The working parents' guide to dealing with sick kids

Struggling to balance the demands of a job and an ill child? Get tips and advice on how to cope when kids aren’t feeling well

Illustration: Natalie Dion

Rebecca Avis-Forsythe winces, recalling the time she sent her three-year-old son to daycare knowing he had thrown up in the night. “Everyone who usually helps me out was busy,” confesses the mother of two from Peterborough, Ont. Out of sick days herself, Avis-Forsythe, an account representative, couldn’t afford to play hooky; neither could her husband, a chef.

Erin Devarennes has been there too. The project manager and mom of two from Moncton, NB, admits that she gave Advil to her feverish daughter so she could send her to daycare long enough to make an important work meeting. “It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it reduced my stress level at the time.”

A child’s surprise illness can push a working parent to the point of panic (“She can’t go to daycare, I’ve got a jam-packed calendar that I can’t rearrange — so now what?”). To help you pull through your kid’s next sick day without neglecting work or parenting responsibilities, we’ve gathered advice from career experts and veteran parents:

Know your rights
Depending on where you live, provincial law may provide you with a specific number of unpaid days to care for your child through a non-life-threatening illness. “What it’s really doing is protecting your job and not making parents have an untenable choice,” says Jody Heymann, founding director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal. “Unpaid leave is very low-cost to employers.” Heymann urges parents to discuss their child care needs with elected provincial representatives and encourages employers who offer paid sick days to allow parents to use them for themselves or their kids.

Get your boss’s OK
Knowing your employer’s policies before you get a midday pickup call from school is a must — something Cheryl Fraser learned 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.’” Needless to say, the next time around Fraser, a trend forecaster and mother of two living in Stouffville, Ont., will ask up front about potentially working from home if her children are ill.

Which may make you wonder: When is the best time to broach the subject? Experts are divided. Sari Friedman, a human resources consultant and career coach in Toronto, feels strongly that if having flexibility to deal with unexpected family responsibilities is at the top of your job-requirements list, then you can certainly bring it up during the interview process. “But then you shouldn’t also ask about getting an extra week of vacation,” she adds. However, Anne Charette Tyler, president of The Burke Group, a human resources specialist in St. Catharines, Ont., recommends saving the subject until after you have a job offer and are negotiating salary and benefits.

If you’re already in a job and unsure of where your boss and company policy stand on sick days, schedule a chat before your child gets sick. You may be pleasantly surprised. For Sheryl Steinberg, a mom of two from Toronto and director of corporate affairs for a wireless company, staying home with a sick child has never made waves at work. A lot of her peers have kids and have been in the same boat. “No one abuses the practice, so it’s not a big deal; we just tote our smartphones and laptops, and work from home,” she says.

Get child care that works
Not all jobs are family-friendly. If you’re a teacher, doctor or pilot, flex hours are out. And if you’re a lawyer, try telling a judge you missed court because your kid had the flu.

When your career isn’t flexible, your child care has to be. That’s why Bliss Prema chose a home-based caregiver who’s “totally OK with runny noses or a cough.” The Victoria mom practises Indian massage out of her home, and needs quiet during appointments, so having her two-year-old home sick is not an option. Of course, she doesn’t hesitate to cancel on clients when her daughter needs her.

When both parents work and balance demanding schedules, a sick child can throw the marriage into meltdown mode. Carmen, a Toronto mother of two (who asked that we not use her last name), knows this first-hand. “Our child had a fever of 104º F, was hallucinating and throwing up, and there we were arguing about who could spare two hours to take our sick child to the doctor’s,” she admits. The solution: They hired a live-in nanny, and the fighting stopped.

Sick of the sick day cycle, Patti and Terry Fitzgerald, parents of four from Peterborough, Ont., decided to do something radical: Terry quit his job as a shift manager to stay home when the kids were young. “Yes, we could have called family, but the hard thing is you want to be at home with your sick child,” says Patti. “When they’re really sick, no one else will do.”

A lot of parents get frantic when their child is sick, but the right perspective can make all the difference. Instead of seeing it as an inconvenience, look at it as an opportunity to re-bond and reboot. A day of storytime, chicken soup and snuggling could be just what the doctor ordered—for both of you.

4 signs that a sick day might be unnecessary
A study published in the US journal Pediatrics found that 57 percent of “sick” kids had been sent home unnecessarily. Here are four facts to help you head off avoidable sick days:

1. Vomiting doesn’t always signal sickness. “We’ve had children who vomited when they were upset,” says Tanis Sawtell of Sunset Daycare in Vancouver. Ask your caregiver to look for other symptoms, such as fever
2. Allergies can come across as a cold. If your child has hay fever, give daycare the 411 in advance, including a list of specific symptoms (such as watery eyes, drippy nose)
3. Your kid’s rash may not be catchable. Get a doctor’s note confirming it isn’t contagious.
4. If too much juice or certain foods give your child diarrhea, let your daycare know about those triggers in advance.

Illustration: Natalie Dion

Illustration: Natalie Dion

Backup plans that work
Your child is going to get sick — that’s a given. But if you have a plan, you won’t be forced to make frantic decisions.

Know your daycare’s sick policy
Patti Fitzgerald of Peterborough, Ont., had a rude awakening when she tried to drop off her on-the-mend son. The mother of four was told he had to be on antibiotics for at least 24 hours before returning to daycare. “I went back to my car and cried,” Fitzgerald recalls. Take the time to read your caregiver’s parent manual and, if anything’s unclear, discuss in advance to avoid surprises.

Cultivate emergency caregivers
“It can be a disaster when you don’t have backup child care,” warns Wendy Sachs, author of How She Really Does It. Having extended family and trustworthy friends nearby will put you and your child at ease.

However, many parents feel uncomfortable asking for favours. “In a pinch, I call my after-school babysitter to come to the house earlier,” says Erin Devarennes, a mother of two from Moncton, NB. Other crunch-time care options include college students with flexible schedules, on-call nanny services or sick-child daycare centres staffed by health pros. Keep in mind, the price tag can be hefty and the lack of familiarity may turn off your kid.

Tag team
Try splitting the day so that one parent stays home in the morning and the other in the afternoon. “The kid is home with a parent all day long, and you’ll be able to put out any work fires,” says Leigh Oshirak, co-author of Balance Is a Crock, Sleep Is for the Weak: An Indispensable Guide to Surviving Working Motherhood.

When all else fails
If you do need to stay home to care for a sick child, tell your boss promptly and professionally. “Your employer doesn’t need to hear about the green boogers or other gory details,” warns Amy Eschliman, co-author of Balance Is a Crock. “Just tell them the facts and how you plan to cover the work.”

Is your kid really sick?
Your tween starts the morning with “Mom, I don’t feel good.” Is he legitimately sick or faking it? Ask yourself these five questions to spot a Ferris Bueller ploy:

1. Is there a test today? He could be bluffing to blow it off.
2. Do the symptoms make sense? A runny noise paired with stomach ache doesn’t add up.
3. Is he eating? A healthy appetite could be a faking-it red flag.
4. Is the headache here one minute and gone the next? Bogus symptoms tend to lack staying power.
5. How quick is the recovery? Be suspicious if 10 minutes later he’s in his room blasting music or playing PS3.

Check out our ultimate sick guide here.

Read more:
11 tricks for making a sick day less stressful
5 most common kid skin rashes and sensitivities (and how to soothe them)
6 signs your kid may not need a sick day

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