One morning my cell phone rang, and it was my five-year-old daughter’s new teacher. She told me Mattie had been complaining that her ears hurt. I immediately started to laugh. I knew Mattie was faking–her brother had been home from daycare all week with an ear infection, and she clearly wanted to stay home from school too. I apologized to the teacher on Mattie’s behalf.
I stayed home with Mattie until she was almost two, and because of that, she was much less susceptible to getting sick (I think, anyway) when she finally did start school. My son, Spencer, however, started daycare at six months. Since starting daycare, he’s had more than three ear infections, croup, fevers, at least two stomach bugs, including vomiting, and gone through more packages of Boogie Wipes than I can count.
When Mattie was sick when she was little (and she too often suffered from ear infections) it was easy–I was already home with her, and if I did have plans, well, they weren’t that important. I could be there for my sick baby. I could press redial until I got through to the pediatrician’s office, and could schedule an appointment at any time during the day. I could also sit in the rocker in her room for hours and hold her upright so she could sleep without the pain in her ears waking her.
With Spencer, it’s not so easy. The daycare policy (rightly so) is that the child has to be fever/vomit/symptom-free for 24 hours before they can return to school. So, for example, if they call me Monday at 1 p.m. to come get Spencer because he has a fever, he can’t go back to school until Wednesday morning, as long as by Tuesday afternoon he’s symptom-free. Sometimes this 24-hour rule means he can’t go back for three or four days. With both my husband and I working, and our deadlines and meetings scheduled weeks in advance, four days with a child out of school can become a logistical nightmare.
So this fall, my husband and I have learned several ways to handle childcare when the baby is sick.
First, we immediately call the pediatrician and get an appointment to find out if there’s anything going on with the baby that we didn’t realize. If not, great, but it’s taken care of, and we both feel better knowing it’s a passing bug and not an ear infection or anything more serious. The person whose schedule is free at the time of the appointment takes the baby.
Second, we look at our schedules for the next two or three days. Depending on our workloads, we do one or more of the following:
- Split days: If one of us has an open morning, the other goes in to work really early and comes home around lunch. Then the morning parent goes into work in the afternoon and stays late.
- Full days: If one of us is really busy, has a deadline or meetings that cannot be missed, the other reschedules whatever they can for later that week and stays home the whole day.
- Backup: If neither of us can free our schedules, or if we are on day three or four of no daycare, then we line up a babysitter. My advice: Always have two or more sitters in your contact list who are older than high-school age (but aren’t working office jobs yet) so that you have someone who can babysit on weekdays. College, graduate school or law school students are always on my babysitter list, and one of our babysitters is also home-schooled, and so has a more flexible daytime schedule. Neither my husband nor I have our parents living in town, so good babysitters are vital.
- Work from home: Those full or half days home with a sick baby are always spent working at the kitchen table, once his needs have been met, and he’s asleep. I also put my email “Out of Office” auto response on. My note says: “I am working from home today due to a sick child. I will respond to you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.” I do this just so people know my response might be slower than usual, but that I will get back to them. (The replies are overwhelmingly compassionate: “I’m sorry, I hope he feels better soon!”) Finally, if I can’t get to everything during the day, then I will stay up late after both kids go to sleep to work. I also will stay later at the office when I finally get back to catch up.
- Personal or vacation day: Only once this fall was Spencer so fussy and uncomfortably sick from throwing up that I knew there was no way I could work from home and give him the care he needed (if only I had eight arms!). That day I took a personal day.
The hardest part about having a sick baby and working is not the delicate balancing act of schedules. It’s being able to shut out the rest of the world and focus solely on your child. I can’t hold Spencer while he sleeps the same way I used to hold Mattie – in that same rocker in his room, for hours – without worrying and stressing that I am missing an email or phone call, or not responding quickly enough to a colleague. And my sick baby deserves my full attention. When you’re sick, you only want your Mama, after all. I’ve found my Mommy-guilt is strongest, and I most want to stay home again when my children are sick (and therefore, at their neediest). But I’m a working mom now, and unfortunately, it’s not that easy this time around.