When a Kid’s Home Sick, Why Does It Always Fall to Mom to Handle It?

There’s so much invisible labor involved

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As I am typing this, we are five weeks into the new year and this is the first week that I have had both my children in school for a full week. Yes, there was a federal holiday and a professional development day to contend with, but still. Sickness this year has been brutal. We’ve had a particularly hard flu season, which combined with COVID-19 (still a thing!) and RSV means we’re facing yet another tripledemic. And on top of all that, the stomach bug has been making the rounds (I should know—my family fell one-by-one like a stack of dominos over the winter break, all while sleeping together in one room at a hotel, no less). 

Having sick kids at home is rough. And not just because of how sad and sometimes scary it can be when your child isn’t feeling well (my 4-year-old had never thrown up before this past break and it was heartbreaking seeing how terrified he was). Of course, it hurts when your kid is hurting and they need your attention and their rest. And yet…wow, sick days sure do suck for moms.

Because although I have help when my kids are home from school—from my spouse and from screen time—it ultimately doesn’t matter how many tricks we employ or how “hands-on” our partner is. The truth is that no one can cover a mother’s shift.

And I’m not just talking about the physical stuff. Yes, there’s the changing of the bedsheets, the taking of temperature, the going out to buy Pedialyte and Children’s Tylenol, making their favorite soup, checking that they’re getting enough fluids, putting on their TV show and making sure they haven’t fallen into a dark place via YouTube videos. Mommy can you watch with me? Mommy can you lie with me? Mommy can you read to me? This is draining in and of itself.

But what about the mental stuff? The worrying about your kid, the rearranging of various school activities and playdates, the debating whether or not you should call the doctor, the actual calling of the doctor, making sure there are enough tissues and juice boxes at home, the gymnastics involved in keeping other family members away from the germs, the communication with teachers over missed schoolwork, the stress of not knowing when they’ll feel better and you can go back to normal life again, the loneliness and boredom of staying home all day, and so on and so on.

“I feel like my whole life stops when my kids are sick,” Lauren, a mom-of-three living in California tells us. “It’s so hard because I lose all of the things that make my day run smoothly or the things that are my coping mechanisms. I love being able to stay home and take care of them, but then you can’t go anywhere! I can’t take them to yoga which means I can’t exercise. I can’t take them to the park or a play date which means everyone is cramped inside the house with cabin fever. And the hardest part is that life continues for the other kids that I have to manage. So there I am dragging along my sick kid to pick up and drop off the other two at school or their practices and it’s just a lot.”

Dr. Robyn Miller is an expert on how to navigate and share the mental load, and says that like all invisible labor involved in raising children (doing laundry, signing up for summer camp, etc.), we’ve been conditioned as a society to let the work of sick days fall to women. “Because [a sick day] often relies on community and society involvement (the school needs to contact someone when the child is sick, and they tend to contact moms first), it is even harder to break these habits,” she explains. It’s true—a recent study found that mothers were 1.4 times more likely to get a call from school than fathers.

Patricia, a mom-of-two in Maryland tells us that when her kids are sick, she takes on all the organizing and planning. “I think if [my husband] was left to his own devices, he would probably figure it out with a few hiccups—missed correspondence, cancellations of things, etc.—but because I naturally handle all that stuff when they’re not sick, it’s just typically easier for me to do it.”

And that’s the crux of the issue—moms primarily handle home-life project management, so it makes sense that the job extends to sick days too. (Think: When a child has to miss school and mom knows which friend to call to get their homework assignment, or when a kid has an upset stomach and mom knows just the right amount of butter to add to the noodles so she’ll actually eat something.)

But just because society expects this of mothers, it doesn’t mean that things can’t change, says Miller. “Be very deliberate in terms of who is carrying the mental load for each task and when the mental load is shared,” she advises. “Try to both attend important medical appointments if you want to share the mental load so you are both hearing the information first-hand. Then divide the responsibility fairly for medications/vaccinations/appointments.”

Additionally, she recommends being specific and deliberate when interacting with others. For example, you might tell your kid’s daycare that on Monday through Wednesday, dad is the one to call, while you’ll take Thursday and Friday. “Only by keeping our boundaries will we instigate change at a broader societal level.”

Because of course a kid should be taken care of when they’re not feeling well. But invisible labor is work too—and it’s time that we recognize that.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...