Pregnancy Week 67: How To Juggle Work And A Sick Baby

woman at hospital with sick baby

Adobe Stock / Syda Productions

June 21, 2024 at 1:43AM UTC
 It was bound to happen eventually. Babies, like all human beings, sometimes get sick. This can be even more common if your baby is in daycare and surrounded by other babies.

It’s a stressful situation to deal with a sick child, but even worse is when you have to juggle a demanding job (or two) along with it. So what can you do?

1. Arrange a care-giving plan ahead of time.

In some households it’s very clear who is going to stay home if the baby gets sick. Sometimes it’s the parent who has more flexibility in their job, or simply has the less demanding job. Other times, it’s a negotiation depending on whose schedule is more accommodating on a given day.
As much as it sounds counterintuitive, we believe it’s better to work out the outlines of a plan before your child actually gets sick. The point isn’t to try to control or plan everything in life, but to simply minimize the last-minute, day-of stress (which will be high enough) as you scramble to make arrangements.

Alexis Madrigal has written persuasively about what it’s like to push back against the societal norm (that we have all been affected by, even subconsciously) that mom is the default care-taker when a child becomes ill. He wrote in his Atlantic piece: 

"It was exceedingly hard to say, 'Hey, I need to take some time off to care for my sick son.' Most workplaces, blue or white collar, would not be nearly as receptive to this request as The Atlantic. But even having a sane, respectful employer didn't make it easy. What was holding me back was something bigger than the company.

The state of affairs is absurd and is worth saying out loud: I've been led by a sexist culture to believe that men don't take care of sick kids. That's what Moms do.

But here was my son clinging to my legs, crying, and lifting his arms to me like I was the only person in the whole world who could make him feel better. And, for these few days at least, I was. 

So I sucked it up and took some time off to take care of the kid. My wife and I juggled our jobs and emails and editing assignments along with our kid's sickness and each other's precarious mental states. And it was really hard. Goddamn it was hard."

Some employers will be more receptive to requests for time off than others. If you aren’t a single parent, decide how you will decide what to do when the, er, vomit hits the fan.

2. Look into back-up childcare options and company policy.

Mom of two and author of “Back To Work After Baby”, Lori Mihalich-Levin advises that you look into (and enroll) in back-up childcare benefits your employer may offer. Some employers offer this benefit to cover the cost of last-minute at-home or center-based care. 
Lori suggests you do this before you actually experience your first sick day as a working mom. She says, “Plan ahead: you probably can’t enroll in the back-up options [your employer offers] the day your child gets sick. There is usually some paperwork that needs to happen in advance.”
Your company may have policies or practices that you’re not aware of. Finding out about them before you actually encounter a sick day will help you feel less stressed out. If you’re changing employers, be sure to find one that is family-friendly now that you have a baby. Cheryl Fraser told Today's Parent that she learned this the hard way: “Let go from her last job after she announced her pregnancy, Fraser recalls, ‘A single female VP said to me, when she found out, ‘I don’t do kids — I have a dog.’”

3. Ask your manager for a work-from-home day.

If you’re the one who will be primarily taking care of the baby on the sick days, consider first whether you need to ask for a day off at all. Some employers will allow their staff to work remotely on occasions like this. This kind of flexibility may or may not be part of your employer’s official policy, but sometimes you will not know until you have to ask for it. 

While not every job allows this sort of remote working arrangement, if you don’t have any paid sick days or time off to use, this is a possibility to tide you over. Also, it may turn out to be the case that even if you stay at home with your sick baby, you will end up simply being around for a lot of napping and can be pretty productive. On the flip side, if your child is awake and say, vomiting, it might be harder to get stuff done.

4. Use Your PTO/your own bank of sick day (with or without explanation).

Sometimes, you may not want to go into too much detail. White lies about not feeling well yourself are a perfectly acceptable way to deal with a boss or manager who you think will mistreat or think badly of you if you instead disclose that your child is the one with the illness.
This may be your last resort if you have a family-unfriendly job where there is little flexibility or sympathy about sick children. Wendi Jacobs, had to physically make herself throw up in her office before her boss told her to go home and take a sick day (which she really needed for her child). 
Unfortunately, this is an extreme example of what happens when there are no laws that provide families with the right to take time off to care for relatives with illness. While the Family Medical Leave Act (the same federal law that provides some women unpaid maternity leave rights) does require employers of a certain size allow certain employees to take unpaid time off to care for family members with serious illness, no federal law requires an employer give you time off if your child comes down with the flu or more “routine” illness.

5. Consider home-based care.

If you are repeatedly dealing with a sick child and finding it is turning your marriage or your job into a situation that’s too stressful, you may have to consider home-based care such as a nanny or shared nanny who is willing to work with children that have runny noses and fevers. Some professions are inherently very inflexible (e.g. doctors, teachers, police officers, lawyers) and require your childcare to be more flexible about illness. 
While it’s certainly stressful to juggle a sick baby with a demanding job and a spouse who has one too, remember that a little advance planning and strategy can go a long way. Be sure to look into your rights, your employer’s policy and discuss a general plan with your spouse. And good luck! While they’re bound to happen, hopefully these sick days will be few and far between.

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