The XX Factor

When a Kid Is Sick, Why Is It Mom Who Stays Home?

Mother takes her son’s temperature, thinks about everything she has to get done at work.  

Photo by Lisa S./Shutterstock

Atlantic deputy editor Alexis Madrigal is getting much-deserved kudos for a post he wrote on Tuesday, “Two Working Parents, One Sick Kid.” In the piece, he described a familiar situation: Your kid is too sick for school or day care, and one parent has to miss work to stay home. At first, the family assumed that Madrigal’s wife, the writer and editor Sarah Rich, would be the one to miss work. But their son decided that only daddy could comfort him in this moment, and so Madrigal took time off.

The overarching point of his piece is to say that mom should not be the default caretaker. But she is: According to one study, moms and dads have similar access to paid leave, yet 74 percent of moms stay home when their kids are sick, compared with 40 percent of dads. Madrigal writes, “My hunch is that if enough dads stopped leaning on their partners in these situations—talk about unacknowledged male privilege—the culture would change.” That’s part of it for sure, and I’m glad Madrigal’s piece is getting widely shared and tweeted. But I think women have their part to play as well in changing culture, so I want to give Sarah Rich major props for releasing her guilt over the situation. At first she felt bad because her husband had to rearrange his schedule so much to accommodate their son, but she let it go.

My daughter is currently in a daddy phase. If we’re both around, she’ll go to my husband first for comfort if something goes wrong. I had mixed feelings about this. The bigger part of me is thrilled that she sees us both as equal caretakers, and I’m grateful that my husband is such a good, egalitarian dad who happily does his share of baby business. But a tiny, niggling part of me feels like I have failed in some fundamental way as a mother. It downright sucked when we were at the park over the weekend and I went to pick her up and she said, “No! Daddy.”

But I’ve gotten over it, because my feelings are based on a cultural assumption that mommy should always be a toddler’s No. 1. As Madrigal writes, “The state of affairs is absurd and is worth saying out loud: I’ve been led by a sexist culture to believe that men don’t take care of sick kids. That’s what Moms do.” It’s a pretty deeply embedded cultural trope, so both parents are going to have to do the emotional work to actively let go of it.

One quibble with his piece. Madrigal writes, “No policy solution could have intervened in our situation. The variables were few and personal: two parents, two jobs, one sick kid.” But in fact, there’s one policy solution that would help in the U.S., which is paid sick days for everyone. I assume that Madrigal gets paid sick days, but nearly 40 million Americans don’t. And if you don’t have paid sick days, a sick kid and two working parents doesn’t just mean a few days of stress; it means you might have to choose between caring for your kid and keeping your job.

That said, I’m glad to see more dads writing about “the juggle.” Men like Madrigal, along with Max Schireson, the CEO of a database company who wrote about stepping down from his job to spend more time with his family, are helping the cause massively just by being visible. Here’s hoping we see more and more men discussing this openly, and at the pediatrician’s office.