“I just dropped my kids off at school after a looong winter break, and I just really look forward to the three to four days of childcare that I have before one of them brings home hand, foot and mouth, or the flu, or norovirus,” parenting coach Kirstin Gallant of Big Little Feelings shared via video to her nearly 3 million Instagram followers earlier this month. Her words sum up exactly how many parents of little kids are feeling.
“I had my youngest in late September and my husband had to leave the hospital a few hours after he was born in order to take my middle child for her fourth ER trip in four weeks due to trouble breathing with croup,” Gallant shares further to Yahoo. “Since then, we've all had norovirus — breastfeeding with a stomach virus was a fresh nightmare they didn't warn me about in the baby books — COVID, RSV and mild colds.”
This winter’s "tripledemic" — the collision of COVID, flu and RSV — has been brutal on the nation’s kids, and what’s hard on kids is inevitably hard on parents. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics echo that reality: this winter Americans took off work in record numbers due to childcare issues. For parents who work outside the home — particularly moms, who research finds often bear the brunt of childcare needs — this becomes an unsolvable puzzle. How are they to take care of their sick kids while also doing their jobs? And what happens financially when that juggle is not possible?
Vanessa Desani, an academic advisor in New Hampshire with a 1-year-old baby boy, says she and her family have been navigating sicknesses for months now. “COVID last July, RSV in October, flu in December, multiple ear infections, hand, foot and mouth disease and stomach bug,” she shares, listing off the sicknesses that have hit her household. “I am basically taking at least one day off per week to care for a sick child.”
Desani says so far she’s been able to take care of her son using paid time off, but those days are quickly running out. After that, she’ll need to take unpaid leave.
For parents without paid-time-off benefits, missing work comes with big financial ramifications. “My husband is a real estate broker so this also keeps him from his business,” shares Rasheeda Ajala, a mom of three and nurse practitioner, who stayed home from her job at an outpatient clinic to take care of her kids when they got the flu. “When you’re self-employed, time is money.”
Versions of this scenario are playing out in households across the country.
Anne Morgan, a working mom in Nashville, says, says her family has been through "a revolving door of sickness" since October. Morgan says she and her husband often negotiate balancing home tasks, work deadlines and sick kid needs down to the hour. “It was tough to talk to other moms and hear that this is just how it is.”
Victoria, a mom to a 3-year-old, has had to navigate a spate of illnesses in her household this winter, including her husband being hospitalized for pneumonia, and her child getting RSV twice. The life sciences and biotech professional says these illnesses have impacted her career.
“I had to leave certain work items undone and in my field, these situations are not without consequences. I have no doubt that even after over a decade with this company some of my relationships have suffered as a result of my need to prioritize caring for my family over punching in,” she says. “I have always taken pride in my work but can feel myself falling short.”
When the sicknesses become too serious to be managed at home, the stress levels understandably increase. The record numbers of pediatric hospitalizations this year only scratches the surface of that story. Carlyn, a doctor in Pennsylvania, says her 3-year-old spent a scary and stressful week in the ICU with RSV.
“We were with him in the hospital every day and night. There was no way I was leaving him in the ICU,” she shares, adding that his breathing had to be stabilized with a BiPAP machine. Still, she worked by his bedside. “I continued to work from the hospital. I also happened to be the fellow on call the week that my son was in the hospital. So I had my phone on me at all times to refill scripts, respond to patient messages and take night calls.”
“The onslaught of illnesses, especially after relatively less frequent illnesses over the past two years, feels like a tidal wave,” says Dr. Krupa Playforth, a board-certified pediatrician and creator of The Pediatrician Mom. “We are seeing not just more significant surges in the typical respiratory illnesses we see this time of year, such as RSV and influenza, but continuing to see other viruses that are less typical for this time of year, such as coxsackie [hand, foot and mouth].”
Playforth also makes clear that this nexus of sickness, childcare and work demands is not even remotely sustainable. “The current situation is untenable long-term. Navigating your child being sick, or being sent home from childcare, obviously requires having the type of career and job support where you can take unexpected time off to take care of your child. Unfortunately, that is not always possible — and I hear from many primary parents that they get pressure from their employers if they need to take care of sick children instead of working,” she says. “Many moms feel like they have to take a break from their careers or shift to fewer responsibilities, in order to provide what their children need.”
“I wish working parents had more support,” adds Desani, highlighting her family’s financial stressors. “I wish I could have a full-time nanny/babysitter who could stay home with him for now, but that is too expensive.”
“We've got to create structures that make it possible for moms to work and have kids — and the changes we need include the government, our workplaces and our broader culture,” says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the Marshall Plan for Moms, by way of solution.
“We've also got to make workplaces work for moms, which means benefits like flexibility, paid family leave and backup care.
“It's heartbreaking,” she adds. “So many moms haven't slept through the night in months, we're in and out of urgent care every week, expending so much emotional energy worrying about our kids, watching our careers pass us by and even worse, we're now worried about putting food on the table.”
“My kids are home more often than they are at school,” echoes Gallant. “I am privileged to be able to juggle, to be able to work from home, to be able to move chunks of workdays to after bedtime.
“I can't tell you how many stories we've heard of the default parent (usually mom) having to move to part-time, or leave their current position because of truly no other options,” she says of the messages she and co-founder Deena Margolin receive on their Big Little Feelings page. “Parents need support.”
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