I’m a bad employee – but there’s not much I can change

A reader writes:

I work for a government agency, as the executive assistant to the head of a division. My boss is not a problem – *I’m* the problem, but I don’t really know what to do about it.

I am the single mom to a teen son with severe anxiety/depression. He was diagnosed about eight years ago, but in the last three things have gotten bad enough to require hospitalization twice. Dealing with my son’s anxiety means that I end up having a really erratic schedule. I never know when I might have to sit with him through a panic attack, restrain him during a fit of self-harming behavior, find him utterly unwilling to get ready to go to school, on top of weekly appointments and school meetings.

His father isn’t involved at all, and my family all live in another state, so it falls to me entirely to care for him. I do have super-supportive friends, but they all have their own jobs. I do sometimes get a sitter for him, but insurance doesn’t cover any kind of care for him, and I don’t make enough money to cover that out of pocket.

This means that I am late, often very late, on many days. There are days when I have been trying to get him to calm down enough to go to school and after three hours am clearly not getting anywhere and end up calling in because he’s not in a state to be left alone. There are many days I get calls from his school to come pick him up when he’s had a really bad day and I have to leave work abruptly.

I do have FMLA in place, and his school social worker and therapists provide documentation to pass on to HR about days he’s had issues. I also don’t have problems keeping up with my workload. I do check in to email from home and deal with scheduling, documents, etc. to my fullest ability when I can.

My boss is hugely sympathetic and flexible (our agency happens to work with families so there is good understanding of parenting issues), but I run into trouble following the call-in protocol – calling or emailing if we’ll be late or gone by a half-hour before standard arrival. I do my best to do this, but sometimes I’m restraining a kid can’t leave the room to get my phone. Sometimes I just don’t know what’s going to happen – until 8:59 I think I’m just going to be late because my kid alllllmost is ready for school, then at 9:02 he loses it again.

These things haven’t prevented my coworkers from being really frustrated with my frequent, unpredictable absences. Usually they’re pretty nice about it, but sometimes it shows.

My question is basically, how do I handle being the coworker that people resent? If I could change this situation, I would in half a heartbeat. I’ve bought small gifts of gratitude for the staff who cover for me, and tried to keep them apprised of when I have something coming up they might be called on to cover, copy them on emails when I’m gone (we also have a specific list of tasks we cover for each other that helps). I understand that from their end, this is a burden – more work that appears erratically and with little notice. I don’t know how to make this easier on my coworkers, and I certainly can’t just leave my child to fend for himself. What should the employee with the crappy life situation that makes her also a crappy employee do?

Oh, I’m sorry. This really sucks.

For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect you’re not a crappy employee, despite your erratic and unpredictable schedule. You sound highly conscientious, you’re staying on top of your work, and you’re clearly concerned about the impact this is having on your co-workers. You may be a frustrating co-worker at times, but you don’t sound like a crappy employee.

But it’s hard when you can’t be the employee you want to be. Sometimes that feeling can be a useful impetus to make changes (like resolving to focus better if you’re easily distracted or, I don’t know, improving your coding skills if they’re dragging down your work). But in cases like yours, where you can’t make changes that will improve things, the best thing for your mental health might be to acknowledge that this is how things are for now. Not forever — but for right now.

It also might help to remember that you’re exercising rights that are protected by federal law — that’s where the FMLA leave that you mentioned comes in. The Family and Medical Leave Act specifically grants you the right to take this sort of intermittent leave when you have a family medical situation that requires it. Part of the point of that law was to make it possible for you to do what you’re doing.

Beyond that, though, I’d make a point of showing your co-workers that you’re truly trying to mitigate the impact on them. It sounds like you’ve done a nice job of that already with the expressions of gratitude and keeping them in the loop about your work and schedule. In addition, you’ll probably build up more goodwill if you help other people out as much as you can when your schedule allows for it — cover for them, assist on projects, respond to their requests quickly and competently. Basically, be an awesome co-worker when you’re there and do stellar work, and that should go a long way toward bulking up people’s tolerance for the times when life intervenes.

Also, to the extent that you’re comfortable doing it, acknowledge to your co-workers what’s going on. Let them know that you’ve exhausted all your other options, and that you’re grateful for them cutting you some slack when you need it. Tell them that you’re committed to ensuring that they won’t need to cut you any slack the rest of the time, because you’re going to be On It. And ask them, too, if there’s anything else that you can do to make their lives easier when they need to cover for you.

If you do this stuff, you’re going to be so markedly different from the profile of Slacker Who Doesn’t Pull Her Weight that most of us are familiar with that it’s likely that your co-workers will categorize you entirely differently. Typically people who lean on their co-workers in a burdensome way don’t appear to feel too guilty about it at all. In fact, they’re sort of notorious for being brazen about their slacking off. You are the opposite of that, and I have to think that your co-workers pick up on that.

Plus, you have a boss who’s “hugely sympathetic and flexible”! That’s enormous! If you haven’t already brainstormed with your boss about whether there might be additional ways to minimize the impact on your office, that might be worth doing too. Maybe it’s possible to formally alter your hours or get permission to work from home more often or otherwise change things that might build in more flexibility that could make this easier on everyone. (That might not be easy with an executive assistant role, where you might truly need to be there in person during certain hours, but in some cases it could be feasible, depending on what your workflow is like.)

Of course, even with all this, there may still be times that your co-workers are frustrated with the situation. But, you know, occasionally frustrated co-workers are not the worst thing in the world. If you know that you’re doing everything that you can to minimize the impact on them and going out of your way to be an excellent colleague the rest of the time … well, right now that’s the best that you can do.

Needing people’s help doesn’t make you a terrible employee, and it sounds like you’re working at an agency that’s comfortable extending that help to you. As long as you’re being conscientious (you are) and acting with thoughtfulness, grace, and appreciation (you are), it’s all right for you to let yourself be more okay with the situation. You’re doing the best you can in tough circumstances.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 142 comments… read them below }

  1. Lemon Zinger*

    I have no advice for OP (Alison addressed that brilliantly), but I do want to offer my sympathy and reiterate that OP really does sound like a great employee and a great mom.

    1. Purest Green*

      Seconded. That’s a tough situation, and if your coworkers knew what you were dealing with -not to suggest they should- then I imagine they’d have some of the sympathy and respect I have for you.

      1. Bonky*

        Thirded! This sounds to me nothing like a crappy employee. OP sounds like a conscientious worker and parent who is doing everything she possibly can to manage a very difficult situation.

    2. Siberian*

      I also offer my sympathy. My ex-husband was severely mentally ill. Luckily during that period I was working from home, but it was still extremely disruptive to my work—I was just able to make up time in the evenings/on weekends with no one the wiser. If you haven’t been in this situation, it’s hard to really understand the INCREDIBLE stress it causes to know that someone at any moment can have a crisis and you’re always going to be on call. Then the crises themselves are very stressful. Trying to stay calm and be patient and loving when you’re panicked about work and also scared out of your mind for your loved one is one of the most difficult things. It’s very, very hard on one’s own mental health. I can’t imagine how the OP is handling this as a single parent. My heart breaks for you.

