On a post it note I jotted down that I wouldn’t be able to come into work tomorrow because both of my children have been diagnosed with strep throat. With dread I make my way to my boss’s office. His door is shut and I knock, secretly hoping he’s not around. Would be so easy to just leave the note for him to find and be done. The door swings open and I crumple the sticky note in the palm of my hand. Damn. I quickly explain my situation: kids were sent home from daycare, husband took them to the pediatrician, positive diagnosis of strep throat for BOTH kids. I apologize and explain that I won’t be able to come into work tomorrow. He’s a man of few words and today he nods and simply says “okay”.
His expression reminds me of the emoji with the mouth drawn on in a severe straight line. You know the one. Maybe you’ve used it to express feigned indifference to a dismal situation or to express your annoyance. I have personally used that emoji several times, but more in a tongue in cheek sort of way. My boss’s expression does not seem to resemblance any sort of light heartedness. He’s being tolerant because what else can he do? HR is somewhere around here… right?
Although I’ve been at this job for almost 5 years, this specific expression became more prevalent within the past 3.5 years, which not coincidentally, is the same age as my oldest daughter. There it was, front and center, when the daycare (along with all the public schools) closed in preparation for the ice storm that never arrived, when my youngest had a string of ear infections, when pink eye hit our house, and when the dreaded hand foot and mouth disease made its rounds. I’m no stranger to seeing my boss’ mouth drawn into a severe straight line.
And I get it, I really do. It’s an inconvenience to my boss, to my co-workers, and to the customers we serve. When someone is gone their absence is felt. Tasks aren’t completed as quickly and the burden of extra work is distributed amongst the people who are left. You would think that fellow women, fellow mothers especially, would be more understanding. And maybe they are, but before they say “Oh no! Poor baby, I hope she feels better” the slight tightening of their jaw and purse of their lips does not go unnoticed. The sad thing is that I have certainly been guilty of the same.
Before I became a mother I worked with a lovely person that had two small children of her own. And guess what? They got sick. With RSV, pink eye, strep throat, etc. She did her best to enlist her husband to help but often times she had to miss work to take care for her sick kids. You could tell that she felt pulled in both directions. There was the guilt for having to miss work and the guilt for even feeling guilty because her family was after all, her top priority. I definitely recognize her struggle more clearly now that I myself am a mother to two small children that get sick from time to time. I also feel shame for the way I responded back then. I would like to hope that my annoyance for her absence wasn’t obvious, but I’m afraid it was. We no longer work together, but I recently reached out and apologized for my possibly unkind reactions to her work absences. She didn’t deny that I was unkind, but she was gracious and said “no worries, it’s not something anyone can truly understand until they experience it for themselves.” I think she then even offered to help me if I ever need her to watch one of my sick kiddos int the future. ( I mean, Sob.)
Unfortunately I don’t believe this situation will change for me or for other working parents anytime soon. Ideally, I’d have a more flexible job. A position that would enable to work around my family. I still hold out hope that this will indeed actually happen someday. However, until then, I will do my best. I do not apologize for putting my children first, yet on the other hand I do feel apologetic for leaving my co-workers with a heavier work load in my absence.
I vow to do my best in the future should I find myself on the other end of the spectrum. When my children are no longer tiny, when they no longer need my direct supervision at home, and I’m face to face with someone who leaves me with a heavier workload because they have to care for their young child with strep throat – I will do my damn best to not clench my jaw in annoyance. I will do my best to smile and wish their child a speedy recovery because a sick child, no matter how mild the illness, is somehow always unsettling. I will inform them that we/I will be alright in his, but most likely her, absence. Because truly I will be alright, just as my fellow co-workers are alright when I’m gone for a few days. Sometimes we all, including myself, need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and recognize that we are all just trying to do the very best we can.