Monday, November 22, 2010


The Sick Kid Shuffle

This weekend The Girl got hit by a nasty stomach bug, so nobody got much sleep and our Sunday plans were discombobulated. It brought back memories of those times when TW still worked outside the house, and we had to do the Sick Kid Shuffle.

When your kid normally goes to daycare, a sick kid is a major crisis. Suddenly your first line of defense is down, since you can’t take a sick kid to daycare. (I’ve seen parents try it, though.) Most days, we had to choose among several imperfect options:

1. TW’s parents. They were retired by that point, and close enough by that they could sometimes step in. They have lives of their own, though, so there was a limit to how often we could go to this well.

2. Split the day. We did this one a lot. TW worked a six-hour day at that point, and PU was open until the wee hours, so sometimes she’d come home a little early and I would take the night shift at work. My boss was okay with it on a limited basis, and we got pretty good at the handoff. Here, too, you didn’t want to go to this well too often. Once in a while, it was fine, but it had limits.

3. One of us stayed home that day. This was the when-all-else-fails option, and we used it a fair bit in those early years. (When I left PU, my last half-day was actually unpaid, since I had more than used up my sick time with a few delightful bouts of daycare-sourced pinkeye.) I recall a week before an accreditation visit, bargaining with TW as to who could be the last-ditch option on each particular day.

It was unbelievably draining. Even good daycares are petri dishes, and young children don’t have the immunity that adults have. The sick-kid shuffle was an ever-present fact of life. Each day that was split incurred another debt to coworkers and supervisors; each day the grandparents took incurred a debt there. Some days were more easily missed than others.

Since TW started staying home full-time, the sick kid shuffle has become easier. It can still wreak havoc with errands and appointments, but we’re dealing with fewer variables than we once were. We’ve also experienced much less pinkeye, which is all to the good. One salary doesn’t go as far as two, of course, which is why I’m still rocking the hatchback, but I can’t say that was a surprise.

The sick-kid shuffle must be particularly hard for single parents, or for people without local extended family, or for people whose kids have chronic conditions. The only way to make parenthood sustainable is with routines; throw those routines into chaos repeatedly, and something has to give.

On the workplace side, the sick kid shuffle raises difficult issues of fairness. Presumably, most of us would agree that basic decency requires at least some level of flexibility. On the other side, there’s a point -- hard to quantify, but real -- at which someone becomes unreliable. People without children have been known to attack sick-kid leaves as inherently unequal, and there’s a certain point at which they are.

I’m wondering if any of my wise and worldly readers who don’t have a stay-at-home partner or retired nearby grandparent have found elegant ways to handle the sick kid shuffle. I know we’re not the first to do the dance, and we won’t be the last. As a manager of people, I’m wondering if there’s a reasonably equitable way to acknowledge that not everybody’s needs are identical, without just defaulting to treating children as one consumer option among others. (“Your kid, your problem,” just strikes me as unethical.) Has anyone found a reasonable approach?

Note that the reality of a faculty job is most faculty took the one job that was offered to them, without regard to the location of grandparents. Our nearest relatives are 2000 miles away.

*There are drop-in daycare centers for mildly sick kids around. I know of companies and universities that offer a certain number of days at those centers per year. That only covers the colds and yesterday's fever, though. They don't take the gastrointestinal delights that tend to circulate in daycares.

*When I was a postdoc at University of Michigan, I was signed up for the ability to have 40 hours of nursing care for a sick child per year at the rate of something like $7/hour.

*Now we have a nanny who can handle all but the worst of the gastrointestinal distress. Of course, without daycare, we haven't experienced that particular delight since we stopped using daycare.
Dear Dean Dad,

My wife and I are both professors. As I write, the two of us are trying to work out Today's sick kid shuffle because the stomach virus our daughter had last week (maybe the same one you are seeing) has spread to our daycare lady and her husband.

Thank you for the sympathetic words.

We are one of those families. Two parents, two jobs, two small kids (the eldest is almost four), and no family anywhere nearby. No alternative care centers hanging around, no sick kid benefits. When we have an illness, it's all on my husband and I alone.