      This isn’t work help, but the OP might consider the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s free family-to-family support program. It was extremely helpful for me. One of the best steps I’ve ever taken to help myself.

      1. A Signer*

        Co-signing the NAMI recommendation. It’s hard to help the person who needs help without getting support for yourself, too. If the schedule for the family meetings doesn’t work for you or you feel like you can’t leave your son for the amount of time it takes to attend them, there are a bunch of new phone-based therapy organizations popping up that may work better for your schedule.

        1. Siberian*

          Coming back to this page late but one tip is that if your county’s NAMI chapter either doesn’t offer the group you want or the times don’t work for you, look into the chapters at nearby counties. That worked for me.

  2. Leatherwings*

    Wow, this letter did not go in the direction I expected it to when I read the headline. OP, it really really doesn’t sound like you’re a crappy employee at all, and it absolutely sounds like you’re doing the best you can. I’m so pleased your boss is supportive. I hope you give yourself some slack, because you really deserve it.

    1. jamlady*

      And I think your coworkers know how hard you try.

      Honestly, I would never be irritated at the OP for her erratic schedule. We’ve all been dealt different hands in life and clearly she’s doing the best that she can.

    2. sstabeler*

      as a general rule, truly crappy employees either don’t care, or don’t realise, how crappy thye are,

  3. Bow Ties Are Cool*

    Wow. I know I can only speak for myself, but if I were handling random unexpected work for a coworker, and they told me that it was because they often have to leave/be out suddenly due to a child who is frequently ill (with no further details), I think I’d feel a lot better about the whole thing. Especially if they’ve proven appreciative of my covering for them. So you might try that, which could get you some slack and not risk what I call “mental illness blowback” from the unenlightened.

    1. DoDah*

      I’m going to get flamed for this, but here’s an alternative view. I had a coworker in a similar personal situation with a crucial job function. We were in a highly under-resourced department, four people, total. Unfortunately her situation never really resolved itself–which meant 3 years of no vacation and 60 hour work weeks for my other colleagues and me. She’s a lovely person and her situation is terrible, but the organization wasn’t willing to budget hours for more staff OR let her go. It resulted in a lot of frustration and resentment all-around. Realizing this was a management problem that would never get addressed, I finally left the organization, but from what I hear–she’s now moved to WFH full-time and her production is minimal. Unlike your situation, she was never able to keep up her workload, so there was no “paying it forward.” So my advice, when your situation permits, make a concious effort to check-in with colleagues to make sure everything is really OK.

      1. paul*

        Yep. This is a lousy situation and I hope it improves, but I can certainly see understandable frustration creeping in eventually.

        There’s a big gap between a couple of times a year someone having to take off and having to do so regularly unexpectedly. It’s not her fault by any stretch, but unless the department is able/willing to at least partly reallocate her workload and make sure her department isn’t heavily burdened…

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          TBH, I was somewhat surprised Alison didn’t suggest job searching for something that might be more flexible – working remotely, or being assigned longer-term projects (what is that – events coordination? Communications? I don’t know). I guess that’s outside the scope of an advice column and might not be helpful to OP who is probably already run down just trying to keep things together though. This is why I’m an unpaid commenter instead of a columnist …

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            No, I think that’s in the scope of the column to suggest. In this case, though, I’m worried about the OP leaving a job that gives her a lot of flexibility for one that says they will but then doesn’t (as often happens).

            1. Artemesia*

              This. She needs to protect this job that has protected her — many many jobs wouldn’t do this. If I were her I would also be trying to put in extra work whenever possible to keep production up. Work through lunch hour with sandwich at desk. Take projects home at night that can be done that way. And make it clear to co-workers that she is doing this to keep up.

              It is such a tough situation and I am glad she has a position that is supportive of her need to meet her son’s needs.

              1. OP*

                I definitely almost never take lunch breaks except when I have to be out for appointments. Unfortunately, the kind of work I do (direct support of another person) and our agency confidentiality rules and HR rules make it difficult for me to take work home at night. I can work late into evenings as long as I have tasks, but the rest of it means first getting remote access that I don’t currently have permission for.

                1. kms1025*

                  Is it possible to ask about a lateral move to a position that would allow you remote access to work from home???

          2. Temperance*

            To be fair, a government job probably has the benefits she needs to provide her son with the level of care/treatment he needs, whereas a part-time/WFH/etc. job may not have the benefits.

            There’s also the fact that many workplaces are “flexible”, but that means you can choose whether you start at 8:30 a.m. vs. 9:00 a.m., or your leave time. I don’t think it’s necessarily super feasible for LW to find a brand new job that will let her call out at a moment’s notice, or not call at all.

            1. NonProfit Nancy*

              It’s true, it’s so hard to know if her next situation would be any better. I was mostly thinking of her comment that she could not afford to pay for care very often. But it’s not like better-paying, truly more flexible jobs are just to be had for the asking :(

      2. krysb*

        I work with a woman who has an autistic daughter. We have an extremely flexible workplace, and she’s able to perform her job functions just fine because she’s able to work from home when necessary or leave early to spend time at her kid’s school.

        The only problem with her is that, because company goals are owned by and contributed to by all of us on a voluntary basis, she often volunteers to be the owner of big company goals, but not follow through. Her problem isn’t whether she’s doing her job, it’s that she takes on responsibilities that she cannot handle. When this happens, those of us working towards those goals get set back, and we can’t own those goals because she has them.

        1. commensally*

          That was basically my one concrete suggestion for this situation – if your coworkers ask to take over jobs from you, or suggest that you not take things on, listen to them, even if you think you’re managing you workload just fine.

          I had a coworker who had to constantly call out for family reasons for awhile, and it wasn’t that she wasn’t keeping up with her work – on the days she did come in, she worked twice as hard as the rest of us, and we weren’t missing deadlines – or even that the rest of us were overburdened; we weren’t – it was that she had responsibilities that meant that when she wasn’t in, I couldn’t make progress on my own responsibilities, because I needed input from her. So I would spend days with work piling up but nothing I could do, waiting for her to be in to give me information or do the next step so I could follow up.

          She probably didn’t even realize it was a problem, because on the days she was in, everything seemed to be going smoothly (it was – she was there.) I offered to just take over the project entirely but she insisted she could still do her work. She could – but that wasn’t the problem. So if someone tries to take something off your plate, let them. It’s not a criticism and it’s not pity; it’s probably someone trying to make their own life easier without making yours harder.

          1. Chaordic One*

            An insightful observation and well-stated, commensally.

            I’ve seen similar situations develop with people being out of the office for reasons other than family issues or health problems (vacations; a spell working at a branch office; sabbaticals; time out of the office visiting clients, making sales calls, or attending trade shows).

