am I missing too much work when my kids are sick?

A reader writes:

I am a mother to an 8-year-old and a 19-month-old. My youngest gets sick quite often, when she needs medical attention or simply a home from day care, I dont really have anyone to rely on to help me out (single mom). This usually means I have to miss work when she is sick.

In the past 2 months, I had take 3.5 sick days for her and to leave work early twice. I’m anxious this is going to reflect poorly on me, especially since I just started my job here 3 months ago. On top of that, my boss always stresses that people should take time off their kids (I work at a nonprofit employment center so he says this to our clients). He has also indirectly mentioned this to me upon hiring me.

What can I do, besides finding alternative child care, to prevent this from reflecting poorly on me? What do you think I should expect as a consequence?

Talk to your boss.

The worst thing that you can do when you’re worried about something at work is to say nothing and just stay anxious about it. Nearly always, the best thing to do is to talk to your boss, using this framework: Acknowledge what’s been happening, say that it concerns you (or that you know it could be a concern to your manager), and then talk about your plan for it going forward and/or ask for your manager’s advice about it.

In your situation, you should say something like this to your boss: “I realize that I’ve had to stay home several times with a sick child since I started, and I’m a little concerned about it, since I’m relatively new and I don’t know what the norms are for handing this type of thing.” Then wait and hear how he responds. He might tell you that it’s fine as long as you’re getting all your work done (typical in many jobs), or he might tell you that it’s fine as long as it doesn’t keep happening, or he might tell you that yes, it’s a big concern.

Even if it’s the third response — which is probably unlikely if you haven’t already been getting that sense from him — you’re still far better off discussing it openly with him than having to worry and not really know.

The thing is, there are some jobs where this is perfectly fine and barely noticed, some jobs where it’s not ideal but they can accommodate you, and some jobs where it’s legitimately problematic. You need to figure out which this is.

Regardless of your manager’s response, I’d look into lining up back-up care if at all possible, especially since you say your daughter gets sick often. For instance, some cities have back-up drop-in day care centers or back-up care agencies that might be a solution. I don’t know what’s available in your area or what’s feasible for you, but I’d thoroughly explore your options there, if you haven’t already. Even if your employer is accommodating, in general it’s better not to have this many unplanned absences … so if you can find alternatives, use them.

But what you don’t want to do is to ignore your concern, especially since you don’t expect this to be the last of it. Get it out on the table and figure out how to proceed.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

    1. Samantha*

      That’s really not an appropriate response. For whatever reason, he is not in the picture and thus she is struggling to find alternative care for her daughter when she is sick. Who the father is and why isn’t around is none of our business and doesn’t help answer the OP’s question.

    2. None of Your Business*

      Why do you care?

      And who’s your boss? Do they know you’re surfing the Internet on work time? (See what I just did? I poked my nose into your business, making all kinds of derogatory assumptions in the process. Just like you did.)

  1. Anon*

    What if her husband or SO is deceased?

    That’s what I thought. In response to the OP, this is always a tough one. I think you should follow the advice provided and talk to your manager. You may be overly anxious for no reason!

    1. Not Dead*

      I’m pretty sure she would have qualified her letter with saying she was a widow instead of being a single mom.

      1. Anon*

        It just doesn’t matter. And she wouldn’t necessarily add that information – because it’s just not relevant to the question.

        If the OP lives in a larger city, there are services that specialize in this type of thing. They aren’t cheap, but very useful to have on speed dial in a pinch.

      2. Kelly L.*

        What is with the weird obsession with her marital status? Stay on topic and stay out of what’s none of your business.

      3. some1*

        I’m pretty sure if the baby daddy was at all a viable option for back-up daycare, the LW would not have written to AAM. Maybe he’s deceased, maybe he’s in prison, maybe he lives out of state, maybe he refuses to have contact with the LW & her kids.

        1. bearing*

          I can’t believe this working mother’s marital status is even being discussed on a site about professional interactions.

  2. Janet*

    I sympathize. I used to live in a city without family and I could occasionally work from home and so could my husband but I still felt terrible about it. We now have family nearby that we can count on for additional help which is great.

    I know that in the two cities I’ve lived in, there has been a service where nurses are willing to do sick day daycare. If you google your city and different variations “nurse sick day daycare” you might be able to find it in your area. It is costly though.

