany, to give just two examples, there is official leave in place for parents of sick children – in Luxembourg, parents can take two days per child per year. So in a typical family with two working parents and three kids, that’s twelve days annually. In Germany it’s even better – up to ten days per child per year (to a max of twenty-five). These progressive family leave policies accept that sickness in children is inevitable, and that parents stressing over solutions doesn’t help the situation. I like the idea that if my child is sick, the only thing I have to worry about is helping her get better.

We’re a long way from that here though, so for now, store up your annual leave, make your back-up plans, and cross your fingers.

And in the end, go with your gut.