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Kids’ illness creates conflicts for parents

Amy Roudabush stays home with her 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, who had to miss school at Smith Station Elementary due to a sinus infection on Wednesday. / Photo by Peter Cihelka


Flu and cold season are in full force, and area parents are building fortresses of vitamin C and hand sanitizer around their families.

They know that when one family member succumbs to illness, the rest are almost sure to fall, too. And in addition to battling coughs and upset stomachs, many also face the stress of juggling work with child care.

Some working parents have flexible employers with generous sick time policies, while others fear losing money or even their jobs if they need to take too much time off.

Many area parents said that they simply called in sick to work when their children get ill. But other parents are fighting to hold onto their jobs in a shaky economy.

Robin McBrayer, a financial analyst at Dahlgren, had to use quite a bit of sick time when her 12-year-old daughter got the flu just before Christmas.

When the winter break ended, McBrayer’s daughter was sick again—this time with a viral infection—and had to miss a few days of classes at Dixon–Smith Middle School in Stafford County.

McBrayer said she was lucky to have supportive employers who didn’t make her feel guilty about missing work.

Amy Roudabush, a special education teacher at Smith Station Elementary School in Spotsylvania, said that understanding bosses make a huge difference during a child’s illness.

“The teachers and administration, they’re all parents themselves, so they do understand what it’s like to have a sick kid,” Roudabush said.

Her daughter, Olivia, is out today with a sinus infection. Olivia has missed three days, and her mother and father have alternated using sick time to take care of her.

But not everyone can use sick days to stay home with their children. A recent study by the Carsey Institute, a University of New Hampshire research center focusing on children and youth, found that more than half of working parents don’t have enough sick leave—or can’t use that leave for family members.

The report found that parents who could take sick leave to care for children had greater job satisfaction.

Christina Meredith said that her employer’s flexibility made her feel much better about her job. The Spotsylvania County mom was able to work from home and over the weekend when her 4-month-old daughter recently had RSV, a respiratory virus.

“I’m so sad to see that there are so many companies that want you to put your job before your children, and yet my company is so incredibly willing to prove that your family comes first,” Meredith said.

Leave is just half the battle. Often, a working parent has the sick time but also has an important commitment.

For Roudabush, taking care of Olivia meant missing an important meeting, calling in a substitute and swinging by school in the evening to make copies and leave lesson plans for the next day’s substitute.

Stafford County mom Elaine Hild suggested that working parents looking for alternatives get friendly with stay-at-home moms and retirees.

“If you respect them and their time, they are often willing to help in a jam,” Hild said.

Some parents faced with the dilemma try a desperation move—a dose of Tylenol to reduce a child’s fever and pain enough to send them to school for a few hours.

The drug’s fever-reducing super powers usually run out by midday, prompting a lunchtime rush at the school nurse’s office. Parents said they feel guilty for the sneaky maneuver. But sometimes, Tylenol feels like the only tool in the arsenal while juggling work and parenting during the sick season.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

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