‘Tis the season. The season for lost mittens and hats, frigid walks to the bus stop, and – oh, yes – mornings where you look at your partner and ask, “Who can stay home with her today?”
According to the CDC, adults will have two to three colds per year, and children will have even more. If those colds are bad enough to cause you to keep yourself or your child home one day each time, we’re talking about up to eight sick days for a typical family of four – and we haven’t even talked about stomach bugs and the dreaded flu.
Of course there are suggestions for avoiding colds and flu and also some good suggestions on when you keep your children home so they can adequately recover and you don’t share it generously with all of the other families in town (please, please don’t push the limits here). But even with all of these preventions, sick days are almost unavoidable.
Between handing out tissues, cleaning the toilet, and catching up on the emails you missed while you were gone, you might find yourself asking, “How the #$%@ do parents do this??”
I don’t have all the answers. In fact, after seven years, I still ask the air (or my husband) that same question about a hundred times a year. But I have found a few strategies that help us cope.
Part 1: Prepare for it
Don’t live in denial. You know that cold and flu season is coming. As with most things in life, an ounce of preparation can go a long way when it comes to sick days.
Be prepared when it comes to taking sick days at work
Know your leave policies and review them before the season starts.
How many days do you get? To whom do you need to report to let them know you’re taking a day? Does your workplace have a “pool” for those dealing with extended illnesses who need to borrow sick days from others? (Yes, this actually exists in some places). Can you take a half-sick day and just report a few hours?
Consider talking to your boss or colleagues as cold and flu season begins to make sure you are on the same page. How will you fill in for each other?
If you have a parenting partner, discuss how you’ll handle sick days
If you are both working parents, how do your sick time policies compare? Who has more flexibility? If equal, how will you make the decision each time? If you’re a stay-at-home parent, what will happen when you get sick?
As soon as it looks like a child is getting sick, prepare your contingency plan. If you don’t end up needing it, you’ll be ready for next time. My husband and I have a routine of checking in on each other’s schedules for the upcoming week and putting major commitments on shared calendars so we have an idea of what each of us is up to. If an illness comes up, a quick glance at the calendar can determine who will be staying home.
Prepare your house
Are you stocked up on tissues? Do you have tea and local honey in the house? Do you have a bucket to place by your kid’s bed and an extra bed pad that can be thrown on at night? Do you have an emergency stash of chicken soup? A humidifier? Children’s Tylenol?
Add anything that comforts your family during an illness to the list. If you don’t have these items in the house, go shopping today. There’s nothing worse than running to the pharmacy just before their 10 p.m. closing time in single-digit weather or snowfall because your child isn’t sleeping well.
When you use these things, put them on the list to be replaced before the next round.
Part 2: Embrace it
You are home sick and bed-ridden, or your child was vomiting all night. If it’s bad enough to stay home, then for goodness sake, stop pretending you can do everything. Let me repeat – you are taking a sick day. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And right now, you are home sick or with a sick kid.
You are not taking a “work on that project for my boss between naps” day or a “get all my work done even though my child has diarrhea” day or even a “now I can do the laundry and clean the kitchen” day. You need rest and recover, or help your child rest and recover. Engage your away status, call in the reinforcements as needed (because you’d do it for them), and hit the pause button.
Part 3: Get a little strategic
One strategy for embracing a sick day with your children is to involve them in the plan. Go over a list of the things you want to “accomplish” that day (i.e. we need to sleep, read, watch a movie, go for a short walk, take a shower, and take our medicine). Then discuss the order in which they want to do things.
This helps avoid the “I want to watch TV all day” syndrome that convinces kids that every day should be a sick day – unless that’s truly all they can manage.
You can also create a “menu” for the day (like the B.R.A.T. diet for diarrhea or the Chicken Soup-and-lots-of-fluids diet for a cold) so that they know that they have a choice of foods that will help them get better even though they might be restricted from some things.
Your child might be so sick that a plan is not necessary and they will spend all day in bed, but I find that phenomenon rare. A list they can check off will remind you all what today is all about and increase your chances that it won’t repeat for too long.
Part 4: Remember, you can do it!
Here’s the thing, parents – you’re pretty awesome at juggling a million things at once. You work (at home or in an office), take care of your kids, balance your budget, clean your car, put food on the table, and somehow manage to clean yourself, too.
Your challenge with a sick day is to stop doing almost all of those things and just focus on getting you and your family back on track. That will be easier if you prepare for the inevitable sick days and even easier still if you embrace them when they come.
So, you got this.
Take those sick days in stride knowing you can handle anything that comes your way. Who knows, maybe you even need those sick days to give yourself an excuse to slow down.
One Who Has Been There
(and is in fact there again today, but I promise, I’m just editing during nap time!)