The Childcare Hustle



Frantically cleaning snotty eyes with baby wipes in the nursery car park. A dose of Calpol to reduce a slight temperature before you send them for the day. That little white lie that transforms a 36-hour vomit-free period, into 48.

It’s the childcare hustle and, chances are, if you are a working parent to preschool children, you’ve had to pull it at some point or another.

Since September my husband and I have had eleven work days off between us. Him five, me six. They break down like this –

Conjunctivitis: 2 separate outbreaks, both children, one day off each parent.

Paediatric consultant appointments: one for each child, (autism review and silent reflux) one day off each parent.

Croup: Severe enough for hospitalisation, baby girl, two days off for me, one for husband.

High temperature, unexplained: baby, one day off, husband.

Severe sore throat: Me, one day off.

Chicken pox: one outbreak (so far) toddler, one day off for me, two for husband. ONGOING.

Needless to say, this is a lot of time for two professionals to take off. It generates a huge amount of extra work, for colleagues as well as personally, and it prompts incredible anxiety; we are responsible for pupils’ GCSE and A-Levels and leaving them with a cover teacher is not a decision we can take lightly.

The mobile rings, mid-morning:

“Oh er hello is that Tom’s mummy? It’s Emma here from Little Angels. I’m afraid we’ve had to wipe poor Tommy’s eyes on four separate occasions.”

“Oh really. That’s strange. What do you think is wrong?”

“Well we would assume conjunctivitis, and, as you know, we have a third wipe policy. Can someone come and collect him? He is welcome back once he has been on prescribed medication for 24 hours.”

“Er, yes. My husband is closer so he’ll be along shortly. Thanks for letting us know.”

This is a phone call we have had countless times since having children. It is a catch-22 situation. They have to go to nursery. They pick up bugs. They have time off. We send them back. They catch more bugs. All our relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles – live hundreds of miles away. There is no one else to look after the children.

And then there is the line. I know I have danced close to it. The fear that I might have crossed it is yet another guilt-provoking item on the long list of things that keep me awake at night. I hope – I believe – that I have never knowingly sent my child to nursery when they have been too ill, truly, to cope without a loving parent. But I have sent them when they are less than well. I admit it.

The position of the line is subjective. There are plenty who would say that it is my responsibility as a parent, even specifically as a mother, to care for my children when they are unwell – or even when they are just ‘under-the-weather.’ There are those who would say that I am negligent, reckless even, to send my children away from the home when they are anything less than a hundred percent, no matter how important that day’s work might be, however desperate the need to catch up on marking, sleep, rest.

It is my responsibility. It is also my responsibility to earn money. Put food on the table. Share a love of language and literature with teenaged minds. Help students pass their exams. Provide a role-model for my students and my son and my daughter. And when these responsibilities come into conflict with one another, it is very difficult to separate them all out and to know what to do for the best.

Even fifty years ago, women were much more likely to stay at home and care for children. Society is shifting and, as a result, it is now far more likely that both parents will be employed. That has to be a good thing. I want my daughter to grow up in a world where it is not just accepted, but expected that she can dedicate herself to whatever roles she chooses in life – whether that ends up being a mother or a deep-sea diver, or both. But it causes problems – problems that threaten to undermine the burgeoning liberty and equality of women, unless solutions can be found.

I am extremely lucky to have a relationship where all our commitments – housework, finance, work, children etc. – are shared equally. We have come a long way in a few short decades, but this is not true in many households. There are families where it is still expected that the woman will do the lion’s share of the housework, cooking, childcare. There are still households where, if a child is ill, it is the female parent who is expected to stay at home and care for them.

Six days off in the space of six months is a huge amount of time. How exactly would I cope with eleven? How would my school cope? The answer is that we wouldn’t. Ultimately, that is why some places are reluctant to employ young women. It is why some mothers find the stress of returning to the work almost impossible to deal with. It is why it will continue to be a problem for women to advance past certain positions.