The only elegant solution I know of is hired help. And in fact, when a good friend who also has two small children asked my advice on going back to work, I told her to not even bother unless her and her husband could earn enough, together, to afford a nanny.

But sadly, I am not in the nanny-having demographic, and probably never will be. So I can't even take my own advice. How do we get by?

We get by because we have flexible employers.

My husband is allowed to work at home pretty much any time he wants, and he will take advantage of that when our children are sick. Of course, he can't get as much work done during a day at home with a sick child as he can get done in the office, but he tends to make up the difference in the evenings when I get home.

My job isn't quite as blissly flexible as my husband's, but it's close. My manager - a Dean - absolutely does not care if I need to take off to deal with a sick child. As long as I get my work done in general and am there when he really needs me, he doesn't give a fig about how many hours I sit at this desk. And I pay it back - both by making a point not to take advantage, and by getting as much done at home as I can when I do have to leave. He knows I won't let an urgent email sit in my mailbox unattended for an unacceptably long time because we have a childcare issue.

The setup is far from perfect. At times I want to cry in frustration. I'm dramatically underpaid for where I live; I could easily make more money in a private company as an administrative assistant than I get for this complex work I do in my current department. But I accept being underpaid in return for this generous flexibility. It works. My boss gets a ton of value for his money in me, and I have peace of mind. I am flabbergasted by people who work jobs that aren't nearly so flexible, though. How on Earth do they pull it off?

As for issues of fairness, at both my job and my husband's job, standards are applied equally. Anyone in his organization can work at home, not just the parents. And in my department, most of the people who work here and are childless are also working on their masters degrees; the Dean is fine with them taking as much time as they need to duck out for classes. Again, as long as they are performing well and doing their jobs. And I think that is totally and completely fair.

In fact, we, as a society, need more of that. I know it's impossible to execute across the entirety of the employment spectrum; my department serves students, we couldn't all decide to stay home on a given Tuesday and just not open the office for walk-ins. But in this day of ubiquitous internet access, is there really a need to define "good employee" strictly as someone who sits in front of a particular desktop computer a certain number of hours per day?

And childless folks need to get out of the 4th grade mentality that someone who isn't at her desk is off playing hooky and getting some advantage that the childless person is not. If I'm at home with a sick child, I am not dancing out in the sunshine, enjoying my freedom. My workload at the office does not decrease. I just have to figure out how to get it done while taking care of my ill child at the same time. I'm not getting some super awesome advantage here. And in fact, I hate that I can almost never put extra face-time in at the office. No matter how many hours I work at home, no matter how many hard compromises I have to make, I know I look "less dedicated" than my childless peers.

I guess it just calls for a lot of maturity, both on the part of employees and on the part of managers. I'll probably get a nanny sooner than I can rely on that :)
There's a number of "fair" solutions to this problem. PTO is the big one - if everyone gets the same leave time, no one can complain that they are getting the shaft. For those childless employees that complain about extended leaves, I would point out to them that FMLA covers them as well - whether it is for their own illness or that of a relative. The leave they accumulate is something that protects them if they get sick later in life. Parents sacrifice that leave for their kids.

We have standards for how much leave is excessive and employees are regularly counseled if they are exceeding those standards. This works for hourly employees. For faculty who are exempt employees, I don’t thing this as important.

I know of one faculty member that had two home daycares that looked after their kids so that on the off chance that one care provider got sick they would have a back-up with the other provider. Something to consider if you go with home care….

If I can't get off work, my current solution to this problem is to pay a retired woman to sit with my kids at home when they are sick.

