Why There Are No Sick Days When You're A Mom

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Most of the families I know have intricate schedules. They’ve decided who’s staying home and who’s going to work, or some combination thereof. They’ve hired a sitter or enrolled in day care or enlisted Grandma to watch the kids, or some combination thereof. There’s usually a big calendar on the fridge with child care arrangements, after-school activities, doctor’s appointments and holidays marked in several colors of ink. It all works, pretty much, as long as everyone does what they’re supposed to do and shows up mostly on time.

Except when Mom gets sick. At the first sign of a spiking fever or the first waves of nausea, every mom I know goes “Oh, no, no, no, no! I can’t get sick! Not now!” Because in general, the whole delicate rigging of the household depends on Mom holding it up. If Mom goes down, the ship goes down.

If Mom is usually at home with the kids, but is too sick to manage, say, an infant and a toddler, that means that Dad has to take a day off from work so Mom can rest in bed. That would be OK, right?

Yeah, except that it doesn’t happen. They decide that Dad should save his sick days (if he’s lucky enough to have any) for a “real” emergency or when he’s sick. They decide that Mom will just power through this awful stomach virus and fever while trying to entertain a baby and a toddler. (The terrible thing about TV is that it only reliably mesmerizes kids over a certain age and sometimes not even then. My toddler will watch 10 minutes of Elmo and then try to ransack the kitchen cabinets or give himself a “swirlie” in the toilet.)

If Mom is a work-outside-the-home mom, things get even trickier. A lot of mothers I know don’t get sick days from their jobs, either because they’re not salaried or because their employer doesn’t offer them. Or they, like Dad, want to save their sick days for when they “really” need them—when the kids get sick and have to stay home from school or when the babysitter calls in sick. Grandparents would be great pinch-hitters in theory, but I, like a lot of mothers, hesitate to subject my elderly parents to a viral puke-a-thon if there’s any way around it.

Nope, however you slice it, there are no sick days if you’re a mom. Last spring, a virus charged through my family of four, one person at a time. We each were totally flat-out sick for a week—first my older son, then my younger son, then dad, and then finally, it was my turn. But um, when I got sick, there were still three sick people to take care of. Someone had to watch the kids when they wouldn’t watch any more TV, someone had to run to the pharmacy for more baby Motrin and a new ear thermometer. Someone had to take them to the pediatrician when the fevers went to 105.

My husband I traded off child care duties based on our Tylenol consumption. I’d take a dose so my fever would come down for a few hours, and I could somewhat function. He’d take a dose, his fever would come down, and he’d take over. It was like The Walking Dead, except in charge of kids. We couldn’t ask our sitters to help for fear of infecting them, and we didn’t want to ask family for the same reason.

What’s the solution? I don’t know exactly, though in the midst of a high fever and wrangling a vomiting toddler, I did entertain fantasies of checking us all into some nice clinic where crisp nurses would bathe our brows and dispense ginger ale and broth.

But for now, that’s a fantasy. There are no sick days when you’re a mom.

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