On a personal level, even with time off shared, it means the line will continue to keep me awake at night. It means there will be times when, with a heavy heart, I will send my children to nursery with snotty noses and warm foreheads. It means that if I have a concern about whether my child should stay home, sometimes I will have to bury that doubt, get them up and out, and wipe a snotty eye in a nursery car park.

They say that you shouldn’t complain about something unless you can offer a solution and, I admit, I am stumped as to how working mothers, working parents, can improve this situation. If you have any suggestions, please, share them with me.

For now I will just chant the mantra that can often be heard when the toddler is screaming and the baby won’t nap. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

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  1. 1

    In all honesty I don’t think it does a child much good to keep them off at the sign of a sniffle and as far as I’m concerned, as long as they are well in themselves and are not throwing up – it’s better that they go develop an immune system. My mother used to send us to school even if we were ‘dying’. She thought a dose of Famel cured all ills. Once she sent me with German Measles. Granted, she didn’t know I had it but school clocked the rash and phoned her up ha ha. Plus there were numerous bouts of tonsillitis which she couldn’t get away with… The difference is that my mum didn’t work. It was just that us kids being off messed with her routine (and her head). She was a great mum but she was no Florence Nightingale lol. I worked when my other two were little but my hours were outside of school so it didn’t matter as there was always someone there with them. It must be very difficult for working parents such as yourself.

    • 2
      Someone's Mum

      Yes, I agree. But I still feel that awful guilt – especially when I am not sure just how ill they are or I fear they have something on the nursery ‘banned list’! But sometimes needs must. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. 3

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Although I’m a stay-at-home mom of two I did find it difficult to return to work after my first-born.

    Being away from him made me realize that as tough as I considered myself to be, I just couldn’t do it.

    When we moved to the South, we knew I’d have to be home with our children. My son entered preschool last year, and he enjoys the time away from me. It was hard at first, but we both have adjusted to the change. Now with baby number two only three months old and no family to help like we had back up North, I continue to be a SAHM.

    Thankfully my husband can afford to have me home with the children, but it does mean long hours. It’s all about what your family needs are. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I want to go back to the office just for my own sanity.

  3. 4
    The Brain in the Jar

    What most worries me here is how the children are raised.

    In truth, your daughter doesn’t see you working. She simply doesn’t see you. In order to actually see you working, she needs to see you at work and participate.

    You can’t raise a family when kids are at school all day and parents work all day. When families don’t have time to be together, how much of a family is it?

    I understand standardized are great for stupid people. They allow moronic officials to grade people without too much thought, but all I see is the family structure crumbling – and I’m not even a fan of it.

    • 5
      Someone's Mum

      You have made a lot of assumptions there that aren’t in fact true. You have no idea of my working hours or how much time I spend with my daughter. And I have to say I disagree. The family isn’t crumbling, it’s changing. With that comes good and bad. But every way of doing something has pros and cons. Thanks for your comment.

  4. 6

    I know where you’re coming from. Thankfully N didn’t have many illnesses when he was at nursery – conjunctivitis once, slapped cheek which he was allowed in for because it was too late once the rash was out, chicken pox (a week off with 5 spots and no other symptoms, which luckily I could work from home) and hand foot and mouth (thankfully mild, a couple of days off working from home). My OH farms at home/self employed, but it’s always me that has to take the time off.

    I would always send him in unless he’s got a fever and is really out of sorts. Luckily that rarely happened – yes we got the call from nursery a lot, and calpol never helped, but once he had nurofen it was fine and he was just a bit hot and didn’t have an actual fever. I’m not a great nurse, and it’s annoying when they’re perfectly happy and active like usual once they’re home.

    Yes, people with children who pick up everything and get things badly, or have immunity issues would moan about others sending their kids in, but we can’t keep children at home for silly things. We never did as kids (in 5 years at secondary school I had 5 days off due to a terrible cold/almost flu but really fought my mum about going into school), and N’s had no days off from school yet (touch wood he’ll keep up his 100% record for this year).

    Hopefully they’ll have just had a bad term, and they’ll have built up that immunity to not have any further ailments.

