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?