    When we didn’t have family around it was hard but I had one stay at home mom I could use when I was desperate and she agreed to be my fall-back childcare if I gave her notice the night before and I also had a friend who was unemployed and was always willing to come over and help for some payment.

  3. COT*

    Depending on your job, your company’s PTO policies, and how much attention your daughter requires when she’s ill, perhaps you could also suggest that you do some work from home on those days.

  4. Anonymous*

    OP – definitely take Alison’s advice (ignore the obnoxious ignorants above) and talk to your boss. Also, depending on the position you have, see if it is possible for you to work from home on those days you are home or leave early. Checking email, doing projects, etc. can go a long way to helping.

    1. Chinook*

      I was thinking that too. That way, work is still getting done in some way. And, if it turns out there is something you can’t do from home, you can then atleast give the other person a heads up about the time line.

  5. Rob*

    As long as the boss isn’t a heartless jerk, the boss may have a great solution to the problem. S/he may know of some service that someone in the city provides as Alison stated. But perhaps the company provides some services as well, that the OP may not be aware of. Just talk to the boss…you have nothing to lose!

    1. moe*

      I’m not sure if your implication here is that the boss would be a heartless jerk if he can’t/won’t accommodate OP’s sick days? Things like sick kids day care are too expensive for many, and there are many roles in which working from home just isn’t possible.

      One can be a nice person and sympathize with the OP’s predicament and yet still have a legitimate business need for her to be there.

  6. Anonymous*

    It depends on your situation on whether this will be a problem. Where I work it depends on whether the person is salary and exempt or hourly and non-exempt on whether this would be a problem. For salaried workers, it wouldn’t even be remarked on. However we have generous sick time here (10+ days per year with separate vacation time) and even before FMLA it was OK to use sick days for dependent care. It’s a totally different story for the hourly workers, where each day called off or clocking in late or leaving early is mark and if you get so many per quarter or year you get fired. And this many days off or leaving early a hourly worker would already be written up and half way to getting fired.

    Also if you have a flexible schedule, with that sometimes you have to work nights or weekends, having to take other time off to get things done is viewed as normal and expected.

    Another option to consider with childare, if you have a large university in the area, students are another option for childcare. Seeing ads or hearing by word of mouth that someone wants a student or students to work odd hours doing nanny or day care isn’t unusual here.

    1. Mints*

      I was going to suggest this too.
      Even if there aren’t specialized services for on-call. Students are often flexible.
      Ask somebody to babysit on a weekend night (as a test run) and then tell them you’d pay double or whatever if they fill in while the child is sick.

      1. Peaches*

        Along the same line, some cities have adopt a grandparent time programs for lonely seniors who love children. Obviously, they wouldn’t just want to spend time with your daughter when she is ill, but another positive role model and local fill-in grandparents could be good all around, as well as forming a bond that you might be able to rely on in these situations. I went to my bio grandmothers many times when I was ill and younger because she was retired and had that flexibility. I loved the attention she gave me.
        And realistically, sick kids are usually sleeping a large portion of the day anyways. You don’t need a super physically capable person to care for an ill 8 year old. Grannies and grandpas are great for cuddles and getting some ginger ale.

  7. Not So NewReader*

    One the of the advantages of working for a NPO is the ability to take time for family when necessary. (Some NPOs, not all.)
    If you boss does not have an suggestions for sick child care, maybe he knows someone who is well versed in the subject.
    I have found that starting a conversation puts me at an advantage- as opposed to waiting for the boss to start the conversation. It shows awareness/concern/etc. It’s hard to start the conversation but I usually end up glad I did.

  8. pws*

    OP, do any of your coworkers have kids? Or do you have any friends’ in your area who are also parents? Because I think in this situation having a trustworthy caregiver who can come to your home on short notice is going to be your best option. As I’m sure you know, you usually can’t drop sick kids off at day care, and for good reason. If any of your friends or co-workers have some names they can recommend, that would probably be the best place to start, plus built in references, right? And while I’m sure as a single mom the cost of care may be difficult, I think being on good footing with your boss at a job you’ve only just started outweighs the one-off cost of hiring a sitter to watch your child.

    1. Anonymous*

      I was also going to add in that her 8-year-old daughter might have friends whose parents she can contact to ask if they know of any childcare services they’d recommend.

      And pws makes a good point…if the child gets sick often, no childcare will take in the child.

  9. Jamie*

    What can I do, besides finding alternative child care, to prevent this from reflecting poorly on me?