  5. 8

    I am extremely lucky that work allows me to “work from home” when they can’t go to nursery.
    I get little done between Drs apts and caring for a grumpy ill child, – just manage to send urgent reports and reply to emails, and I can catch up on the rest doing a little extra time once they are better.
    I am lucky that (1) in my line of work this is possible and (2) I have a sympathetic manager (and mother of 4) who lets me no this without using up my holiday. I wish more work places would be like this.
    But I many jobs (such as teaching) cannot be done at home and cannot be done out of the specified timetable. I really don’t know what the solution is there. However flexible the workplace is and able to provide cover, the mother (or father) of a frequently sickly child will always seem somehow unreliable. I don’t know what the answer is there either, or if there even is one.

    Mine have gone in poorly too. Never extremely unwell, or knowily contagious, but ill enough for calpol to be needed (and nursery will administer), and to be a little out of sorts.

  6. 9

    Being a working parent myself, I appreciate that this side of parenting is very difficult and I agree that sending a child in with a sniffle and so on isn’t a big deal. But sending them with known contagious illness is not ok.

    I think you’re failing to grasp (or acknowledge) that the reason you’re having to take time off with a sick child is possibly due to another parent with the same attitude as yours. Hide it and send them anyway. It will be having a knock on effect and is likely why these things linger for so long in nursery type settings in the first place.

    • 10
      Someone's Mum

      I fully grasp and acknowledge that if I send mine with something contagious then it has a knock-on effect. And I do my best to avoid doing such a thing. Though, when faced with the pressure of an absence actually threatening your job, it is very difficult to be as vigilent as we might otherwise be. But unfortunately I don’t think that is the solution. The bugs that are passed on are usually conatagious long before there are any outward signs. It wouldn’t stop bugs spreading. Unfortunately, with immature immune systems, and teachers bringing bugs home from schools too, it is a fact of life that mine will get lots of illnesses, even if everybody keeps children off at the first sign of any illness. Thanks for commenting.

  7. 11

    Oh man, it’s such a tough one! Although I am now a SAHM (made redundant), I did live this dream after having our first. We used a childminder so throw into the mix her kids health and annual leave!
    Wish I could give you the answer? No, afraid I can’t…I’m just swimming too xxx
    Thanks for sharing this brilliant post with #coolmumclub – loads of parents will relate totally.

  8. 13
    hopes, dreams and chocolate

    Another great thought-provoking post. I love your blog. I can totally relate to this post. We had two in nursery at one point and no family nearby to help. Unfortunately I do most of the ‘sick days’ but I can ‘buy’ extra leave at work which I hold back to use. In my opinion nothing will change until the ‘workplace’ changes its attitudes towards the responsibilities of raising families. I wish that all workplaces supported parents better with understanding and accepting that poorly kids are a reality. Families are increasingly spread far apart from each other so workplaces can’t and shouldn’t just assume we can ring ‘Gran’ to sort out. I know some will say ‘well its your choice to have children’ but come on, families are the norm and a fact of human life. On a positive note, we did find the first 6 months in a new nursery and new school were the worst. After then the immunity built up and less poorliness!! Keep swimming!! It does get better..Kathy x

  9. 15
    Standard Deviation

    I’m a single mum, and when my child first started nursery when I returned to work after maternity leave, for the first six months I was off work for a third of the time to cover either his illness or mine (mostly bugs he kindly passed on to me). Work were incredibly understanding, but I had to take lots of unpaid leave and the financial conundrum was that of course I still paid the nursery fees whilst not earning anything myself.
    I ended up going part time, which means I need state support in the form of tax credits to keep us afloat, but those ‘spare’ days in the week combined with flexibility to swap working days if it’s really needed, narrow the chances of having to miss a working day and my absence record looks significantly better as a result.
    I completely identify with how responsibilities bump up against each other and how difficult it is to make the decision of which must take priority and when.
    Extra flexibility from employers helps a great deal… so I agree with Hopes, Dreams and Chocolate above that employers attitudes need to evolve to reflect the more fragmented and less supportive social environment we’ve created for ourselves.

