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“Mommy, I don’t feel good” causes heart-thumping concern in every mother. In the working mother these five words can herald a crisis–the most common crisis such mothers experience.

Believe me I know about the problems of sick children and working mothers from both sides. I had to figure out what to do when my own children were sick and advise other parents about their sick children–sometimes on the very same day!

I know from personal experience how hard it is to leave for work when your child is sick. I also know that there are millions of mothers (as well as single fathers) who must go to work or their children will not eat or have a roof over their heads. There are also many mothers who have a responsibility to others as I did.

In ParenTip SICK KID I told you that home is the best place to be if you are sick whether you are a child or an adult. Because I appreciate how hard it is for some mothers to stay home, I always try to let a mother make her own decision whenever possible. But sometimes I feel it’s best to “prescribe” mother-at-home care. So I suggest mothers have a contingency plan in place.

I had full time in-home help but if the housekeeper got sick (sometimes after caring for my sick child!), I called in a woman who had previously worked in my home but no longer wanted to work every day. She knew the children and the routine of the house and, most important, was almost always available.

I truly understand that not everybody has the option of having their child cared for in their own home and I deeply regret that the US is the only industrialized nation that does not provide services for working parents even though the majority of parents are in the work force.

Sometimes a relative or neighbor who would not baby sit on an everyday basis can be persuaded to care for your sick child in your home. Agencies in many communities send specially trained child care workers to the sick child’s home for a fee. But because sitters are not always available, this brings me to the biggest decision facing a working mother: to stay home from work or not.

Mothers: don’t over-react to your child’s illness because you work outside the home (Oh, God! Betsy must have got sick because I work! I have to stay home with her!) or under-react because you suspect your child may be manipulating you to stay home (He’s just trying to get my attention and make me stay home! I’ll show him it won’t work!)

The best way to prevent over- or under-reacting is to 1)accept yourself and your work status, 2) be aware of your child’s patterns of illness so you can best evaluate your child’s symptoms, 3) don’t let your child think that being sick is the only way to get time with Mother; make room in your lives for that special, close mothering when the child is well.

What’s the bottom line? Your mother’s instincts. If you feel you should stay home, stay home.

OK, all your contingency plans failed. The doctor says your child is better off at home. And you feel your child is sick enough or miserable enough to need you st home.

My advice? Enjoy! Make the most out of a day at home. Enjoy comforting and caring for your child without the pressure of rushing off to work. Enjoy the creativity of figuring out how to amuse a cranky child or what in the world your child will eat or drink. Enjoy the break in your routine–and encourage your child to enjoy the break in routine. You both can enjoy the slower pace and the intimacy of being together in a special and unusual way.

My own mother worked but stayed home with me when I was sick. I remember her making me paper dolls out of cardboard and paper which I colored. I remember sorting through boxes of post cards which my mother saved in a shoe box for sick days. I loved school, but there was something rather nice about drawing into myself when I was home sick. I did not have to perform. I could read what I wanted to read and daydream.

Plan ahead by setting up a “sick box” with new books or small toys reserved for those inevitable sick days. Keep one or two games, models, or challenging puzzles hidden away for a sick but bored child. Rent a videotape to amuse a cranky child or give special privileges like unlimited TV for a day.

Don’t worry about making the sick day so much fun that your child will exaggerate future symptoms to get a repeat performance. In my experience, kids would much rather be out playing than home sick.

You may actually be able to help your child’s healing by special kinds of attention. Cuddling and rocking relaxes a cranky child. Laughing helps too, so play funny games or say funny things. Children are frightened about feeling sick because they don’t feel like themselves. Even pre-verbal children should be told, “I know you feel terrible now but you’ll get better soon”. The older child should be encouraged to think about getting back to school or being well enough to play soccer when he or she feels better.

Help your child learn the best way to deal with illness: if you get sick don’t fight it, let the body’s natural defenses heal you.

Keep yourself well. When your child naps, you should rest because you are at risk of catching what your child has, especially if you are a working mother. The stress of two jobs may tire you out and put you more at risk of getting sick.

Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty. I don’t think there was ever a time my own children got sick that I didn’t have that familiar fleeting thought: if I didn’t work, they wouldn’t get sick. I know better and you should too. Children get sick whether Mother works or not. The last thing you need when you have a demanding job and a sick child is a load of guilt. Blame the virus, not yourself!