This morning I have managed to lose two boys, but gain a third. While the Littleboys are at nursery, I am looking after a friend's three year old boy as a favour while she is at work. (As I write, he is happily playing with the boys' trains; thank goodness for the universal little boy fascination with Thomas).
Now, I am not a natural childminder - looking after my own small boys is hard enough. But the reason I offered to do it comes down to an issue I feel so strongly about; how hard it is to be a working mother with a preschool child in the winter months.
My friend went back to work three weeks ago, after a three year maternity break; since she started, she hasn't managed to work a full week. Her son has been ill three times, including on her first day at work. Last week she phoned me in tears as she had taken him back to preschool after two days' illness; the school then demanded a doctors' note to say that he was OK, which she didn't have. She spent two hours in a side room on the phone trying to get hold of her doctor (it's a little different from the UK where someone else would probably be at the GP surgery, paediatricians here are quite often one-man bands); meanwhile her son was crying because he had to miss the pyjama party at school.
Yesterday he was sent home from school early again because of a stomach upset; the school won't have him back for 24 hours after the incident, even though he is absolutely fine this morning and shows no signs of illness. I had already offered to help out if I could, so last night she called me and asked whether I could take him today.
Of course I could. I know just what this is like. Although on one hand, as a freelancer, I have not always been so tied to having to go into work, it is always sod's law that just as I am commissioned to write something huge, one of the boys will go down with something. But then again, no-one is going to give me an extended deadline because my children have chicken pox, so I end up writing the thing with a sick child at home, demanding drinks, cuddles and attention as I'm trying to conduct telephone interviews.
The winter months are a nightmare for working mothers, scuppered by kiddie illnesses, temperatures and colds. I know plenty of mothers who will dose their child up with Calpol in the morning so they'll last until lunchtime before the nursery suspects they are ill and sends them home. (And so of course the illness proliferates throughout the nursery and everyone else ends up in the same situation......).
These people are not being cruel parents; they're just desperate. It's either that or one parent takes holiday to look after the child. Because, let's face it, most employers are unsympathetic to repeated childhood sick days; one might be fine, but when it's January and your child is coming down with something new every couple of weeks, their sympathies start to wear thin. What usually happens is that whoever is not the major breadwinner of the family takes the day off; and that's potentially damaging for career prospects if it happens all the time.
Nurseries are also, I feel, sometimes pretty hardline about these things. I realise they have to prevent infection, but my children's nursery states that the child must not attend if they have 'green discharge from their nose' or 'a cough'. Well, sorry, but my children have almost permanent nasal discharge throughout the winter months, and coughs can take weeks to disappear....
My friend, being an expat like me, does not have an extended family to fall back on if something goes wrong. It is simply herself, her husband and any kind friend who happens to be around to help out. Short of employing a full-time nanny (which most people can't afford), there isn't really any other option.
I don't know what the answer is - if anyone has any ideas, I'd like to hear them - but I do feel there isn't enough said about this issue. The government can talk as much as it likes about flexible hours for working women, hand out childcare vouchers and the rest. But until employers recognise - or are forced to recognise - that parents need to take time off work for sick children, mothers (or fathers) are going to be penalised, whether it's missing out on a promotion, being shunned by colleagues who think they are taking the piss, or simply giving up because it's all too much.