Oh no, I can feel it already. As one of our kids gets his first sniffle of the new year, I sense the annual return of what I call “sick day anxiety.”
This time of year, many parents — particularly those who don’t get a lot of sick leave or haven’t accrued enough — anxiously do the math on how much sick leave they can afford to take.
Like many families with both parents working outside the home, my husband and I have worked out a system whenever one of our kids is sick during the work week. We sigh, then look at each other and ask: “What’s on your calendar tomorrow?” Whoever has the more flexible day stays home. Then we trade off, every other day, until the child is well enough to return to school or daycare.
But the fact that I have to take a sick day isn’t what stresses me out. My workplace is generous with time off for illnesses and prides itself on its “family friendly,” 9-to-5 environment.
For me, the anxiety is really about how to talk to coworkers about sick days I need to take in order to care for my kids. As a working mother, I sense that I’m always managing the perception at work that my kids could somehow become a drag on my productivity.
Are my coworkers groaning when I tell them I have to take another sick day with my youngest child? Are their eyes rolling when they read the group e-mail that I need to leave work early? Do the extra hours I’m putting in at home with a laptop on a pillow and a feverish head pressed against my lap somehow not count?
I worry about how much detail I need to share. Do my colleagues need to know that Child No. 3 was up all night barfing — which might elicit some empathy? Or do I just keep it brief and say I’m taking a sick day — not even mention the kid? I admit that I once told my coworkers that I was the one who was sick when really it was my second child because the week before I took a sick day with Child No. 1.
I have a hunch that working men don’t agonize over this as much as working women. Perhaps I’m wrong. But taking a lot of sick days to care for children seems to hit the vortex of working mom anxiety — the ultimate test of whether we can manage both the home front and work front when both demand our attention at unexpected moments. Since my kid’s fever seems to spike just when I’m hitting deadline, it always seems to feel like the spotlight’s on my ultimate high wire juggling act.
Research shows that working parents do take off a lot of time from work to care for their children — and they worry about it. A survey released in October from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that one-third of working parents with young children said it’s difficult to take time off of work to care for a sick child because they worry they may lose pay or lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, more than four-in-ten adults nationwide working in the private sector don’t even receive paid sick leave, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank that advocates for women’s issues, including more paid sick leave. For many lower wage jobs, such as those in the child care and the restaurant industry, taking a sick day means not getting any pay.
It’s a good reminder that, despite my anxiety, I’m lucky to have plenty of sick days available.
The District was among the first U.S. cities to require more private-sector employers to provide sick leave to employees. And last month, along with a measure to raise the minimum wage, the city council unanimously moved to broaden the sick leave law to include restaurant workers, who have been excluded.
The mayor signed the bill last week, and it looks like it could become law in March.
By then it will be spring — just in time for summer camp anxiety.
Sara Rhein is a manager at a non-profit in Washington D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.