But frankly, as a faculty member, I didn't have much of a problem with this. I had a class schedule that didn't require me to be on-campus more than once a week (lucky me) and I could record lectures and put them on-line if I couldn’t make it on lecture day. I set the precedent early that I would be on campus no more than 3 days a week. My boss was cool with that as long as I got my work done. If I were managing faculty with small children, I would encourage them to try for a class schedule that limited their time on campus and would casually suggest before their baby came that they work out arrangements for sick kid care. I would also ask HR to research sick kid care in the local area so they have a 1 page fact sheet for employees registering for paternity or maternity leave – preparing them for the realities of their future as it were. In my wildest dreams as a college administrator type, I would also get a home health aid service to sign a contract with the university to provide nurse's aids for sick kid care at a reduced rate in exchange for being the "preferred provider" of those services for the university, or pay into an insurance like the one mentioned in a previous post.

without daycare, we haven't experienced that particular delight

Oh honey - your time will come. Just wait until kindergarten. Every child spends 1-2 years getting the general colds and flus that are common. While this doesn't apply as much to pink-eye, there's a certain amount of exposure you just have to have to viruses to get that baseline immunity everyone needs. It's one of those pay now / pay later. things.
It's interesting--on our campus, there seem to be two schools of thought about what it means to be "family-friendly." One school of thought thinks of family-friendly as "kids are welcome at committee meetings!" and "Campus events will include children's activities." The other school of thought (and I'll admit this is where I fall into) thinks of family-friendly as "I can take time off to stay home with a sick child" and "I am not expected to be present at campus events on evenings and weekends, unless they directly involve my department."
In general, I agree with Anonymous and Ivory's comments. Like Anonymous, I'm staying in a job that doesn't pay all that well because my boss and my dean are very flexible about stuff like this. I don't much care if my colleagues look down their nose at me for staying home with a sick kid. I've proven my worth to my boss and the dean, and they know I'll get the work done.
Ivory ~ I get that sicknesses will happen again, but their frequency is reduced as we reduce the hours in mobs of kids. As it is, my son is in preschool 15 hours a week, and my daughter's in third grade. The shuffle hazard is reduced, but not reduced to zero.

Some amount of flexibility is certainly key. I have lots of flexibility outside my teaching hours. My husband works in a small company where no one else that works there gets the sick kid shuffle (mostly because of no kids or stay-at-home wives), and therefore is not in the slightest bit understanding of the shuffle.

It gets worse when one of us is traveling. We're already cutting corners because one partner's been removed from the routine, but when a kid gets sick in the midst of that it's hopeless.
And childless folks need to get out of the 4th grade mentality that someone who isn't at her desk is off playing hooky and getting some advantage that the childless person is not. If I'm at home with a sick child, I am not dancing out in the sunshine, enjoying my freedom.

True. But while you're at home nursing your sick child, I'm at work doing my job and a chunk of your's —the bits that can't be done at home, like teaching classes, answering student questions, and coping with sudden problems that the boss drops on the desk of whoever is in the office.

In an ideal world, a parent would work at home and anything that couldn't be done fro there would wait. In the actual world, there's a lot that can't (or won't) wait, and those that are actually in the office have to do it. Lose two or three out of a small department, and those left behind will be pulling overtime.
True. But while you're at home nursing your sick child, I'm at work doing my job and a chunk of yours —the bits that can't be done at home, like teaching classes, answering student questions, and coping with sudden problems....

I think the main point here is that we all work as a team. If you break your leg because someone hits your car, I pitch in to help you. If you take FMLA to take care of a sick parent, I pick up the slack for you. If my kid is home sick, you pitch in to help me. It might not be fair in the I-get-one-day-if-you-get-another sense, but if you are part of a group, you accept the fact that there will be times that you have to carry the other people in the group. It's sort of like being part of an insurance pool - you may not ever get a "pay-out" but you pay your monthly premiums anyway, knowing that you will be able to get help when you need it.

That said, this is bitter attitude is the major argument I see for PTO. I call it bitter because OF COURSE WE KNOW that you are doing some or all of the work that we would have done if we could have been there. Most parents feel guilty about the time they have to spend away. That sick kid time is a time full of an excessive intimacy with bodily secretions and fluids we would otherwise avoid. Put more bluntly, we are home getting thrown up on by crying toddlers and cleaning diarrhea off the sheets - not eating bon bons and sipping martinis. Frankly, I would rather be at work.
"True. But while you're at home nursing your sick child, I'm at work doing my job and a chunk of yours ..."