  10. 16
    Laura's Lovely Blog

    It’s actually one of the contributing reasons why I decided to give up my job in the end. My son went through a period of being ill almost every 2 weeks and I had to have so much time off. It was awful. There were definitely took him to his childminder when he was less than well, or as you say under the weather. I am happy with my decision and am happy to do a few pieces of freelance work but I am also glad that time has changed and women have the choice rather than it is assumed she will give up work.

  11. 17

    It’s hard isn’t it? We’ve done and still do the juggle. My husband can work at home at least if needed but it’s still not easy and he has to manage his department remotely with a sick child in tow. I’ve just had two weeks off work with my daughter and I both sick, we needed it (we were both very poorly with flu) but I’m still catching up. Coughs, colds, sniffles, we’d be home all the time in the winter if i kept them home. You do have to if they’ve got vomit bugs or infectious stuff like chicken pox. We also don’t have family near. I hope you have a less germ filled run now! It’s not easy! #effitfriday

  12. 18
    Laura @ Life with Baby Kicks

    We were alway sent in with a “go see the nurse if you feel bad” and majority of times we were fine. A sniffle is often just that, a sniffle. And a child with a sniffle at nursery is far more occupied and less likely to mope, than a mollycoddled child at home 🙂

    Taking time off as a teacher is not something you do lightly either xx

  13. 19

    I want to challenge the view that working parents can’t raise a family. I actually find that quite offensive to my parents, both hard working, self sacrificing for their children who set me a great example which I hope to pass on. I remember as a child mum saying to me ‘I’ve worked hard this month, thank you for being so good. Money is ok now, so how about we go and buy those trainers you wanted whilst we’re OK.’ As an eight year old, that made a massive difference to me. I understood early on that rewards are earnt for kindness and hard work, to think of others with your fortune, and I never felt abandoned or unsure. My parents worked but I knew they were there for me. We talked about our days;from hearing what they had been up to I knew they were working hard and I didn’t have to see that.

    As for my now family by your judgements above I am the worst mother in the world, we’re the worst parents, as I moved 200 miles from family and friends for work. I had to choice, there was a hefty financial penalty if I didn’t but I continue to stay in the job, my husband commuting at the weekends. Am I not raising my daughter properly? She’s developing well, loves nursery and can cheer up a glum face in the morning when we get to the door, and my husband and I are happy and fulfilled with our careers. The financial reward means we can, and the distance during the week means we do, spend quality family time at the weekend with each other. I don’t see it as detrimental- she’s learning by our example that hard work, dedication and compromise can lead to a happy stable family life. If I could I dont think I would even to stay at home all day with my daughter.

    • 20
      Someone's Mum

      I totally agree. Extremely well put. And mine absolutely love nursery and get so much from it. Was this in reply to one of the other comments? I knew I would encounter some outdated views when I decided to post. Thanks so much for commenting.

  14. 21
    Jess Powell (Babi a Fi)

    It’s really awkward with nurseries / schools – you don’t send them and you’re paranoid, you do and you’re irresponsible, worse so if you can’t get there quickly to pick them up… Workplaces, on the whole, are a lot better than they used to be but there is still a long way to go. x #effitfriday

  15. 22

    Thank you for your honesty. It’s so rare to see, but makes me feel a little better that there are others who feel ‘the horror’ when they get the phone call. Next time it happens, I will remember to ‘just keep swimming’ x

  16. 23

    It’s just so hard isn’t it, trying to juggle childcare when you have no family nearby and you have a sick child. You feel guilty as a parent that you might be sending them in when they might want to be at home and if you are at home with sick child you then feel guilty for your classes left in the care of a supply. Argh it really is a no win situation. You sound like you are doing a great job and hopefully everyone will be better soon. Hang on in there! #justanotherlinky

  17. 25

    I don’t have children myself unfortunately, but I do work in a school. I think as long as parents don’t send their kids in when they are likely to feel terrible and infect everyone else. And as long as the parents (like you) will come to collect them when called. You would be surprised how many parents take ages to arrive for their sick child.
    Amanda #kcacols

  18. 26

    I completely understand where you are coming from. I was actually escorted off my school premises a few weeks ago as I had taken my youngest daughter in so I could teach my year 11s before I took her to the doctors. There is such a huge sense of responsibility as a teacher to be in there for your students but when your own children are ill and the child minder won’t take them it’s tough!

