Thirty minutes into my work day I get a call from my son’s preschool. As I click accept on my phone my heart sinks because I am pretty sure I know why they are calling. My kid is sick and they need me to pick him up, pronto!
As I drive to pick him up, I’m full of emotion.
First and foremost, I’m sad because my son is sick and that breaks my heart.
At the same time, I’m frustrated because my work will have to be put on hold, and my workplace will have to manage in my absence. I’m also filled with regret because I should have been more in tune to his behavior before drop off. I should have known that he wasn’t feeling well.
I hate that I sent a sick kid to school, and I hate that I infected his entire preschool with a yucky stomach bug. I hate that I might be judged by other mothers for not just keeping my kid home.
And yet, just a few weeks earlier I had taken a sick day with the same little guy who woke up complaining of a few unclear symptoms. Thirty minutes later he was bouncing off the wall, fever free, right as rain in perfect health and I was missing work watching the number on my family sick leave bank click down.
Therein lies my dilemma.
It’s been a particularly bad cold and flu season in central Iowa this year. The message on social media and in the mainstream news has been clear and pointed: stay home when you are sick and keep your sick kids home as well. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I want to be clear that I 100% agree with that message. But it’s not as simple as it might sound for many working mothers to heed that advice. Particularly the part about erring on the side of caution.
You see, for many of us, we work not only because we love what we do but also because our family depends on the income and benefits we provide through our work. I am one of those mothers.
As such, I do not enjoy unlimited sick leave, nor do I have a job that can be done at home while I cuddle a sick baby.
My dilemma comes in the gray areas. I agonize over the decision to keep my kids home because I want to be a good mother and I want to be good employee and I hate when the two things seem to be mutually exclusive.
My family, of course, comes first. When my kids show clear symptoms of illness, I keep them home. My husband and I take turns using up our family sick leave. Fever, vomit, red throat, rash, diarrhea, pink eye – home. No question.
My dilemma comes in the all too commonly held belief that many working mothers are trying to “trick” their children’s school nurses and daycare providers into caring for their sick kids so that they can put their career before their children.
In my experience, this is not the case. When I talk to mothers at my workplace during these awful months where sickness lurks around every corner, the message is the same. We debate over and over whether or not we should send our kids to school, daycare, and preschool in those frustratingly unsure gray areas.
After they have been sick, we work very hard to keep them home long enough to not infect others but not so long that we let it affect our work.
Recently, a fairly popular mother of YouTube video fame boasted that she kept her son home for several days after a bout with a stomach bug on an airplane. She ended the video by saying she judges parents who do not do the same.
I think I speak for most working mothers when I say we absolutely do not have the luxury of staying home for several days after our child vomits. If I practiced this form of caution with my four kids, my paid and unpaid sick leave would be exhausted well before the cold and flu season hit. Moreover, my job would be in jeopardy.
It’s a dilemma that will continue to affect working moms even when the weather warms and the awful germs fade away. This dilemma can be softened by women and mothers working together to extend grace to one another instead of sitting in judgement and jumping to conclusions.
Being a perfect mom and a perfect employee is an impossible balance. As in so many areas of my life, I can only try to do my best and remember that, despite good intentions, I will certainly make a the wrong call every now and then.