        2. Marty*

          Yes, this is the real issue: when someone isn’t available and it blocks others. To rectify out, you have to have discussions about how to handle them. She needs to look for ways that ensure that people aren’t waiting for her things, either by handing the responsibility for such work off, or creating alternate handling paths for when she isn’t there.

    2. SansaStark*

      I was thinking the same thing. I’m certainly not entitled to an explanation, but “sick kid” would help me understand that it’s a “life” thing not a “coworker doesn’t care about my time” thing. Is there one coworker you on especially good terms with that you could just ask if there’s anything you could do that would help them when these situations arise? It sounds like you’re doing everything right, but maybe they’d rather you do things D, E, and F instead of A, B, and C for them? Just a thought, but you sound like a great coworker to me!

  4. CBH*

    OP Alison addressed this with encouragement and professionally to let you know you are on the right track. I’m just sending you support to let you know you are not a horrible employee. You are doing everything you can to make do with a touch situation. You are keeping your boss and co-workers in the loop. Personally if you were my coworker I would be impressed with the juggling act you deal with and I would be concerned as to how you were doing.

  5. AthenaC*

    I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this.

    If you’re looking for ways to help reduce / eliminate resentment, the only thing I would add is to consider over-communicating things that are ordinarily not other people’s business. Such as, “Sorry I’m going to be out – my son is having an anxiety attack. Here are tasks A, B, and C that need to be done today. Thanks so much!”

    In addition to the other ways you show gratitude and doing your best to reduce your coworkers’ workload when you are able to be there and at 100%, consider sharing some details about your son and his condition. That could help them be more sympathetic.

    And finally, the required unsolicited advice: Is your son eligible for SSI?

    1. AMPG*

      Hmmm…I don’t know about the over-communicating suggestion. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and I don’t know if the potential benefits to the OP would outweigh the potential nosiness and judgment.

      1. fposte*

        Or the feelings of those who had an anxiety attack at their desk and had to keep working. Honestly, it’s not just the stigma, it’s the opening of the door to what’s being done for whatever the illness is, whether it’s too much or too little or the wrong thing, whether the parent should be doing it, etc., etc., etc.

        I get the point that including co-workers makes them feel more on the team, but if you’re sharing a diagnosis I’d limit that to a one-off briefing rather than stating the cause every time it comes up.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          Perhaps a simple “My son has a chronic condition”: you have a sick kid, and it won’t always be predictable when/how badly his illness will flare up, but without the details.

    2. Anon for this one*

      Her co-workers don’t need to know the specific reason why she is missing work for her son. Saying that he has an illness is more than enough.

    3. NeedANap*

      I wonder also how her son would feel about her saying that he was having an anxiety attack. Even if he never finds out that she’s telling other people that, I think his privacy needs to be considered. Maybe he wouldn’t care about her saying that, but maybe he would. He may not want complete strangers knowing any details about what’s going on medically with him.

      I also think specifying something like that unfortunately opens OP up to criticism from those people who don’t take mental illness seriously. I could see a particularly insensitive co-worker respecting OP less, on the grounds of, “Oh, that’s just a teenage thing, OP is overreacting, she just needs to tell her kid to suck it up/stop being dramatic/whatever and get to work.” It’s terrible, and I hate that I even have to say this, but some people may be LESS sympathetic because it’s a mental illness, not more.

      1. AnotherAnon*

        This. I’ve been that kid whose mum overshares with total strangers – needing to vent with a trustworthy friend is one thing, but OP’s coworkers don’t need to know exactly what her son is dealing with and he may view it as a breach of trust. Sticking to “my son has a chronic condition”, or maybe “he has a chronic condition – don’t worry, we have doctors on it, but it does mean that I can’t be as available as I’d like” and using that to open a conversation into any changes OP could make at work to make it easier on her coworkers would likely be more effective, and won’t open her up to unsolicited advice.

    4. CDM*

      SSI for children with disabilities has income and savings requirements for eligibility, and frankly, it was more hassle for the 9 months we received it than the $115/month was worth.

      44 states have Medicaid income waiver programs for children with disabilities (some have waiting lists), and where it’s available, it will provide secondary health insurance coverage and pay for some services, sometimes including respite care, that primary coverage does not. The 9 months my son was hospitalized before his death, having Medicaid as secondary coverage saved us probably $30k in balance bills, and Medicaid didn’t actually pay out a penny.

      It’s unfortunate not all states do this. I read a heartbreaking article a few years back, where families in New Jersey were relinquishing teens with mental health issues to foster care so Medicaid would pay for their mental health treatment because there is no Medicaid income waiver, while families in PA could access the same services through Medicaid.

      Wishing OP luck with her situation…

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        I’m sorry for your loss. I agree that the system is heartbreaking. My state has an absolute crisis with no proper in-patient mental health treatment for children or teens – even if you were wealthy and could pay out of pocket. The facilities just don’t exist. You sit in the ER and you are sent home. There are a handful of beds at one hospital and the waiting list is miles long. I really don’t know what they expect parents to do.

        I know one family that made the heartbreaking decision for her son to live in a group home for teens with disabilities. I only think he qualified because he ended up on probation. It got him access to the services he desperately needed. Many states have done away with CHINS.

      2. MsChanandlerBong*

        Your comment on SSI is so true. I have spina bifida, so my parents received SSI for me when I was a kid. Even though they were stretched beyond their financial limits with driving me six hours to the only hospital that had a neurosurgeon who would operate on me, the little money they received was not helpful enough to justify the total hassle of keeping up with the income/savings requirements.

      3. OP*

        I’ve looked into SSI, and I would probably not be eligible, and the hassle would be pretty intense. It’s unfortunate it’s not something that’s more accessible for people dealing with really tough situations.

  6. Claudia M.*

    Life > Work. Your family and their safety and health are ALWAYS first priority and anyone who has issues with that can get bent. Amazing that work and your boss are on board, and thank goodness for that. It gives you so much more freedom and flexibility.

    But Allison is so much more eloquent than me. :)

    I wish you all the best OP and stay strong! You’re incredible for being able to do what you do, even if you can’t always see it.

    1. 42*

      There but for the grace of the Universe. It could be any of us, OP.

      That’s a heavy load to carry. You sound like you’re covering all your bases and then some. Please take good care of yourself too, as you continue to take care of your son and also your work.

    2. fposte*

      Though we don’t want to go too far in that direction–people who pick up extra work from co-workers with ill family members also have family, safety, and health that’s being impacted. Fortunately, OP is doing a good job of recognizing that.

      1. paul*


        I’ll confess to having been on the short end of that stick with a coworker that was eventually let go; we all felt for her, but for a solid year she didn’t make a normal workweek (and since we were in a place where we had to work with clients, well, that mattered–rescheduled meetings galore). I mean we felt for her kids but for a literal calender year–2012-13–she never worked a full 40.

    3. Temperance*

      I think this is pretty unfair, FWIW. Her coworkers also have families and lives outside of work, and picking up the slack can be difficult and stressful.