    Definitely second Alison’s advice to speak with your boss.

    I can see why you’d be concerned as that is a lot of time off for a new employee, and places without family friendly flex policies might frown on that.

    I would do a couple of things. If applicable to your job I’d see if working remotely during those days was an option – if it is that’s a good solution. I’d also make sure to be outstanding in other ways and not have other issues with absenteeism, being late, leaving early, etc. except for emergencies. You are new and just building your reputation there and I’d want mine to be that I didn’t call in unless it was necessary – it can be hard to undo a negative reputation once acquired.

  10. Kelly O*

    OP, you have my sympathies. We’ve been really lucky with our daughter, but there was a period of time late one summer and early into the fall it seemed like she was sick with everything that went even close to “going around” daycare.

    It was hard enough with two parents working full-time and a slightly less than understanding office environment. (We live several hundred miles away from our respective families.)

    I wish it were easier to find drop-in care for kids who are too sick for regular daycare but not really sick enough to feel right about staying home with them. (Or heck, when you know they need to stay home but you can’t afford the unpaid time off or have a commitment that can’t change.)

    I really do recommend following Alison’s advice and just talking with your boss. You little one may just be going through a little sick spell, but it’s good to know where you stand.

    1. Anonymoose*

      Speaking of “less than understanding” workplace environments…I once called in because my 3 year old was really ill with a nasty norovirus, and needed me to take care of her. My boss replied, “No, *I* need you HERE. So, here’s what I want you to do: Open your phone book to ‘B’ for ‘babysitter.’ I’ll see you in an hour.”

        1. Anonymoose*

          I stayed home.

          I was a single mother, new to the state, having fled an awful marriage – single income, no child support, no support network.

          He put me in a terrible (terrifying) position. But I had no choice. She needed me. Even if I could find a total stranger to leave a vomiting, feverish toddler with, I could never have done that to her. Can you imagine?

          So I stayed home and took care of my baby. And when I went back to work I totally expected to lose my job, — but I didn’t, thank diety.

          It is rough, going it alone with a baby and no help. It’s even rougher when your employer exploits that vulnerability.

  11. fposte*

    I know it’s not relevant in this case because the OP hasn’t worked there long enough, but it’s good to keep in mind that if this is related to a more significant underlying illness or disability, parents can take intermittent FMLA for dependent care–it doesn’t just have to be in a lump.

  12. BCW*

    Let me preface this by saying I do sympathize. Growing up I had a single mom, and I can’t imagine what she went through.

    Having said that, I feel like I’ve seen on this very board, many people complain about co-workers take too much sick time. Whether legitimately stay in bed sick, “female problems”, or just a mild cold, it is often looked at it as a bad thing. However because a child is involved, taking excessive sick time is ok and the company should look into solutions (and apparently if not the boss is heartless)? This just seems like another double standard for people with kids and without.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t look into working from home, etc but at the same time, I don’t think there should be special treatment given.

    1. Jamie*

      FWIW I would really prefer all single and people without children to stay home when they are sick, also, because I don’t love having to Lysol everything from October – March.

      Seriously, for me if there is an issue with time out of the office it’s an issue – regardless of the reason and employers aren’t heartless for having attendance criteria.

      But I do agree with BCW in that the same rules should apply whether an employee needs to be home to attend to a child, parent, other relative, or themselves…there shouldn’t be a difference.

      1. Andie*

        +10000! That is what sick time is for! When you are sick you should stay home even if you think you are not contagious anymore. The germ-a-phobes in the office will thank you!

      2. KellyK*

        Totally agree. It has way more to do with “Does this screw over your coworkers, or do you just get the work done another day?” than “Is it for you or for your kid?”

      3. Long Time Admin*


        What I see more of is parents coming in sick because they used all their sick days taking care of their sick kids.

        I’m not anti-child or anti-parents-staying-home-with-sick-kids. Just don’t bring your sick child into work, like some of my co-workers used to do.

        1. Jamie*

          It’s bad enough to have grow up coworkers at work sick. They are old enough to know they should be diligent about hand washing and trying to contain their germs. Kids aren’t careful – if people bring their sick kids to work their coworkers should be issued biosuits.

          That’s awful.

    2. VintageLydia*

      You’re right. And the answer to give flexibility to everyone rather than punish the parents in the workplace.