Yabbut, my kids are going to be working to support you when you're drawing Social Security. Your kids won't be working for you, because you didn't have any.
Zora makes an excellent point. It is to the benefit of our greater society to have parents who are good parents to their children. Those children tend to grow up to become productive, socially conversant members of society. While it might be inconvenient in the small scale to provide support for working parents, it is essential if we want to keep a larger proportion of our fellow citizens happy and productive.
This is coming from someone who raised a child as a single parent while I earned an M.A., living 15 hours away from any family. I also had my second child one month after my doctoral prelims and in the last year of my program, I had my third baby, finished my dissertation, and relocated halfway around the world to start a new job. Throughout all of this, I *still* managed to attend many national and international conferences, as well as co-chair the reading group in my field and organize a one-day symposium down to every last detail.

I did my job, I did it well, and I did more than the majority of my non-married, child-free graduate student colleagues. Am I the norm? Maybe not, but I'm well aware of what my load is, and I'll take care of business, one way or the other.

In response to the actual question DD posed, my spouse is also a professor, so we begin by asking for teaching schedules that don't have us teaching on the same day. As long as we're not both supposed to be in the classroom at the same time, we can usually juggle the sick kid shuffle by cancelling a class, conducting online office hours, making a change in a course reading schedule or, depending on the severity of the kid's illness...we draw the line at puking, diarrhea, or the flu) bringing them along for the ride. We have to be flexible, and we work as a team; it's the same philosophy that we bring to our respective positions as employees, and we hope those around us (at least the majority of them) would respect that approach.
My husband has the most flexibility (he's the CEO of a small company), so he can take the time if the dread disease of whatever type means keeping the kid(s) at home (last year, it was viruses that presented as rashes. Preschools really get twitchy about rashes, so every rash meant not only time at home, away from work, but trips to the pediatrician). I do a lot of one-on-one teaching, so rescheduling is a major hassle. You don't just throw a lecture up online for someone who is bringing in a week's work for evaluation and input. If I'm not teaching the entire day, we tag team, and he works late.

The downside is that when you tag-team, both parents get behind--I might get my teaching done, but pretty much nothing else; no prep, no grading, no advising--which means working evenings and weekends in order to stay caught up. Cuts into family time.
Re: Ivory’s initial comment: Why should faculty (or other exempt employees) not be required to meet the same standards of permissible leave-taking that hourly employees are? Granting the same amount of PTO on paper is a meaningless gesture if exempt employees are allowed to ignore policies that govern how much and when leave can be taken.

Should one’s freedom to care for one’s children while maintaining full-time employment really depend on luck, rather than fair and thoughtful policies? Tenure-track faculty, in particular, have lucked out twice in obtaining their jobs: first, by being born with the native intelligence to succeed in academe and the social opportunities to leverage that intelligence; and, second, by beating the odds and winning T-T positions. Hourly staff, many of whom have equivalent native intelligence, have either not been as lucky or have simply made different choices – but should they be held to stricter standards than their more-fortunate fellow employees?

Yes, faculty have worked hard to reach and finish graduate school; yes, they contribute to their fields of study and to their students’ intellectual and social lives… but the people who administer faculty members’ grants, enroll students, clean toilets and staff technology centers are no less human or hard-working. These latter people, however, are paid less, acknowledged less often and – under the system Ivory described – treated less well than their faculty coworkers… and this, I submit, is wrong.
That said, this is bitter attitude is the major argument I see for PTO. I call it bitter because OF COURSE WE KNOW that you are doing some or all of the work that we would have done if we could have been there.

Shrug. Maybe every parent knows, but the only parent among my co-workers who has expressed either thanks (for doing their work) or regret (that they couldn't do it themselves) was my supervisor. Small sample, etc etc, but it's the only one I have.
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Really is tough for a member of your family to be TKOed at a crucial moment. Whether it’s father, mother, brother, sister or cousin. Especially when they would have to function everyday together, and each has a role to fulfill. That's the nature of the family, I guess, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Instead, what we can do is protect and preserve it, by ensuring that everyone's medical coverage is accounted for, in sickness and in health.
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