      I have much sympathy for the terrible situation LW is in, with her very ill son and no support system. But that doesn’t mean we should just demonize her coworkers.

    4. Jesmlet*

      I’m sure OP’s coworkers are very sympathetic to her situation and know that family comes first. That being said, they also have the right to feel a little resentful if they’re being asked to do extra work without much notice. It seems like OP understands this and is doing everything she can to make sure they feel appreciated. This is just a sucky situation all around and I have so much respect for OP’s strength.

    5. Claudia M.*

      A large number of folks in my direct unit are on intermittent FMLA, so this is a new normal to us. There’s typically no resentment to the person, but there is frustration at increased work. Which is perfectly reasonable, but can be mitigated by good management/task assignment.

  7. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Relatedly, in law school, I knew a single mom who was often late to a tiny evening seminar. With 9 people and being discussion based, this had a big impact.

    But she explained that her daughter was really depressed and struggling with her sexual orientation, and she was late because she had to get her daughter from her partial hospitalization program each day.

    My colleagues and I apologized for complaining about the lateness, and another LGB colleague and I offered to talk with the kid if it might help.

    I mean, OP’s kid has a right to privacy, but if it affects mom’s work, I’d encourage her to share a bit. It would really defuse resentment.

  8. Rachael*

    OP, I think that you are a great employee with special circumstances. That’s why your boss is so flexible because they understand your situation and know that you will still strive to do good work.

    Is your role able to have a flexible schedule that allows some work from home before your son gets up? If you have an agreement that you would work from home in the morning before your son gets up and then take a couple of hours off during the window of time you are trying to get him to school? You may feel more relaxed if you know that you are not going to be “late” for work, merely arriving when you should (the later starting time). That way the morning would not be as full of anxiety about getting to work on time and at least be one less thing you have to worry about. Just a suggestion if you have the type of position where you would have work to do in the morning and can piecemeal it through the day as you are able.

    Good luck and good wishes for you and your son.

    1. anonymeeeee*

      This! It sounds as though your boss is very understanding and values your work. Perhaps you could sit down with him and work out a flex schedule that allows you to work from home during certain windows of time.

      I sympathize with you as I am in a similar situation. My grandchildren have been awarded to me through the state. My life instantly became filled with counselors, caseworkers, court hearings, etc. My choices are to comply and get them to all the appointments, or send them to foster care. So, not really a choice, at least not for me. My boss told me in the beginning, “Anything you need, just tell me” but that became “You are missing too much time from work” and then “You seem preoccupied a lot and unable to focus on tasks”…. very disappointing for me, BUT I decided to exit and find something else that fits into my new life with kids. Its going GREAT!

      I wish you all the best!

    2. B*

      This is a great suggestion! Being able to get some work in before trying to get your son to school could help you feel more in control of your workday, workflow, and your perception of how you are as an employee. I think you are doing a good job being an employee and it’s so helpful to have a sympathetic boss.

      I do think if you let the employees know why, not details, but a chronic sporadic illness it will help your colleagues to understand more of why you are out or why the protocols don’t always work for you. A little knowledge can go a long way, much more than a small gift. Also, ask them what works for them. Maybe it’s a google doc of where you have your running to-do list so they can check it. Perhaps it’s an email when you call out. But by asking them you are also saying I understand this is not easy, what can I do to help make it a bit easier.

      And sometimes you may need to let a colleague be slightly annoyed. They are human, can have all the sympathy in the world, but we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Perhaps they are going through a personal crisis, have a medical appointment, etc. life is also happening for them that can create difficulties so while you are not the cause of it sometimes it’s an easier outlet for the annoyance.

      But you sound like a great employee, doing amazing things to take care of your soon. Kudos to you, with lots of hugs and good wishes.

    3. OP*

      That.. could really work. I’m usually up for hours before he is. If I can get permission for remote access (we work with a ton of confidential information so our access is pretty locked down), I could get in hours in the morning easily.

      1. Candi*

        There’s often a range of how confidential items are. Maybe you could work on lower level items, and your coworker’s the higher levels?

    4. Yetanotherjennifer*

      I think this is a great idea as well. Not only could it improve your ability to get work done, but I also think it might improve things at home. If you are able to be more relaxed in the mornings you son will likely pick up on that and your mornings may well go more smoothly. You’ll have more energy to help him because you won’t be worrying about being late or what your co-workers think.

      Also, do you have a professional to talk to about your stuff? Dealing with someone who is chronically ill and has high needs is very rough and emotionally consuming. And anxiety can run in families. I know it feels like you can’t squeeze another thing into your day, but lots of therapists can work via facetime or email. I think it could be very helpful for you.

      If only we could reprogram one of those Amazon shopping buttons to be an emergency email button. It would be strategically located so all you’d have to do is push it and a pre-worded email would go out to your co-workers. As long as we’re dreaming, let’s make it time sensitive, so if you push it at 8 you’re saying you’re trying to get out the door and at 10 the message is that you’re not going to make it. Or use multiple buttons. Maybe Siri or one of those voice activated home assistants could be set up to do something like that. You say a code phrase and the proper email is sent. I’m only half joking; it might take some stress off you if you are able to notify work even when you’re fully focused on your son.

      1. OP*

        I might have to look into having some of my more techie friends make me an app that does that. Part of what makes the process so onerous is that our remote email is time-consuming to log into on mobile, loads slowly, and just stinks overall. I’d have to send probably from a personal email address, but if I could do a one-touch send it would cut down on a lot of problems.

        1. Lora*

          There’s one called Tasker which is available for both Droid and Apple which can do things for you in response to dates/times, events (which can be a gesture, a shake, etc). It can open another app and do something for you in the app, such as send an email or text.

          Mine figures out when I’m driving via GPS changes and switches to voice control for everything; it reads any incoming texts out loud to me, then asks me if I want to reply. If I say yes, it does voice-to-text and sends it so my hands can stay on the steering wheel. But you can set it up to do tons of things, including sending automatic emails in response to something.

          1. OP*

            Thank you!! In my googling for email automation apps I was getting lost in a sea of apps meant for sales and spam.

      2. Teapot librarian*

        That’s a really clever idea, actually. We have all this technology that is tying us to our desks 24/7; why not harness it for problem solving situations like OP’s. Maybe there’s something in IFTTT that can be modified for this purpose. (Great, now I’m going to spend the rest of the day thinking about this instead of getting my work done.)

  9. Changeling*

    OP, I was you, it gets better. My oldest has some mental health issues that have caused me to miss work, leave work early at a moments notice, or be late if he is JUST NOT COOPERATING. Between therapy, and meds and just getting older and maturing, he is getting better at dealing with life and is able to go to school most days.
    To top that off, last year my husband was deathly ill, and I was often leaving or calling in at the last minute, sometimes as I was pulling into the parking lot. My coworkers really did have to cover for me, a lot. Because of that, when I was able to be there, I went out of my way to cover for people, picked up extra, did little things to help out, made sure everyone knew I appreciated the help and that I was very sorry to be calling out, again.

