My family’s fortnight: Calpol and conference calls

How can you juggle work and childcare when your kids bring a different illness home from nursery every week?

Child's drawing with added images of laptop and Calpol bottle


** This blog is part of a series called The Chaos Train, a record of daily life when you have a career and pre-school children **

“Excuse me, do you know there’s a woman lying down on the floor outside?”

It’s 6.45pm on a Monday and I’m waiting in A&E with my 14-month-old son. My husband is at home with our three-year-old. The waiting area is crowded and endlessly upsetting, too bright and too hot, with crap vending machines and a TV showing Hollyoaks with the sound muted. In the ad breaks, there are promotional clips for TV shows that look even worse than Hollyoaks. For reasons that never become clear, there is also a fully conscious woman lying in the taxi rank outside. People keep coming up to the desk to tell the overburdened reception staff about this. 

We’ve been here for two hours and we haven’t even had our initial triage with a nurse yet. 

We rushed here, after a call to 111, when my son suddenly developed a fever, blue hands, and blotchy skin. These might just be signs of yet another nasty-but-manageable virus picked up at nursery. But they might not. The only way to find out is for him to be checked as soon as possible. The longer we wait, the hotter he gets. I take off his top and pace around the waiting room with him in my arms so he can sleep. 

We leave the hospital at 11.30pm, with my son thankfully given the all-clear for anything sinister. But he’s obviously not well enough to go to nursery anytime this week. So, what happens with work? 

“Hi mamas, how do you split childcare if your kid is off sick?”

Text message and Whatsapp message icons

As anyone with pre-school children knows, they’re basically always ill and your job doesn’t stop. But, due to the Covid pandemic, this snotty juggling act is new territory for my family. Our daughter started nursery just before the first lockdown in 2020, and was then back at home with us for much of the year. One upside: no nursery illnesses. In 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, I was on furlough and then on maternity leave with our son, so I was on hand to manage the bugs that came with our daughter’s return to nursery.

I turn to my NCT Whatsapp group, which I share with the women I did an ante-natal class with before my daughter was born: “Hi mamas, how do you split childcare with your partners if your kid is off sick from nursery and you’re both back at work?”

The replies start flying in. In the couples where both people work from home, they try to work half a day each during the day and then both work in the evenings to make up the time. If only one person in the couple works from home, that person tends to end up taking the hit. Others take it in turns depending on who has the busiest week at work. If the child’s illness is so bad that fitting in work isn’t possible, some get carers’ leave from their employers but most have to take annual leave. All the options sound pretty unenjoyable.

Shift workers

My husband and I both work from home, so we opt for the “half a day each” system. I’ll be doing the morning childcare shift. For the next few days, my days go like this: 

5.30am: Childcare – wake up with son, drop daughter at nursery, look after son, do chores

12pm: Job – switch places with my husband and log on

5pm: Childcare – kids’ dinner, bath, bedtime

8.30pm: Job – log back on and work for a couple of hours

Needless to say, the whole thing is exhausting. I try to do bits of work during my morning childcare shift. I send emails in the dark while my son naps next to me on our bed. I try to listen to the Woman’s Hour podcast for story ideas while feeding him lunch but it’s impossible over the toddler noise. I just end up rewinding and replaying the same 10 minutes a million times, and still never catch what they say. Something about women?

I soon notice that the afternoon childcare shift is the one you really want, because that’s when both our kids have their long nap and you get a solid two hours to yourself. I envy my husband and all men, for always seeming to get the better deal.

When I drop my daughter off at nursery one morning, there’s a notice on the door saying that they’ve had some chickenpox cases. Any child with symptoms needs to be off nursery for at least five days. I take a photo of it and send it to my husband with the message “Just FYI”, because I’m too tired to type out a string of swear words.

Sure enough, on Saturday, when my son is just about recovering, my daughter starts breaking out in red spots. And so we drag ourselves through another week of juggling. This morning, both kids went into nursery for the first time in a fortnight and we’re enjoying the short lull before my son inevitably gets chicken pox. I decide not to think about it too much or I will collapse in a sad tired heap.

“Excuse me, do you know that there’s a woman lying down on the floor?”

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