by Vicki Larson
The phone call could not have come a better time. I had just spent a wonderful weekend helping my friend celebrate her 50th birthday at Wine Country getaway, cooking for her with spouses and friends, wine tasting the next day, laughing and hot-tubbing, and then spending a cozy, intimate evening with my boyfriend.
I was rested, rejuvenated, blissful, and ready to enjoy my two boys who were due to come back to me from their dad’s that afternoon.
So even the automated phone call from Tam High — the school would be closed for at least three, perhaps five days, because a student was suspected of having swine flu — didn’t faze me.
I’d be at work as usual, and they’d be at home, an unexpected “vacation” that they’d have no trouble filling up by typical teenage activities — sleeping; eating; texting, IMing, Facebooking and tweeting; TV watching, and a whole lot of Xbox playing.
But unless you have kids who are old enough take care of themselves, as I do, or a stay-at-home-parent to oversee things, the unexpected “vacations” from school — and even the expected ones, like all the various week breaks, three-day weekends and summer vacations — can cause a working parent stress similar to the first year after you bring your bundle of joy home from the hospital. Good Lord, what do I do with him?
For vacations, there are camps and classes and all sorts of activities; they’re not cheap and their hours don’t always coincide with a working parent’s, but at least they’re an option. For illnesses? Fuggetaboutit.
I know that on the stress-o-meter, the death of a loved one and divorce are at the top. But if you’re a working parent, having a sick kid or unplanned time off from school is just as stressful. It means someone is going to have to scramble, either changing his or her workday to stay home with the kid, or begging or paying for someone else to do it.
And more often than not, it’s Mom who stays home.
Even when I worked part time, a sick kid sent ripples of anxiety through me; I was only in the office for two or three days a week — how could I justify calling in “sick”? Yet I had no choice.
But, increasingly parents are sending their sniffly, sneezy, coughing kids to school. In fact, one in three working moms in 2007 told Working Mother magazine that she sent her sick child to school or child care instead of keeping him or her home. It’s not that parents aren’t worried about their kid or that they didn’t want to stay home and pamper him or her like our parents most likely did; it’s because they were unable to take a day off from work. Some 57 million working Americans don’t have paid sick days; missing a day to care for a sick kid often means lost pay — and perhaps losing the job itself. (Not to mention that caring for a sick kid increases the chances that the caretaker will get sick, too, meaning even more lost workdays).
That’s why one group, Connecticut Working Families, recently declared a Take Your Sick Child to Work Day — hoping to convince state legislators to approve a bill for paid sick days.
You won’t get me to say that having teenagers is easy — there’s way too much drama, zits, straggly facial hair, odd smells and voice cracking to deal with as well as excessive amounts of shoe-buying to keep up with feet that can grow four sizes in a year. Plus the obvious and inevitable — sex, drugs and booze. But at least they can stay home alone when they’re sick, easing my stress a little. I still don’t like it that a day off will result in eight straight hours of Xbox playing and an entire box of tissues will be balled up, snotty and strewn around the house, but I have learned to let go.
I’m sure someone somewhere is working furiously on a better drug than Tamiflu to combat swine flu. Still, I can’t help feeling we’re missing an opportunity here. Maybe instead of flu shots and antibiotics, we need to inject our kids with some sort of growth hormone that will advance their age just to the stay-home-alone stage. Not only will it ease the sick days dilemma, but it will also get them out of the house that much faster.
True, I hear that leads to empty-nest syndrome, but I do believe some parents have found a remedy that doesn’t cure it but, like Tamiflu, helps battle it; it’s called reclaiming your life.