a boy lying on the couch
Humor,  Parenting,  Working From Home

It’s tough to be a working mother with sick kids

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The past few weeks have been the sort where “rollercoaster” hardly scratches the surface as a descriptor. We’ve had good days and bad days and emotional days and meltdown days, and more than our share of days with someone taking a turn being sick. It’s inevitable, in a house filled with toddlers and schoolkids, that someone is going to catch something at some point. Naturally, as the work-from-home parent, our children’s sick days generally fall to me to cover, no matter what else (like my taxes, or the article I agreed to write yesterday) was previously on the agenda. It’s a common enough complaint that working parents caring for sick kids are frequently misunderstood, and also a common enough employment criticism that maybe mothers would make better hires if we just wouldn’t drop everything to deal with sick kids so often.

When we get right down to it, nothing is pretty about this experience from a working mother’s standpoint, especially if she works from home like I do, and if you’re squeamish, you might want to move on to a different post, because mom is about to get real and there is a lot of gross stuff in the following story. So with your content warning firmly in hand, here is your ongoing summary so far of a day in the life of a freelance working mother, sick child edition.

a boy lying on the couch
Not my actual child. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

We begin at 4:30 a.m. when my husband‘s alarm, which he forgot to turn off because he wasn’t commuting 2 1/2 hours for once, awakens us both. We resume at 5:40 when my alarm begins beeping. This progresses through several snooze buttons until my backup alarm blares at 6 and we both realize that we absolutely must get moving for the day or somebody is going to miss school drop-off. My husband heads upstairs to rattle a few shoulders and start the coffee pot and generally kick things off, and promptly reappears with le grand announcement that my 7-year-old, my hyperactive, easily bored, sensitive, probably ADHD child, who is consistently my worst patient whenever our kids are sick, has puked in his bed. Upon my quizzing whether or not the sheets need to be changed, I am informed that the bulk of the eruption took out a blanket and a throw rug, both of which have been dispatched to the laundry room and are awaiting my arrival.

We’ll fast-forward past drop-off and the constant drip of small requests and random interruptions from my spouse (who is, naturally, available but not because of an urgent machinery repair), my preschooler, and my toddler. At some point, my sick child makes a dramatic plea for food, upon which I discover he has puked again in his chuck bucket (an event which quickly became a theme). After one round of catching my child trying to swipe valentine candy for a school assignment (and vomiting), and another in which I came to bring him tea and fruit and discovered seven empty fruit gummy wrappers sitting in a pile of you-know-what, I switched off the Magic School Bus and sent him back to bed.

I fiercely love all my children, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the prospect of dealing with each of them when they’re sick equally. Monitoring my oldest son for illness at the best of times is like watching two or three of the others, and today felt like his antics were enough for all four. Cleaning up the repeat messes for a kid who refuses to lie still and stop sneaking off to eat junk required enough bleach that I’ve permanently ruined a shirt.

As I was preparing for my next sicko laundry load, my 1-year-old appeared, sans everything, threw himself down my laundry room steps, landed on his big brother’s vomit-covered pillow, and proceeded to cuddle it. That’s when I realized he had stripped out of a poopy diaper, which I now needed to go hunt down. Once I had separated baby from pillow and plopped him in the tub for his second bath of the day, my 3-year-old, who had declined a bath earlier, heard the water running and decided that now he absolutely must join his sibling and proceeded to remove his pajamas—it was that sort of day—hop into the tub, and then empty his hose all over his baby brother and the full bath. Moments later, baby took his turn pooping all over the inside, and the outside, of the tub.

Nobody actually loves cleaning up puke . . nobody likes having that stress compounded by coworker and employer resentment. It’s just part of the reality of being a caregiver, and within the United States, caregivers have very few alternatives available to them.

It’s only mid-afternoon as I type this; who knows what will happen once their remaining siblings get home? But if the howls of my 3-year-old screaming in the other room are any indication, my productive work day, like those of thousands of other parents working from home, is more or less shot at this point.

My article assignment is not started. My essay edits are not done. My accounting system updates are unfinished. I’m ignoring my tax software. I’m at least two weeks behind on two different online classes. My house is trashed, and I have no idea what anyone is having for dinner. When women talk about the structural impossibility of winning at both motherhood and career, and when working mothers vent our exasperation at always taking the hits whenever one of our children is sick, this is what we mean. It’s objectively worse for households whose employers don’t grant them the same level of flexibility we have, a comparative privilege that I fully acknowledge.

One helpful step, while we continue to debate the role of government in funding some sort of nationalized leave or coverage for working people, would be for all employers to recognize that when parents call off duty or take a lighter load because a child has gotten sick, this is neither their fault nor their preference. Nobody actually loves cleaning up puke or running to the hospital or wiping sweaty foreheads, and nobody likes having that stress compounded by coworker and employer resentment. It’s just part of the reality of being a caregiver, and within the United States, caregivers have a very few alternatives available to them. The choice for most families is to take time off work knowing they won’t be paid and that if they take too much time, they could get fired. In the midst of a two-year pandemic that seems to be heating up yet again, it’s the worst sort of catch-22.

In the interim, I’ll just be here, wiping down the cushion cracks of the pleather couch my naked toddler just peed on, like all the other working mothers out there.

Bonus entry: My 3-year-old just appeared, screaming and covered in blood, from what appears to have been a spectacular crash onto the living room floor. He’ll live, we think. May your working parenting days be ever smooth!

March 2022 bonus: Need something to keep your kiddos occupied while sick? Grab some art supplies from Crayola and get a free craft book with this code on purchases over $75. Expires April 1, 2022.
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