Limping along

by Katrina on January 9, 2012

I can’t believe how crazy this time of year is, every year.

Intense work deadlines right before the holidays, during which I caught some new strain of Monster Cold that hung in there for over a month. It was so bad that at one point I lost my voice completely—I could not get any sound to emit from my vocal cords for about three days. I ended up running a 3-hour meeting with a client by WHISPERING. (Career tip: Losing your voice can work to your benefit. I think it actually gave me a more commanding presence. Very “Godfather.” Every time I whispered, everyone would fall silent and lean in.)

The day my project ended was my kids’ last day of school/preschool. I was home with them for 2+ weeks which was fun but intense in an entirely different way—play dates, art projects, park trips. You know the drill. My husband, who has been freelancing for 10+ years, recently took a full time JOB-job, so he had to work for much of that time… (Marriage tip: Take turns having “real” jobs or you will be in crisis during every school holiday and fight about who has to take the time off.)

Somehow we got it together for Christmas—presents, nice dinner, happy kids—and then suddenly it was Ruby’s birthday, which comes the week after Christmas, and always seems to catch us by surprise. By then Brian was back at work, so I tried a new Risky Mom Move: I asked Ruby to babysit her baby brother in the store while I bought her birthday presents. (Parenting tip: You CAN pull this off if your oldest child is 9, and the youngest has had his nap. Unfortunately, Jake missed the nap, so by the end of our shopping trip, I ran out of Candy Bribes, and he flung himself face down on the floor of Old Navy, sobbing.)

Now the kids are back in school, and I’m looking at all the things I have to catch up on—paying estimated taxes, bunch of things going on with my son’s preschool, lining up my next freelance project, planning Ruby’s big birthday party, a gazillion broken things around the house to be fixed. And as I look out at the calendar, I can see all these random days-off piling up—professional development days, MLK Day, etc. Also, Jake started coughing last night, which means the next round of winter colds is descending.

So I thought I’d revive the following story, which I originally posted around this time last year. Details are different, but otherwise, I could have written it this year.

How’s your year going so far?

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Originally posted March 14, 2011:

Ruby on crutchesIf you’re a working parent and you feel like you’ve been running in place this year, it’s probably not your imagination.

Last week my daughter broke her ankle. It’s kind of a long story, but the central event involved a giant flying leap over a pile of backpacks on the school playground. Girls will be girls…

I’m trying to look on the bright side. For instance:

  1. Ruby is not in a lot of pain. Also, she’s thrilled that she gets to wear a cast for a month. All the second graders in her class think she’s exceedingly cool.
  2. At age 8, she’s the perfect size for breaking something. Just big enough to use the smallest pair of crutches her pediatrician could dig up. Just small enough to fit in her baby brother’s stroller, which is now Ruby’s makeshift wheelchair whenever her armpits hurt from the crutches.
  3. I’m not working full time.

Number 3 is a big deal.

I took this opportunity to add up the number of days either my husband or I have been home during a work day with kids.

In the first ten weeks of this year, we’ve missed 11 days of work due to school holidays or a sick kid. We’re not even through the first quarter yet. If the rest of the year is like this quarter, we’ll miss more than 40 days of work by the end of the year. How can that be?

When Brian and I both worked full time, every cough, every fever, every bout of stomach flu was a major crisis. Who’s going to stay home from work? What if the other kids get it? What if we get it? I had 6 paid sick days a year—generous considering half of American workers don’t have any. But it wasn’t close to covering all the days one of our kids was sick. Of course, I could always use my vacation time, but I needed that to cover the random holidays the kids had off from school.

My kids’ pediatrician explained to me once that children get 8-10 colds and fevers a year. What does that mean in sick days?

Let’s say on average your kid has to be home from school one day per illness (although some illnesses don’t require any missed days of school, while others can knock your kid out for a week, easy). That’s 9 days per year, per kid.

Let’s say you have two kids, and their 9 sick days a year overlap by a half. That means you need to take a good 13 or 14 days off a year to be home with a sick kid. That’s not including all the random “professional development days” and holidays that only school children and postal workers get (Cesar Chavez Day, anyone?). Nor does that number include the days when you, the parent, are sick. And no matter how many green smoothies you drink for breakfast, if you’re up all night with a sick kid, you’re bound to get whatever is keeping him awake.

At my last job, I almost never took a sick day when I was sick. This garnered sympathy from some of my coworkers, and the stink eye from others.

“Why are you exposing me to your germs?” they wanted to say.

And I wanted to reply, “I can’t afford to take a f***ing sick day for myself. I have three kids!”

My husband was one of those Americans who didn’t have any sick days. He was a freelancer, so any day he took off meant a day he didn’t get paid.

The pay wasn’t really our problem, though. Our main problem was that we had too much work to do, and couldn’t afford to get behind. So usually, when one of the kids was sick, we worked from home.

It was generous of my employer to let me do this, but let’s face it. It sucks to be fielding conference calls on mute while your kid is moaning from fever on the couch. It just does. You feel like you’re neglecting your kid when she needs you most, and you feel like you’re letting your coworkers down, too.

I used to do just about anything to avoid losing a sick day. I canceled play dates if the other kids had even the slightest cold. I cajoled my kids into drinking various herbal remedies at the first sniffle. And I’m not proud to admit it, but on more than one occasion I gave my kids Tylenol for their flushed cheeks and sent them to school anyway. I also had an alarming capacity for denial. That little fleck of something I saw in my kid’s hair wasn’t really a lice nit—probably just dandruff. Here’s your lunchbox, Sweetie!

I’m curious to hear how other people handle sick days. What do you do?

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Just for kicks, I went through the calendar to see how many days the kids have been out of school sick or for random holidays. It averages about 1 day/week for the first 10 weeks of this year:

Days our kids were home from school