Thursday, 4 February 2010

Why winter is a bitch for working mothers

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.

20 comments:

Iota said...

I worked for the Children's Society when I had one child. They had very family friendly policies (kind of had to, given what business they were in), and so if your child - or another person dependent on you - was sick, you took a day's 'Carer's Leave'. I did that on more than one occasion. I thought it was a very visionary policy. That was back in 1998. Wonder what it's like now.

As you say, it's a very undiscussed issue. I've heard that it's common for women to phone in sick and pretend it's them who is the ill one, as that is somehow more acceptable than saying they're staying at home with an ill child.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Well said. It is a huge issue and it is a really difficult to navigate. These are the things that people really don't consider in the push to get every one back to work.

I hope that employers are more receptive to the idea of working from home than they were when I was last gainfully employed. When you have a sick kid that only wants to sleep or watch TV, you can actually get quite a lot done - you just need the flexibility to rearrange your work.

Expat mum said...

It's compounded here by the fact that many Americans have about ten days "vacation" for the entire year and you have to use that if you stay at home with a sick child. I don't blame them for calling in sick because American workers also often have a "sick balance" of about ten days. Come the end of the year, an awful lot of people realise they haven't used all their sick days and they mysteriously disappear.

Muddling Along Mummy said...

You are a good friend

Its so tough when they're ill - you need to work but also need to look after them and something has to give, usually one career.

We're still trying to be a two career family but its getting harder (and I hate that in any other family I'd be the main, supported one ...)

Roll on springtime

Jenny Rudd said...

Good for you, helping your friend. What a godsend to have someone to rely on. It seems ridiculous that as we were all sick babies at some stage - including powerful CEOs it isn't deemed completely normal for working parents to need quite a few days off in the winter to help their children.
I like the way you wrote the post by the way

Mwa said...

That is precisely why I'm still not back at work. With no other backup, and my children taking turns to be ill a bit too often, it's just not practical just now. In Belgium, we do have a very cheap and easy option in your friend's case, but I'm a bit of a softy, so I couldn't use it: our health insurance will send someone around to look after the child at your house. I think the first few times are free or just about, and after that they're very reasonable to pay. But I couldn't leave my sick child with a stranger.

Almost American said...

What a good friend you are! My first year back at work after DD was born it was months before I actually put in a full week!

In my current job I get a specified number of sick days each year, and can use them for myself or my kids, which is very nice. Leftover days carry over to the next year. At this point I have 31 :-) At my last job they refused to specify how many days I had, telling me they trusted me to only take what I needed. One day when daycare wouldn't take DS but there was really little wrong with him, I took him to work with me as he was small enough to carry around all day in his sling. I got called in to my boss' office the next day and told never to do that again. "If your kid isn't well enough for daycare, stay home with him - don't bring him here." Yay!

Home Office Mum said...

It's hideous. I don't have solutions. If I did, I'd be a millionaire. But luckily there are people like you prepared to help out. I bet you that poor woman felt utterly horrid having to ask though. And it's crappy that it's always the women who have to do the asking. Why isn't it the men who ever have to put in the calls to figure this out? I'll bet even if they are the main breadwinner, women would still be the one calling around for back up.

Sorry - got side tracked there by a mini rant. I shall to go to bed and not get myself worked up

Michelloui said...

What a good friend you are! Like you I am not a natural at childminding, I find my own difficult enough, but like you I would want to support a mum-in-need.

I went back to to work full time for almost 2 year a few years ago, and it was a nightmare. I had a very difficult boss and I finally decided the pay was not worth the hassle. He wouldn't let me work part time so I quit. Now I earn half what I did but I have a much much MUCH better quality of life and the knock-on effect is that my family are happier as well.

Its a terrible shame US/UK workplaces make returning to work so difficult for a vast percentage of the workforce (ie mothers). A hundred years from now people will view these times as archaic as we view times past!

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Hi,

This is a good topic and well done you for helping out.

I'm pretty old fashioned in that I think children NEED you (as a mum) to be there for them. I know it's hard as regards money and stuff but we seem to get by (just) with not having much money. The children have us close by and seem very happy as a result.

I know not everyone can do this but I think the children have been forgotten in all of this. It is sad...

Muddling Along Mummy said...

Hadriana's Treasures so you think that working mums have forgotten their children in all of their attempts to combine work and family life ?

Can we not focus on ways to combine so everyone benefits ? Don't children also benefit from having a happy and fulfilled mother ?

Lorna Harris said...

Completely right. Unless you have a fantastic support network around you, it's just not possible. At the moment, we don't have parents or family near us and are just beginning to make friends that we can ask for help. I think it's wonderful that you helped your friend.

nappy valley girl said...