    Currently, we have a coworker who is, herself, ill, and we never know until she shows up, if she will make it that day. So, on the side of your coworkers, I will tell you that we don’t begrudge her her absences, we just worry about her being able to pay her bills because of them. We gladly pick up the slack, and do what we can and hope that she gets well enough to make it back. Even the most judgemental gossipy coworker has nothing bad to say about the missed work, due to illness.
    You do what you need to do to take care of your son, make sure he knows he is loved. And don’t forget to take care of yourself

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      This is a good point – maybe OP can tell herself that she will “pay it forward” to a future coworker. Sometimes that is the best we can do when we are stuck in a terrible situation and can’t get through without help.

  10. Golden Lioness*

    OP, everyone has already expressed it so well. Just wanted to also say it’s amazing that you can do all you do, and to take care of yourself.

    Virtual hugs.

  11. Stellaaaaa*

    Even though your child’s father isn’t involved, he’s still obligated to pay child support. It’s much easier said than done but it’s worth checking into whether the support amount can be updated and enforced. Your child needs specialized care and there’s another person out there in the world who should be helping, even if only financially. Perhaps you could make a case about needing to have a nurse or caretaker on call.

    1. Zombii*

      Whenever a father “isn’t involved,” there are reasons for that. I give the LW enough credit to have already considered the cost/benefit, and made the best decision that she could for herself and her child.

  12. Anon in the UK*

    I have been where you are – daughter with mental health problems similar to your son’s, erratic and unpredictable attendance at work because of it, many regular absences because of doctor/hospital/school appointments, uninvolved ex-husband and family in the other hemisphere – and my heart goes out to you. Having a supportive boss (as I did) is a massive help but it doesn’t deal with the guilt of your colleagues having to pick up the slack.

    The only thing that helped me was resolving to do my best when I could, and knowing that as and when I was able I would pick up the slack for colleagues when things were tough for them. At the moment, a close colleague is dealing with cancer treatment for her partner. She covered a lot of my work, which is very open-ended and can change hugely with a phone call from a client, while I was unavailable and I am almost grateful for the opportunity to repay the favour (although I’d prefer that no-one were having a hard time!). We are both very lucky that the large company we work for has a very human way of dealing with its employees, but I think it helps her that I have previously needed help because she knows that it will be dealt with and that we can take the time we need.

    Do your colleagues know why you are late or absent with little or no notice? Even if you don’t feel you can give details, letting them know a little of what is causing your absences will very likely result in sympathy, rather than irritation. If anyone is still giving you grief I would mention it gently to your boss, who sounds like a good ally. It’s also likely that you are naturally somewhat hyper-sensitive to a fairly understandable disappointment from your colleagues that extra work has unexpectedly arrived. You sound like a great colleague to have – but even having been where you are, if I were unexpectedly asked to cover someone’s work without notice I would sound irritated while I rearranged my mental schedule to accommodate the additions, despite not actually being irritated with the absent colleague.

    It does get better – my daughter has now left school and is doing on-the-job training for a professional job that suits her much better than being at school, and her mental health is pretty good and still improving. Keep going, ask for help when you can’t and know that people far away are wishing you all the best.

    1. Brisvegan*

      I have been in a very similar position to the OP for the last 2 years, but my daughter seems to be improving. We were lucky enough to have access to an intensive youth mental health day program (with attendance at a hospital school between therapy sessions). My child is now in an alternative education program which is tailored to kids who have challenges which prevent normal high school attendance. Though my daughter has had some anxiety-based incidents about returning to school (summer holidays just finished down under) the more flexible and compassionate small program is really helping her to return to education and see a future. I have no idea what systems OP can access, but I sincerely hope things get better for OP and son going forward.

      I also had to take time off and work from home a lot. I was lucky that I am an academic with a continuing position (like tenure, but we don’t use that terminology or exact system here). My utterly wonderful Dean was supportive and allowed me flexibility. I know that my absences and slightly lower performance has hurt my progression toward promotion (a decision for a non-faculty committee, not my supervisors) and that I need to be diligent to recover my publishing and career trajectory.

      I feel for you OP. My tip would be to make sure that you do the best work you can and let people know about achievments where appropriate, so they can see you are not slacking. If you can, let sympathetic coworkers know what is happening. I didn’t at first, but now their support really helps me. (I am lucky to have some very compassionate coworkers.). As others have said, work from home if you can. Be visible in that work, eg email your boss where relevant, rather than waiting to get to work, which will show you are actively engaged in work at home.

      I have many students who are older and still have depression and anxiety, but can undertake high level tertiary degrees and function well in a prestigious profession. Things can get better for your child. On those days that seem so scary to both of you, please know that there may be easier times ahead. Also, as others have said, OP, please consider getting support for you. There were parent groups attached to my child’s program that helped me a lot. I’m also looking into individual therapy. There may also be online programs that can help, eg the Australian National University had an online depression self help tool that many people like.

      For Australians reading this, Kids Helpline and the atttached Parents Helpline are both good.

      Best wishes OP.

  13. Knope2020*

    I am kind of happy that OP has such a great boss!

    I can see where giving general details to colleagues might help ease (any) suspicions somewhat, but sticking to “son’s medical condition” should be detail enough. Alison’s response is awesome as usual.

    Sending best wishes to you and your son, OP.

  14. Randi*

    If the government agency you work for is federal seriously look into if you can use Telework more often so you can do work from home. I realize the work and the agency will affect the answer but it doesn’t help to ask such a supportive understanding boss!

  15. animaniactoo*

    I love this answer.

    OP, acknowledging your awareness of the impact and being transparent about how you’re working to minimize the impact on other people goes a really long way towards helping other people be more accepting of the space you’re stuck in.

    I talked about this on another post, but there was a long-term employee at my company who was in pretty much the exact situation you’re in. It was frustrating to deal with on many levels, but people were pretty sympathetic overall even when they were frustrated. It did come to a point where they were running out of sympathy, and that was a point where several balls were getting dropped and they couldn’t rely on the work happening in time or at all. Part of that was that there weren’t enough backups in place for when he couldn’t get the work done so that it just integrated into workflow vs being last minute emergencies and a mess of confusion.

    One thing I might suggest from that experience, is that when you’re logging off at the end of the day you send somebody a complete list of where you are on each and every project and what the next steps should be to get it finished.

    1. orchidsandtea*

      If you have a shared folder, this could also be a document you update rather than an email you send.

  16. BadPlanning*

    Tentative idea — Sometimes coverage is annoying because it is a surprise. Would it make any sense to assign the OP a rotating set of backups (assuming they don’t do this already). Instead of scrambling for coverage, Deb would be OPs backup on Monday. If OP isn’t there at normal arrival time, Deb does whatever backup is needed until OP gets there and/or calls. If OP has to split, she lets Deb know. George covers Tuesday. Duane does Wednesday.