      (And in my opinion, even people with mild colds should stay home IF they can work from there. What’s a mild cold for one person may be much less mild for someone else, and if they have kids, THEY can catch the cold and be barred from childcare which just perpetuates the problem further.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think it’s about punishing parents — it’s about applying the same expectations and flexibility (or lack thereof) across the board. Some jobs really don’t allow for that much flexibility, and we’ve got to be realistic about that too.

        1. Anonymous*

          I don’t disagree. Just sometimes the comments seem to imply that parents shouldn’t get considerations regardless of the reasonable flexibility, rather than everyone getting them. Obviously, if the job can’t accommodate it at all and parents are getting special treatment anyway, that isn’t right or fair, either.

    3. dejavu2*

      Besides the others who have noted that it would be awesome if people stayed home even with “mild colds,” I want to point out that sometimes “female trouble” can be worth staying home for. Every woman is different, and sometimes every month is different, but some people suffer significantly.

  13. Anonymous*

    On a philosophical note, I think part of why families are stressed is that the needs of tending to young children and the needs of many business are in direct conflict with each other when it comes to time. Both want as much time as you can give them, but many families cannot afford not to work. The reality is small children tend to collect between 6 – 12 colds a season as they build their immune systems and schools and daycare will not let them attend when they are symptomatic. Unless you have backup care, it’s very difficult if you don’t have flexibility in your job to cover.

    1. Kelly O*

      See, this is kind of my issue. And I know the truth is that you can have it all, just not all at once, but it’s hard when you’re trying to manage the season of life you’re in and still manage to keep all your proverbial balls in the air.

      The reality is, my child is a toddler. She’s going to get sick, or bring things home from daycare that will get one of the adults sick. But I don’t have the flexibility or sick time to really manage that properly.

      I realize the answer is, find something else, and I’m working on making that a reality. It’s just adding the stress of trying to look for a job on the down-low to getting all my work done, to not calling the daycare every hour to check on her, and keeping the pantry and fridge stocked, and making sure all our clothes are clean and reasonably presentable, to decorating for the holidays, finding gifts, getting those gifts to the right person, then work throws another wrench into things (seriously y’all don’t even want to know), and not worry about all the other big-picture things going on?

      No wonder I’m well over my ideal weight. (Says the stress eater.)

      1. Tiff*

        I feel you on this. If you ask me how my days are I could give you a list a mile long and still say “not enough” at the end of the day. Yeesh.

  14. Karen K*

    When I went back to work, I built a strong network of people who were willing to help me out when I needed it. Be it church, mommy and me, your kids’ friends’ parents… make connections and reciprocal arrangements. Unless one only takes and never gives back, there are lots of kind people out there who might help if you just ask. Build the network before you need it. I was also extremely reliable and productive, so that when I did need the time when my son was very ill, my employer treated me very well.

  15. Britanny*

    Yes, do talk with your boss. I had a similar situation: my husband was severely injured, had to go to the hospital. After that, he was relatively okay but had to make a couple of medical appointments (physio, tests). Since he is the primary caregiver, I had to arrange my hours so that I could drop the kids off at school or take care of the smallest one. I talked to my boss about it, explaining I needed to cut some days short for a month. I worked from home or did not take a lunch break.

    There are many reasons why medical issues may pop up. It can be a child, a spouse, a parent or sibling. The best thing an employer can do is work together with the employee so that the work gets done and the employee can take care of herself or her loved ones. You want happy employees who perform well, not employees who are about to have a nervous breakdown because their spouse is ill and they can’t take off an hour earlier to drive him to the doctor.

  16. Lynn*

    Advertise for a sitter on or They are all licensed and background-checked. Explain your situation, that you need emergency back-up care intermittently when your child is mildly ill. I bet for the right price, you could find someone in most cities. Obviously it would be more expensive than normal babysitting because it’s last minute and the kid is sick.

    Based on my experience with my own kids, I bet this winter will be the end of the “bad” times with the kid getting sick all the time. I don’t know if that’s any consolation.

  17. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

    Please get some backup. If I supervised the OP, I would not be happy.

    An employee at my company recently ask on a Friday afternoon for the whole next week off because her babysitter was sick and her “husband has a job.”

  18. Anon*

    I’m really intrigued by everyone saying “see if you can work from home”. I have worked for two companies with formal WFH policies, and both stress, in no uncertain terms, that working from home is NOT a substitute for childcare.

