If you’re a parent with a young child, chances are your child is or has recently been ill, leaving you and your partner scrambling to figure out who will be missing work again for stay at home.
My kids have been sick on and off since the weekend after preschool orientation. My 4 year old daughter visited her class on a Friday morning. On Monday, she had a fever and had to miss the first day of school. That mid-August virus lasted just long enough for her to go back to class and bring home RSV, which took all four of my family members more than two weeks to recover from. We’ve all developed infections that required multiple rounds of antibiotics and steroids.
Before they even finished their antibiotics, my children caught another virus. And another. The pediatrician’s office became our second home, and for two months a member of my family had a fever. My 2 year old son had so many back-to-back ear infections that he had to have surgery to put tubes in.
Our family’s trajectory is not unusual at this time. Unprecedented levels of RSV and influenza, along with an increase in COVID cases, have overwhelmed pediatric hospital systems and led to shortages of drugs that treat common childhood illnesses (Tamiflu, amoxicillin, albuterol).
Worse, this surge coincides with a child care crisis marked by staffing shortages, closures and a lack of affordable options.
As a result, more than 100,000 Americans took time off from work in October due to child care issues, the highest number on record in the United States – even more than at the height of the pandemic.
Most of my friends were among those 100,000. Some may have attempted to work from home while breastfeeding sick children on the couch. But a couple I know in New Mexico missed 13 combined days of work during the seven-week period their 2-year-old twins contracted COVID; hand-foot-mouth disease; RSV and other fever viruses, causing two closures of their daycare. Another friend from Tennessee returned from her 14-week unpaid maternity leave just to have her baby catch a stomach bug the first week at daycare, allowing mother and child to stay together on Mondays next.
Based on my experience, text strings and social media feeds, I was not surprised when I read the statistic of over 100,000 Americans. Seeing him, I felt both vindicated and discouraged. Whenever a temperature spike or a prescription needs to be picked up or the pediatrician’s office calls me back to schedule an appointment for my child, being a stay-at-home parent seems logical – while returning to work seems even more off. of scope.
I quit working my part-time job as a private tutor when COVID hit and my daughter’s preschool closed on March 13, 2020. The decision became official once my son was born two weeks old later. Even before the closings, finding daycare was a challenge. My mother died just four months after the birth of my daughter, which meant I didn’t have the larger family safety net – usually a grandmother – that many of my peers rely on when their children fall ill or to bridge the gaps between when the kids need to pick up and the workdays end.
In the spring and summer of 2020, school closures and shelter-in-place orders required me to take care of all child care while my husband worked. With a newborn and a toddler, I had no other choice. Even after the lockdowns ended, I chose to stay home to reduce their exposure to the virus.
Now that the third pandemic year is coming to an end, my two children are finally vaccinated and in kindergarten for part of the week. I had hoped to use this year to start working part-time while looking for a teaching job for the next year. But the collective number of sick days this fall has been overwhelming. I can’t imagine finding a full-time job with the flexibility to meet our endless and unplanned childcare needs.
Apart from a child tax credit that has not been renewed, the United States has not implemented any major policies to help parents since the start of the pandemic and revealed the child care system failure of our country.
The United States remains one of eight countries in the world without a national paid parental leave policy – and the only member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development of 38 countries without one.
Most OECD countries also offer child care leave, sometimes called home care leave, allowing a parent to care for a sick child on a short-term basis without sacrificing pay. This type of leave recognizes the realities of having young children. Finding a job that guarantees it would give me the flexibility to look after my children when they have a fever, cough, stomachache, sore throat, and all the other symptoms that parents through the country know too well. It’s a crucial tool for keeping parents in the workforce and limiting viral outbreaks that strain schools, daycares and families when parents feel compelled to send their sick children away.
Access to parental leave and paid care leave should be a basic right. While paid time off alone is not a panacea for childcare needs, it is a big step in the right direction.
Children get sick. Sometimes, like this fall, a lot of them do. By bringing our paid leave policies up to the level of other countries around the world, the United States can begin to support parents of sick children — and the economy that depends on it.
Sarah Hunter Simanson is a Memphis-based freelance writer who earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on her first novel. @sarahsimanson