    Of course, this idea could totally back fire — some people might find the assignment annoying instead of avoiding the surprise and coverage scramble.

    1. OP*

      We kind of do this, but it’s delegated by task. Fergus covers when I have interview scheduling, Sally covers correspondence, etc, divided among four other people. For the most part, they only have to jump in when something is urgent or we have visitors to the office that day.

  17. eplawyer*

    Alison and everyone else covered the work side perfectly. But let me chime in here on getting you some help. As someone mentioned above — get the father on child support if he is not already. Most states have a child support agency that will work with you to make this happen. Or check with your state/local bar association to find a pro bono attorney to help you file.

    Also, check with your son’s therapist/school counselor for what resources are out there to get you some help. You may qualify for respite care. Which would get someone in your home to care for him so you could go to work. Or even be able to go to the store. There are programs for families just like yours. Ask for the resources. Call your county/state health services. But get yourself a break before you break.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This. Keep looking for additional resources, OP. I sure you have been checking into some of the things eplawyer mentions above. Sometimes local churches can provide help or they know where to go for reliable help that government agencies do not have on their list.

      I hope you keep a diary of behaviors to discuss with your child’s doc when you both go. Even a few random words on a purse size calendar can help to organize your conversation with the doctor.

      I am quite concerned that you are handling this by yourself. This is an awful lot to cope with for one person. I am hoping that you can at least find respite workers/volunteers who would be able to help.

    2. azvlr*

      I wanted to chime in with this as well. OP, what I read in your letter is how alone you feel with all of this. It may seem overwhelming to add an additional thing to our plate, but I think you could use some respite and/or self-care. Please look into it. All I can do is offer internet hugs.

  18. Any Moose*

    I did not read Allison’s answer but do want to add my 2 cents. I used to work for a social services agency that housed kids with these types of problems. They got round the clock care, education, access to whatever they needed. Could this be an option?

    1. Candi*

      Depends on the local resources. For instance:

      The outpatient care around here is fantastic. There’s an excellent clinic with qualified and professional staff that takes just about any insurance, including Medicaid and such.
      They work with GPs and PCPs to figure out the best care plans.

      Overnight at the hospitals -pretty good, except for that one really old place that isn’t really set up for mental care of any type.

      Three-day to long-term commitment-overworked underpaid staff, that more than a few patients have managed to fool into thinking they’ve recovered more than they had. (Said the investigation after that one guy escaped.) No one is deliberately abused as far as anyone knows, but there’s an almost universal punch clock mentality.

      Care homes -few, of widely varying quality. The good ones have wait lists as long as a daycare’s.

      It really depends.

  19. KellyK*

    Like a lot of people have said, you’re doing the best you can with a really tough situation, and you’re not a bad employee. You’re being really conscientious about the impact this has on your coworkers.

    Opinions vary a lot on whether you should disclose the specifics of your son’s illness or just say he’s sick. There are pros and cons to both, and you’re the one who knows your coworkers well enough to have a good idea how they’d react.

    If you haven’t already, check with your boss about how he wants you to handle calling in if you have to restrain your child or sit with him during a panic attack. He might not be terribly concerned about following the policy to the letter, since he knows your specific situation.

    You might also want to ask about having someone designated to cover for you on specific morning tasks. (If I were your coworker, I’d rather know that if I don’t see you by 9:30, I should assume you’re running late and do the ABC report that’s due at 11:00, rather than finding out at 10:30 that I need to stop whatever I’m working on and rush to get it done.)

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes people run late and they cannot call. It could be that they had an accident or there was a severe storm or something. A good boss will think about plan B. “If I don’t see Jane by 10 AM, then I will change direction with my plan for the day.”

      Contingency plans can save everyone from some upset.

  20. Helen*

    I sympathize with the OP, she sounds like a good mother and a conscientious coworker.

    Part of the issue with her coworkers could be that they resent the situation and not OP herself. At my last job there was a similar situation with a coworker who had a child with autism and a wife who was off work on disability due to a back injury. He was a nice person and everyone did sympathize with him and had no ill feelings towards him personally. But it was so frustrating for the rest of us to have our vacation cancelled and to be called in for overtime because he wasn’t available and coverage was needed. His schedule was erratic and he had constant attendance issues. It was nothing personal but the fact that the company didn’t do anything and left us all to pick up the slack all time was upsetting to everyone. It got to be too much for me and I ended up leaving for a job with a longer commute and a small pay cut. My industry typically does not work from home and before this coworker was hired I enjoyed my job and the balance it allowed me to have in my life.

    I hope the OP doesn’t think this is directed at her, because she is doing her best in a bad situation but the situation can be frustrating for coworkers and if the company doesn’t acknowledge it that only makes it worse.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I once read an article on business ethics where the author’s opinion was that just because the boss wanted to support someone did not mean the boss could just volunteer others to take up that person’s slack. It’s unethical, in his opinion that people who are taking up the slack have no say in how much help they get to offer that person, they are just told.

      This explains the resentment that sometimes occurs. I do think that having an emergency plan in place would help to lower that resentment. If I know that I am the Tuesday fill-in person I can plan my time accordingly. If OP has a delay/call out on Tuesday, I know it’s up to me to cover. Another day someone else covers. This may not work for all settings though.

      1. KellyK*

        Yes, I think that’s completely reasonable. FMLA is a legal requirement, so being staffed appropriately for when employees need to use it is the company’s responsibility. To the extent that it’s feasible, everybody should probably consider it part of their job to cover for each other in short-term emergencies. (Fergus is in the hospital, and Jane has to cover for him, such is life.) But once it becomes regular and long-term, it’s up to the employer to figure out ways to deal with it that don’t burn other employees out or prevent them from doing their own jobs.

  21. OP*

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for your really supportive comments, and thank you Allison for your response. It makes me feel better that maybe some of my coworkers don’t hate me as much as I feel like they do.

    The trouble is that despite not being behind and trying to put in the extra mile when it’s possible, I got an “overall unsatisfactory” on a recent review. Each section parroted the same “Mavis is great at teapot data tracking, but frequent absences have led to some issues with timeliness on reports” or “Mavis does a great job organizing spoutmaker interviews, but frequent absences have led to others having to pick up the process when she’s gone with little notice.” Every single “unsatisfactory” didn’t have anything to do with my work, but just my having to be gone.

    I didn’t’ get formally disciplined, but I did get a “letter of expectation” that sets out a more stringent call-in policy than the standard one that I already have trouble with.

    In the conversation, I asked my supervisor if I could get more remote access so I can work from other locations more completely – currently it’s just email and it’s a sad web version where accessing anything but messages is awful. She agreed that would help. She also encouraged me to get more personal resources at home, but I’m at a loss for what else to do.

