Sick Days Are Impossible For Working Parents

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Amber Leventry

My 8-year-old daughter was sick over the weekend. While I hated to see her feeling so badly, it was nice to snuggle up and watch a movie with her. But all I could think was Is she going to be able to go to school on Monday? And what if her siblings get sick too?

My role as a parent has changed over the years. I have shifted out of stay-at-home parent to full-time, work mostly from home parent. In some ways this makes me the default person to keep the kids when they are home sick. I still have work to do, but I am available to be sure my kids are supervised and taken care of. When a kid gets sick, the dynamics are thrown off and the whole system goes to hell. As a working parent, sick days feel impossible and stressful.

I want to first acknowledge the privilege I have of working from home and being available for my children if one of them are sick. Yes, I have deadlines and conference calls. Typically, though, I can alter my schedule in a way that is a pain in the ass, but doesn’t usually cost me money. I am also fortunate that I have an ex-partner who can sometimes adjust her schedule to help out with a sick kiddo too.


Another writer and friend of mine, Sa’iyda Shabazz, is a single mother who doesn’t have help when her son gets sick. “My son was home sick with a fever that turned into a throat infection for over a week. It was hard because he got me sick, which meant I had no energy to work at all. And the longer he was home, the more time I spent catering to his needs—I didn’t get any work done.” This means she didn’t get paid. Something she can’t afford as the sole provider for her child.

Even though I have the flexibility, the work has to be done and the money needs to be made. And the guilt has to be reckoned with. I would love nothing more than to be fully present when one of my kids isn’t feeling well. A day of cartoons, naps, and snuggles would be glorious. But unless that happens on a day I don’t have to work, I struggle to settle into the stillness my kids would like me to have.

We live in a world that does not stop. I rarely stop. Productivity is measured in hours worked, money earned, and deals made. Show up or lose. Parents, especially working mothers, are expected to not only show up for their kids but also their employers or employees. When we are at work we feel guilty for not being with our kids. If we miss work to be with our kids, we feel guilty. And if we keep one eye on a sick child and one on email, we feel guilty. And if we give our kids Tylenol and send them out of the door and hope they make it through lunch so we can make that important meeting, we feel guilty.

I and many other parents would love to be able to unflinchingly keep our kids home when they don’t feel well or need a mental health day. And while I know that sick kids should be kept home to prevent spreading whatever they have, my kid’s ick came from the same place I am sending them back to because another parent had to do the same dance of schedule shuffling, time off negotiating, and bank account balance checking before they sent them off to school with a prayer that the nurse doesn’t call.

Folks can’t make ends meet with the jobs they have; they can’t jeopardize losing that job by calling in late or calling out to take care of a sick child.

According to the National Center For Children In Poverty, there are 15 million children in America living the below the federal poverty threshold. This is 21% of all U.S. children. As a reminder, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009. Yet studies show that families need twice the amount of the poverty threshold to cover basic expenses like housing and food. The NCCP figures 43% of kids in the U.S. live with low-income families.

Vacation and sick days are a privilege many people don’t have access to. And if parents need to take days off to take care of sick kids, that doesn’t leave time for a parent to get sick. Folks can’t make ends meet with the jobs they have; they can’t jeopardize losing that job by calling in late or calling out to take care of a sick child.

I went to Dunkin’ Donuts to get some work done during a week day, and I noticed a girl, who seemed to be about my 8-year-old daughter’s age, was sitting in a booth by herself. She had a book and was playing games on an old phone. I assumed the adult she was with was in the bathroom. Eventually a woman walked out from behind the counter to bring the girl a snack. Her adult turned out to be the woman who had made my coffee 15 minutes earlier. The girl was hanging out while her mom was working. They seemed to be making the best of a situation neither would have chosen, and I don’t know the details nor am I entitled to them, but it broke my heart a bit.

Making rent or buying groceries should not depend on the health of a child yet often times it does—through no fault of the child. Or the parent.

Sometimes part of that is sending kids off to school and crossing your fingers.

After being home for several years raising babies, I love that all of my kids are in school. I love the career I am building, and in some ways it is the new baby I am nurturing. It never is more important than my kids, but my career is necessary to support them. Without the hustle, long hours, and more projects than I can handle at times, I can’t provide for my kids the way I want and the way they need.

I wish I could keep my kids home and create a culture of self-care when they aren’t feeling great. And I wish I could be fully present when my kids are home sick. But the reality is that our best days are a balancing act of deadlines and responsibilities. Sometimes part of that act is sending kids off to school and crossing your fingers. Turning Netflix on for my kids while handing them a box of tissues is a big part of my act too. These bills have to be paid.

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