A Working Parents’ Guide to Handling Child Sick Days
As a working parent, few things drive home how precarious our balancing act is like a child sick day.
Waking up to a sick child means you’re scrambling. Your priorities as a parent are immediately at odds with your responsibilities as an employee. As much as you’d love to stay home and snuggle your child back to full health, you have to consider deadlines, obligations, whether you have adequate leave, and whether calling in for yet another child sick day is going to place you on thin ice with your job.
In my six years of being a working mom – with three kids in daycare – we’ve dealt with a lot of child sick days. While I don’t have magic answers that will make all of the stress of child sick days go away, I have learned from my mistakes and experiences, and picked up some practical advice along the way.
The advice in this article won’t be applicable to everyone. I’m in a professional office environment, and am fortunate to have a fair bit of autonomy over how and when I complete my work. My spouse works in a similar role. If you work in a different environment, are a single parent, or have a stay-at-home spouse, your experience may be very different. If you care to share, I’d love to hear how you make child sick days work. I’m all about learning from others whenever I can!
1. Plan for it
Your child is going to get sick – especially if they’re in a group childcare setting. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.
Young children get as many as 8-10 colds a year. That number is staggering on its own, and doesn’t include the days they’re out because of pink eye, stomach bugs, hand foot mouth disease, ear infections, an unexplained high fever, or the myriad of other illnesses that strike young children. With three children, we consider it a very good week when all three kids are able to go to school every day.
If you’re a working parent – and your spouse is a working parent – planning for child sick days is crucial. You don’t want to be scrambling when your child wakes up with a sky-high fever at 5 a.m.
First, know your rights. Does your jurisdiction provide leave and/or job protection to deal with family emergencies? For example, you may be entitled to family responsibility leave, or (if you’re dealing with a serious health condition) FMLA.
Know your employer’s policies and benefits. Can you use your sick time to care for a sick child? Are working half days or shifting your hours an option? What is your employer’s policy on working from home? Does your employer offer back-up child care?
Finally, know your childcare provider’s illness policy. Can they attend if they have a cold? Are they excluded for 24 hours if they have a fever? Do they need a doctor’s note to come back?
Knowing your rights, knowing what benefits are available to you, and knowing your childcare provider’s illness policy will make it that much easier to plan for inevitable sick days.
2. Bank time
Child sick days are a lot easier to juggle when you don’t have to worry about how they’re going to affect you financially.
This may not be relevant for you, if you’re able to use your sick leave when you’re absent from work to care for a sick child, or you have reliable back-up child care.
If that’s not the case, try to save some vacation or personal time to use for child sick days. Yes, using vacation days to cover sick days isn’t ideal, but it’s better than losing an entire paycheque.
3. Don’t procrastinate
This is a good rule for all of us to follow, but it’s particularly important when you’re a working parent of young children in cold and flu season!
Don’t leave tasks until the last minute. If you’re up again an important deadline, Murphy’s Law says that’s precisely when your child is going to get sick.
Similarly, schedule important meetings and complete your high priority tasks early in the day, especially if your child has been fighting off an illness, or you know there’s a bug going around. That way, if you get one of those dreaded midday calls from daycare, you’re not scrambling to reschedule meetings as you rush out the door. This may sound extreme, but I try to schedule all of my meetings in the morning whenever possible – I’ve been on the receiving end of that midday call too many times!
Related: The Reality of Being a Working Mom
4. Look into back-up care
I know, easier said than done. But it’s worth looking into your options for back-up care.
Does your employer offer back-up childcare as a benefit? Does your city have a back-up childcare service? Do you have a neighbour, friend, or grandparent who would be willing to watch your child in a pinch?
I need to qualify this, because it’s often offered as a solution, but it’s not always a realistic choice. Back-up childcare services can be expensive, leaving a sick child with somebody they don’t know is going to be difficult, and trying to find a friend or neighbour willing to watch your sick child is a tough sell.
The only back-up childcare option we’ve ever used has been local grandparents. This has only been an option for us recently, and it’s been an absolute lifesaver (thank you Mom and Dad!). That said, I would be more than willing to watch a friend’s child if they were in a bind, so it’s worth exploring the options that are available to you.
5. Talk to your spouse
If you have a spouse who has the ability to take time off work for a sick child, share the load. One spouse shouldn’t have to bear the burden of handling all child sick days on their own (and, in my opinion, it’s important for both kids and employers to see Moms AND Dads handling child sick days).
(I know that there are some reasons this isn’t feasible, like one spouse is unable to miss work or is travelling, or splitting the time doesn’t make sense financially.)
In our house, waking up to a sick child means both my husband and I are pulling out our calendars to figure out how we’re going to deal with it. Sometimes we split the day, sometimes we map out how we’re going to split the week (if it’s an illness that’s likely to drag on), and sometimes the burden does fall entirely on one parent. But every time it’s a conversation, and both of us are equally responsible for figuring out a solution.
6. Talk to your supervisor
Have an honest and upfront conversation with your supervisor – but don’t overshare. Your supervisor doesn’t need to know that you’ve been up all night cleaning up vomit, they just need to know that you won’t be in today.
Be proactive. Let your supervisor know how you’ve handled any pressing tasks. If something absolutely needs to be handed off, let your supervisor know and give them as much background information as you can.
You may want to work from home, if your employer allows it, and you have pressing work that needs to be completed. While it’s great to have the option, don’t feel obligated – especially if it’s unrealistic. Trying to fit in a full day’s work while dealing with a cranky, clingy one-year-old is setting yourself up for frustration.
Finally, if you have a positive working relationship with your supervisor, consider letting her know when you’re dealing with what could be a prolonged illness. I have an excellent manager, and will give her the heads up when I know I’m going to be doing some juggling over the next few days. This helps keep the lines of communication open, and she knows I’m doing my best to make sure the crucial work gets done, while handling my responsibilities at home.
7. Consider alternative childcare
This is a drastic step, and one which I haven’t had to resort to, but have definitely considered when dealing with never-ending illnesses.
If your child(ren) seem to be sick more often than not, consider whether a nanny may make more sense for your family. Your child will have less exposure to germs, and you’ll likely have more leeway to leave a sick child in their care. A nanny is almost always more expensive (depending on how many children you have), but if you factor in your absences from work, it may be the right choice for your family.
8. Forgive yourself
Dealing with a child sick day as a working parent puts your priorities as a parent at odds with your responsibilities as an employee. You may end up feeling like you’re failing at both.
Forgive yourself for dropping everything to stay home with a sick child who wants nothing more than a snuggle from Mom.
Forgive yourself when every fibre of your being wants to be home with your child, but work obligations mean you’re heading to work
Forgive yourself if you feel relief when you get to escape to work, leaving somebody else on childcare duty.
Forgive yourself for sending your child to daycare when they’re technically ok, but you know deep down that they’d be better off having a lazy day at home.
Being a working parent means non-stop juggling, and a constant balancing act. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad employee. Forgive yourself – handling sick a child as a working parent is difficult, and you’re doing the best you can.