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.