    1. Jamie*

      I agree with this as a policy – because if you are working from home routinely you can’t devote the attention your job requires if you’re also properly attending to small children.

      But in this case, of illness, it’s about either calling out and doing no work or showing that you’re willing to try to do what you can when you’re home. I’d never expect someone to be wholly “there” for the company if home with a sick child as I would if they worked remotely as part of their position.

      In other words, it’s better than nothing.

    2. The IT Manager*

      I understand because my organization’s policy is very clear that telework is not any kind of substitute for family (child or elder) care. In fact I was CCed on an email where a team member’s supervisor told him he couldn’t work from home in order to watch his kids after school while his wife was out of town. (He did not work from home every day.) I agree with Jamie there would be a benefit if they could be more flexible especially for things like this, but I understand the strict policy is to avoid people taking advantage. We are non-exempt employees so they do not want people to claim a full days work when some of their hours were spent caring for the child. And even if an employee can normally work from home depending on the employee’s duties getting their job done could be very hard with a sick child if they had to participate in or run virtual meetings or their work requires concentration.

  19. OP*

    Thank you for your advice, AAM. And thanks to the rest of you for your comments and suggestions. After my most recent absence which included 2 days out, an early departure from work and a late start to the day (this is included in the 3.5 days I pointed out in the OP), I thought I would really be frowned upon once I got back. I was surprised that all of my coworkers actually appeared concerned and sympathetic, including the director of my department (who noticed I wasn’t here since we have staff meetings once a week and I happened to be covering for our receptionist this morning when she called and asked me how my daughter was doing). This time she was actually hospitalized so I think that is why I am getting so much sympathy.

    My office is very small. 6 people work in my office, including myself. One other person has small children and she has complained to me that she gets a lot of flack for having to miss work for her children. I am a full time exempt employee, so I get paid vacation time and because of all my unplanned absences, I don’t plan to take ANY vacation time until at least February. However, my absences have not exceeded the vacay time I have available, so I believe that is on my side.

    My supervisor has not said much about my most recent absence. He just asked if she was feeling better. However, the last time that I had to leave work early (about 3 weeks ago), he asked me how I handle the stress of trying to find child care. He said he was asking out of personal concern, and not as a supervisor. Then he asked if we should have a plan for when I have these unplanned absences. Before I could answer, (which I would have said, yes, I would feel much more comfortable if we did) he said “or you could just say hey, don’t worry about it” and got up and walked away.

    I have considered working from home. However, much of my position is direct service. The only work I could do from home would be case notes and reports, and in order to do that I would need my client’s data, which is required by law to stay locked in my office.

    I always call the people I know don’t work during the day whom my daughter is at least somewhat familiar with when she needs to be picked up from day care or needs to stay home. Of course, those people are not always available. One thing I didn’t point out before is that she has asthma crises when she gets sick, which requires a nebulizer and sometimes additional steroids. I don’t always feel comfortable leaving her with other caregivers because of this, or feel guilty for piling all that responsibility on them. In addition, in a case where she is hospitalized, I feel it is important for me to be with her.

    Emergency day care centers are not really a feasible option for me because I don’t drive so anything outside of 5-10 miles of my home takes an hour or more to get to on public transportation.

    Like AAM suggested, I plan to talk with him about how he feels about the absences. I believe that as long as I get all my work done and that he gets his reports on time, I will be ok. I have accomplished a lot in my short time here and taken on responsibilities not listed in my job description after one of our staff passed away and two of our staff were laid off. I believe this is on my side as well. I will keep you all updated!

  20. clobbered*

    So, agreed on all of the above – talk to the boss, see if you can work from home etc.

    However the reality is that especially this time of year, if you have one of those kids that catches everything that goes around, it could either add up to a lot of days, or it could happen on a day where you are really, really needed at work.

    If you are in a big city, you can try googling for nanny services. They sometimes offer casual and/or emergency cover, paid hourly, and will administer medicine with written consent.

    The other problem is that a sick kid doesn’t want to be left with a stranger. If you have no cover from someone you already know, the best thing in my experience is to get your “emergency cover” to come and regularly babysit a couple of times a month, so if they have to turn up in an emergency the kid already knows them.

    Sadly, these options cost money. But if you can afford it, it’s a peace of mind..

    1. OP*

      Thanks. I cannot afford babysitters. I believe average cost of a sitter is $10/hr. My salary is the equivalent of $13/hr LOL.

Comments are closed.