    FWIW in response to other comments, I do get child support. I do tell my coworkers who are most impacted about what’s going on, and I do tell most of them that my son has severe mental health issues. He actually is often in my office after school when he gets too anxious to deal with the bus, but I’m not sure that helps because he seems totally normal, just super-quiet, when he’s here.

    1. OP*

      *to clarify – the review happened after I originally submitted the question, because I could feel the angries coming from my coworkers/supervisor leading up to it.

      1. 42*

        This doesn’t fall under ‘retaliation’ for taking FMLA, does it? I don’t fully know the scope of what could be considered retaliation.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          The OP and I had an exchange about this after I’d already written my column. They cannot penalize her for absences covered under FMLA, and if that’s what this is, that’s illegal and she may need to point that out. (Although it also may not get her the best outcome here if she does, so she needs to balance that against everything else.)

          1. OP*

            Because we don’t get regular raises (they happen at the discretion of the governor/legislature in our state and are applied across the board when they do happen), and I’m already at the highest-level classification for my job title, the poor review basically just sits in my file and won’t hurt me any unless I try to transfer to another position or agency. Because of that, I’m not going to push it.

            I did leave comments on the review that most of the absences were due to a situation for which I have FMLA and are fully documented, and not due to general poor attendance.

            1. 42*

              Thanks for clarifying Alison and OP. I’m glad you have responses documented on your review. That was good thinking.

    2. MsCHX*

      OP My first suggestion was to try to facilitate some remote work options, especially if you are exempt (because then you can work when you can without being super anal about recording time). Talk with IT yourself and find out what sort of options they can potentially implement.

      Is your employer mandated to provide FMLA? If so, do you have an open FMLA case?

      What suggestions does his pediatrician or school officials have? I know we’ve talked on here at length about bringing kids to work but on critical days is it easier to just bring him in with you? And see how it goes?

      My heart goes out to you! Hang in there!!!!

      1. OP*

        Yes, I have FMLA – I work for a state agency so we’re a big employer. I am exempt, but our agency doesn’t treat being exempt like one would expect. While I do have more flexibility with when I work than hourly employees do, it still has to be between certain hours of the day, M-F, and I have to ask permission to work off those hours, and my supervisor usually says no with “work should be done during work hours.” I still have to log 40 hours of either work or PTO to get paid. FMLA just allows me to take unpaid time if necessary, basically.

        His school is super-supportive but we frankly fall into a resource black hole – I make too much money to use any kind of support for low-income kids, but not enough to afford something like a nanny or babysitter, and my child is in high school so there are no care programs set up for kids like him. There are some outpatient afterschool therapy groups, but the waiting lists are long and require a certain level of behavioral problems to be referred, and for all his having panic attacks and missing a lot of school, he’s not a troublemaker.

        1. 42*

          >>”…and I have to ask permission to work off those hours, and my supervisor usually says no with “work should be done during work hours.”<<

          Is this the boss who is "hugely sympathetic and flexible"??

          1. OP*

            Heh. Yes. I guess flexible is relative – she’s much, much kinder about it than my previous supervisor in a different division and never questions the validity of my absences, at least. She did twice let me work on a Saturday, but after that started declining permission. I’m not sure why, and when I ask, I just get the line of “work should be done during work/office hours.”

            1. Dee*

              If it’s like the governmental job I had, it may be a ruling from on high that isn’t fair and makes no sense. Unfortunately.

              1. Just the Messenger*

                I’ve been in the position of having to refuse to let someone work outside of “core hours” in a government organization. It was simply due to rulings from on high that we had to respect and that we couldn’t change. However there was a tacit agreement that if we suspected that an employee was working outside of core hours but the employee didn’t TELL us themselves, then there was nothing we could do… depending on the work that OP does, she might be able to do some outside of core hours without admitting it.

            2. Natalie*

              I think it’s worth re-opening this conversation with that boss – her position is understandable for the average bear, but you are in a different circumstance that should be considered on its own.

        2. paul*

          In my state that resource gap is almost as big as the state itself, and it sucks to see :/ There’s early childhood programs, like for the 5 and under crowd, but once they’re adolescents it seems like resources dry up considerably.

        3. AnotherAnon*

          Are there any charity resources you could access? I’m not sure if you’ve exhausted those under “outpatient afterschool therapy groups”, since many of those are through doctors rather than independent referrals, but if you haven’t then there *might* just be something helpful available!

        4. Intern Wrangler*

          I know you are not asking for resources, but it might be worth seeing if there is a high fidelity wraparound program in your area. They can sometimes help you creatively identify resources and solutions. There is a website for the National Wraparound Initiative.
          I’m sorry that your review ended up with these remarks. It does undercut a sense of support, and the last thing you should have to worry about it how it affects your work.
          I’m wishing for the best for you and your son.

    3. Kyrielle*

      Wait…if your frequent absences are FMLA-covered, how is a more-stringent-than-normal callout procedure and a negative review *not* retaliation?

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I’m hmming this as well. It would be okay to ding her on her existing problems with the callout procedure and even with the timeliness of work in some cases (if you miss a Friday deadline because you were out Wednesday, that’s not FMLA protected). But it sounds like they’re penalizing her for the actual absences, which isn’t kosher.

        I’m torn on talking to the boss, which would be the usual response. The OP really won’t be able to manage a new job without equivalent flexibility, and it’s tough to find that flexibility without being covered by FMLA, which she wouldn’t be; she therefore might need to hang onto this job with both hands. But if there’s a reasonable risk of job loss simply on the basis of the OP’s trouble with the call-in policy, the balance tips to opening a conversation about this. Just a calm conversation like “Yes, I agree on the call-ins; the situation makes it really hard for me to do that, but I understand that I have to accept those consequences. But the work redistribution sounds a little like I’m being reproved for FMLA-protected absence–can you explain?”

        1. EddieSherbert*

          +1 for wording. I think this is a great approach to the “is this retribution for FMLA?” convo, if you choose to have it.

      2. NonProfit Nancy*

        Yeah, I don’t understand this. I thought FMLA covered frequent absences so they can’t (at least officially) be held against you. Documenting these absences as the sole reason for an unsatisfactory review – which presumably comes with raise/promotion implications – seems like the opposite. Perhaps the attempt to create a more workable-for-them callout procedure is an effort to make the workflow smoother but … I’d look into the legal implications.

        1. OP*

          It doesn’t affect either of those things for me. We don’t get raises, and I’m already at the top-level classification of my job, so promotions are out, too.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      I’d agree on the resources because this is too much for one person to deal with alone. Check with his school and his doctor(s), if you have not already. If you have then ask again but tell them you are missing too much work and you need help. These two places should have referral lists.
      This is a shot in the dark but maybe you can find an online support group in your area, that would be easy for you to connect with and still be close enough to offer in person help.