  19. 27

    I totally understand this as well. It’s super difficult to work, take care of kids and take care of yourself. It sounds like you’re doing very well and I think (and hope) it will get easier. #KCACOLS

  20. 28

    What a great honest post. I dread those calls too, mine are now from school but had my fair few when my two girls were in nursery. My heart sinks having those conversations – from both guilt that I’m at work & they are ill & my mothering instinct kicks in, along with ‘shit’ I’ve got tonnes of work to do & having time off isn’t going to help! I also have those awkward conversations with the hubby about whose day is easier to give up to collect sick child.

    The way I deal with it is that yes it’s my choice to work, so it’s my choice to deal with the guilt, from not being their for my children at every waking moment to my employer, so I can give my best their too. But as a family we work hard to making our family time the best we can, be it all sitting down & having dinner together where we share our day, to spending separate one on one time with the girls.

    I personally think there is no right or wrong way – stay at home or work, you just have to find what works for you, which is sooooo important, and your family.

    Hope your poorly child is better soon & your normal routine returns to the normal juggling that as working mums we know so well 😊

  21. 29

    This is the hardest element of childcare for me. My son’s nursery calls me to ask if they can give him calpol and then there’s an anvious hour that follows, not me worrying he is ill but that his temperature won’t go down and I’ll have to go and get him.

  22. 31

    This is a great post, I don’t know how people do it. I only work two days but with 2 children I feel like I am constantly taking days off to care for a sick child and what makes it worse is by the time they are better I usually am poorly. It is such a juggling act xx

  23. 32
    Something Crunchy Mummy

    I honestly don’t know how you do it and praise you for doing it. You are equally providing for your family and also bringing up children. When I went back to work after my first I used to have the same sleepless nights when my little one was poorly, of will he be better in the morning? I had a boss that didn’t take kindly to time off, he didn’t have children himself. Thanks for linking up to #justanotherlinky xx

  24. 33
    A Moment with Franca

    I really get this post Danielle. It is amazing the amount of times that we also get those calls. My husband works. I don’t but I’m using my time wisely so I can earn some money from my blog so I could say that yes I’m also working and every time that we have to go an get the girls from school or nursery is just a problem for us. Since Sienna started nursery she has been ill on an off. I really think that we are wasting our money as she is more at home than at nursery lately. But I do know this is like that at the beginning until they start building their immune system. The thing is that you have to also add all the sleepless nights and the constant clinginess that is very tiring so yes it is an issue for working parents and I would say also for any parent. Just having your kids ill regardless is the most difficult part of parenting. Thanks so much for sharing this at #KCACOLS. I would love to see you again on Sunday! 🙂 x

  25. 34
    Single Mum Speaks

    Ah yes, the snotty eyes. WHY THE SNOTTY EYES? Every time he gets ill Piglet gets the snotty eyes, and I am forever sneakily trying to clean them before anyone notices. I too have had a shocking amount of time off for these reasons. I’m a single parent but my mum, who is a saint, has also taken time off to help look after Piglet on a number of occasions, so we can share the days off a bit more equally.

  26. 36

    Ahh this is a very problematic issue. I really feel for working parents, it must be incredibly hard to juggle, and also to make judgements on The Line, weighed up with unavoidable work commitments. I will confess to being occasionally frustrated at parents knowingly sending properly sick kids to childcare settings, because with a compromised immune system it has a massive effect on our family when my little ones bring bugs home. But risk of sickness is part of preschool, isn’t it? These things are usually contagious before they’re symptomatic, and the dodgy hygiene of small children means a degree of illness is rather inevitable. I can’t keep my kids in a clean room and deny them social interaction for my own comfort and well-being. Very tricky for everyone involved – thank goodness we’re coming to the end of winter bug season!

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