Iota - I've heard the same. 'Carer's Leave' sounds good -at least calling it that recognises what you are doing as something valid.

Brit in Bosnia - You'd think that in a cyber world people would be more receptive to working at home. I don't know if this is really the case. Although it doesn't work for every job; I've tried working from home with a child in the house, and it wasn't at all easy, as most of my work involved telephone calls and waiting for people to call me back - which they would inevitably do just as you were giving the baby lunch....

Expat Mum - yes, the US has way more problems in this area than the UK in my opinion...I had one friend who had to take vacation days for morning sickness when pregnant!

Muddling Along - it is tough. I've definitely put my own career on the back burner for the time being...

Jenny - thanks. I think part of the problem is that most male CEOs expect their wives to take care of that side of fmaily life....maybe it would be better with more women in senior jobs, although it's often said that successful women are often harder on issues like this.

Mwa - the health insurance idea sounds interesting. I think if it were the same person all the time, I'd do it, but you're right, hard to leave a sick child with a complete stranger.

Almost American - so, would your boss have preferred if you hadn't come in at all?

HomeOfficeMum - you're right, it does usually fall to the woman to sort out this kind of thing. (Although my friend's hubby did bring her son over, and got to work late himself, so there is some hope!)

Michelloui - I do hope you're right! Hopefully there will be much more virtual working and it won't be so difficult....

Hadriana - I understand where you are coming from. But, as you say, it is not an option for everyone. And it's not always about the money - personally, I work because I enjoy it, (which is a good job as my earnings usually barely cover the childcare). I also don't think children suffer from spending some time apart from their parents - mine adore their nursery and seem to thrive on it.....

Muddling Along - Absolutely. Children do benefit from a fulfilled mother, I firmly believe that.

Lorna - It is terribly hard without a support network. My children don't have any grannies - both died - and I used to feel terribly jealous of people whose mums stepped in on these occasions. (My Dad was often a star, though, and is an ace babysitter.)

Metropolitan Mum said...

Well, yes and no. I am happy for strict nursery rules, because I don't want little L to pick up stuff every other week (she'll start two half days of nursery in March, yayyy!!!).
On the other hand, I'd love to see the common understanding of how much flexibility a parent needs turn to a more Scandinavian approach. How comes their economy does not suffer, although time off for parents is super flexible, if needed?!

Almost American said...

In answer to your question, yes, my boss would have preferred that I not go in to work at all than bring a mildly under the weather child with me! As the major part of my job was tech support and I did much of it via email, colleagues often didn't realize that I wasn't 'at work' when I stayed home because I tried to get work done from home. The colleagues who had to cover the classes I taught certainly noticed - tho' I tried to be online during class time in case there were any questions about the work I'd assigned.

nappy valley girl said...

Met Mum - the Scandiniavians do indeed seem to have got it right. High taxation seems to be the secret......As for nurseries, yes, sure I would not advocate the spread of nasty illnessses, diahorrea etc. However, I do think coughs and colds are a part of life for children, however inconvenient (and in fact, there is research supporting the theory that children who go to nursery and are exposed to all these things are less suspectible to the real nasties, including Leukaemia).

Almost American - ah, so he was reasonably enlightened. I think working from home is great, but it can cause problems - I worked in an office once where people could work from home occasionally if they wanted, but if too many people did this there was no-one to answer the phones, which was highly annoying for those who WERE there....

Almost American said...

Sadly, my boss was not as enlightened as it might appear! What he really wanted was for me to quit and become a stay-at-home mum. I did eventually quit (to move on to another job) but in the meantime I didn't feel guilty about taking the time off that I needed!

SnafflesMummy said...

what a great friend you are.

So glad others find it as difficult as I do. I only work 3 days so having to take any unexpected days off have a huge effect. The last thing I need is the added guilt when I have to call in and explain that I can not go in for the day.

I have even been asked when I was planning on making the time up!

nappy valley girl said...

Almost American - I see. I'm glad you were able to move!

SnafflesMummy - I know what you mean. I have worked part-time too and it means the pressure is really on to go in on your days. Can you imagine if a man was off sick and got asked to make up the time?

A Confused Take That Fan said...

Gosh, I remember this dilemma well. When I first started back after baby number one, she got every illness under the sun in the first three months, and doing just 3 days, it was very noticable when I wasn't there. I found chicken pox horrendous as they are not allowed back until they have scabbed and it took two weeks!! Myself and my husband struggled through. I thought it was the law (in the UK) that you were allowed to take sick time off if your dependents were ill?