I didn’t know what my ringtone sounded like until I went back to work after maternity leave.
“You know it’s always on silent,” I would say every time I missed a call from my husband.
“What’s the point of having a phone if you never answer your calls?”
“Who calls these days? Text me like a normal person!”
It was a circular conversation, lighthearted, and not intended to bring about change. He will always prefer to call, and I will always prefer to keep my ringer off.
But when I got my first early pickup text from my daycare provider two days into my return to the office, I knew that would have to change.
“Your daughter has a fever. I gave her some Tylenol, but she’ll need to be picked up.”
I came into daycare with an awareness of the inevitability of illness, a benefit of being younger than many of my colleagues.
“It’s basically sending them off to a petri dish,” one supervisor, a father of two at the time, explained. “Your only hope is that when everyone in the house gets sick, it staggers.”
I nodded along the way you do when you believe something to be true but don’t have any personal experience to affirm it.
In the years that followed, I watched as my colleagues with children fell ill at a rate that would be alarming in any other scenario.
But even with that knowledge, I quickly realized–as is often the case in parenthood–you don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re in the middle of it.
For the next five months, my phone dinged at least once a week with a message from my daycare provider to pick up my kid due to illness.
Our daycare rules are standard: a runny nose is not a big deal, but fever, vomit, or gastro gets you sent home with a requirement to be symptom-free for at least 24 hours before returning. During the first two weeks, I had two fevers calls and although both were suspected to be teething-related, the rule still applied.
On week three, our first gastro bug hit . . . and lingered. Five days in, I called our local public health office, wanting to know if I should be concerned. Through that call, I learned children can present with gastro symptoms for upwards of 10 days during a normal illness. Make sure she stays hydrated, the nurse advised. Keep an eye on her energy levels. Is she still eating well? Considering offering a bland diet for a few days. If things aren’t improving by day 10, call your doctor.
As a first-time mother, it put my mind at ease to have a health professional tell me what we were experiencing was within the realm of normal.
But, as relieved as I was, I also felt anxious.
What if the sickness did, in fact, stick around for 10 days? Without family nearby, one of us would need to stay home, and at the time, it made the most sense for that person to be me. But what would my colleagues think? I just came back from maternity leave, for crying out loud! How was that fair to those who would have to pick up my slack while I missed days, weeks of time taking care of my child?
I dreaded every time I hit send on the email announcing to my supervisor and co-workers that once again, my kid was sick, and, once again, I would need to stay home. The response–often along the lines of “No worries. Hope everyone feels better soon”–did little to allay my concerns in those early days.
Of course, my supervisor’s going to say that, I thought. It made sense to me. At the same time, I assumed it to be nothing more than a platitude–the kind of thing you say because you should not because you mean it.
However, I failed to consider one very important thing: my supervisor is also a parent.
His kids are older–high school and university age, years out from the toddler stage. I thought the distance would make it harder for him to understand my situation.
But when I finally made it back to the office after spending the better part of a month at home with my child, I was surprised to realize that wasn’t the case.
After I offered up a brief account of how our first gastro bug played out, he nodded. “Sounds about right,” he said. “The first year of daycare is the worst.”
I walked into the office anticipating the worst and was met, instead, with understanding and compassion I didn’t realize I needed.
All my tension melted. We moved on to the work at hand.
I wish I could say that was the end of the sick days, but it wasn’t.
It took almost five months before I started getting full weeks in the office with any amount of regularity. I still get called out from time to time, and while I haven’t totally shaken the feeling of burdening my team with my absences, I don’t feel quite as anxious about it anymore.
Parenting is hard. Even if you come into it knowing your world is about to change, it’s difficult to truly grasp it until you’re in the thick of it.
And when you’re in the thick of it, you need people who get that and who understand you’re doing the best you can, especially when it might not look that way on the outside.
I’ll forever be grateful for the supervisor who met me where I was and showed me, both with words and actions, that he understood I was doing the best I could.