      Not any consolation but I find that many work places are totally unprepared to help an employee facing an on-going family member’s health crisis. It falls to the employee to come up with solutions…. when they are not busy dealing with the crisis, of course. (grrr)

      You might gain some traction with your employer if you can show them that you are trying to build a longer term, sustainable plan. So far your plan is to deal with each day as it happens. This is totally understandable from my perspective. It’s tough in the middle of a problem to build a longer term plan. I think if you start saying things like “I am checking into X for help for me and my child” or “I am looking into Y…” might throw some relief all around. You might feel relieved yourself as this is not easy for you, either.

      Eh, if you totally come up blank as to where to turn, why not write your congressperson to ask what resources are available in your area. I bet someone will answer you.

    5. Case of the Mondays*

      OP – I know you say you are at a loss of what more you can do to get more help at home but it sounds like you have NO help at home. I post this occasionally when questions come up about child care but I urge you to find someone, a friend, a relative, a paid respite worker, someone who can get to know your son now who could sub in if you had a crisis. You are writing about a work crisis and I don’t mean that. I mean you get into a car accident and he is at school. Who is going to pick him up and care for him until you get home? I only preach this because my husband was a police officer and at times dealt with a panicked parent that had to go to the ER right now (or worse, jail) and had absolutely no one to come get her kid. There is a state safety net where social workers / foster care gets called in but an already stressful situation becomes even more stressful when that happens. Can you see if there are support networks for moms with other teens with mental illness? Could you start a Facebook group? Once you get to know some other moms, maybe you could trade off helping each other out.

      1. OP*

        I have a lot of friends who are listed as emergency contacts ready to help my mancub if something really awful happens – there have been a couple times where one of them has picked him up at school. But during the mornings (before-school is the worst part of the day), I guess I feel like I can’t call my friends who have their own jobs and ask them to miss theirs so I can go to mine.

        1. 42*

          OP please forgive me if I’m overstepping. Your circumstance is really making me think and I’m grasping for anything that may help. Do you feel your son is being effectively treated? Aside from the events that lead to his hospitalizations, is he undergoing regular mental health treatment? Medical treatment in addition to therapy, if appropriate? Do you see signs toward overall improvement, eventually having it under control? I worry about your own sustainability, OP–job woes aside. Again, my apologies if my questions are invasive.

          1. OP*

            He does have ongoing treatment – meds, therapy, regular meetings with a psychiatrist who he loves. He attends an district-run charter school that allows total schedule flexibility, and where he has an incredibly supportive social worker and close relationships with his teachers and his IEP case manager. (I cannot overstate how much I love his school and how much it changed our lives when he was accepted).

            He’s actually doing pretty well comparatively now than for much of elementary school, but in elementary school, no matter how bad he was feeling, I could pick him up and take him to the counselor’s office who’d take over until he’d be ready for class. I can’t do that anymore – he’s taller/heavier than I am now. His school is also in a neighboring district and a 30-minute drive away, so I can’t ask school staff for transportation help , and the length of the commute exacerbates my schedule irregularity – even if he gets himself together by the time I should be at work, it’s another hour before I can get to the office.

            He’s definitely on a general trajectory toward better coping skills and better-managed meds, better grades, etc, but with things like this even during good spells, bad days happen. And no matter how long a good spell lasts, it’s always possible to have things get worse unexpectedly.

            1. 42*

              Thank you for responding, overall this is encouraging (though not so much with the school transportation). That’s so daunting, but the payoff is that he’s completely supported by the school staff, which is golden. I hope there comes a point where the transport isn’t an issue for him and you anymore.

              I wish the best for you and your son in work, school, and home, OP! I hope you send a follow up, we’re all rooting for you.

              1. OP*

                We’re about 8 months away from his having his own driver’s license! At that point, I can take the bus/bike to work and he can use my car, if he’s willing to be seen driving it…

                1. Brisvegan*

                  As I mentioned above, my kid has had issues very similar to you son’s. Mornings were a nightmare here, too especially when she was still trying to attend a mainstream high school. Our change to a hospital program/schooling took pressure off and so has her newish alternative education program. She is now more able to get past anxiety and get to school more days. Being at the charter school might make things better for yor son, in conjunction with other therapy etc.

                  The car and driving has been a help since my daughter got her learner’s permit. (Here you drive supervised as a learner for at least a year). Being able to drive is a bonus for her. If she can drive to her education program, it is an incentive to get up and try to get to school. Having car privileges might help your son later!

                  To let you know, my daughter was also hospitalised several times. I am sure you have done all the safety planning stuff. I recommend a safe for any dangerous items, which can remove dangers (for us, household medications, chemicals and sharp things) and help you not to be so worried. They were available at a hardware store for a reasonable price. With therapy, my daughter has now reached a stage where she can safely be home alone, we don’t have to lock up the knives and she can bus around safely.

                  There will be a time when things get better for your son and then you. I know it seems like a very long, dark journey and that every step forward is followed by a step back, but things do get better, even if it is very slow. ((Hugs)) if you want them.

        2. Case of the Mondays*

          Glad you have it covered OP! I totally understand why you can’t call your friends in the morning.

        3. Sualah*

          I would say, as someone who has my own busy life/work/kids, but is a friend…ask! Maybe I have to say no, but (for example, right now), I am able to work from home one day a week. If you catch me on that day, I can push back my start time and help you out. And if I’m your friend, I want to.

          Probably the best bet is to bring it up before crisis, but if you said to me, “You know my issues with Son. Mornings are the worst. Is there ever a time you can help me in the mornings, on short notice?” I will let you know if/how I can help.

          1. KellyK*

            Yep, I agree. How flexible people’s work schedules are varies wildly. Sometimes it even varies for the same person depending on the time of year or the meeting schedule. If you ask several friends, even if they’re only available a small portion of the time, that’s going to make a dent in your attendance without hurting theirs. If you know anyone who works different hours, particularly second shift, see if they could help some of the time.

          2. QueenOfManuals*

            Yes to this! Ask before it comes up and your friends won’t feel pressured to say yes as they may to a last minute request. They can give you their availability if they have any, and specifics to make it easiest on them – “Tuesdays I go in late, just text me before 7am and I can let you know” etc. Much easier for the friend to help you and much easier for you to ask for help this way.

          3. Julia*

            I agree; and in theory, I would want to help to. I’m just not sure if I – and most people – would feel qualified. What if you cannot restrain OP’s son from harming himself? Will you blame yourself forever if something happens to him? Will OP?

    6. Cyril Figgis*

      The bad coworkers I’ve worked with all had one thing in common: they didn’t care about the quality of their work. You clearly do care.

  22. Elle*

    OP, my heart goes out to you. I am also the mom of a child (well, she’s 20 now) with depression and anxiety. It’s heart wrenching, knowing what they’re going through, and not being able to “fix” it. As far as work is concerned, it sounds like you are doing everything in your power to mitigate the effects on your co-workers. I don’t really have anything to add to what the other commenters have suggested, but I’m sending you understanding and support!!

  23. Darcy*

    OP, you’re doing an amazing job. I have a child with these issues and never knew that parenting could be like this. I’m lucky in that I have a supportive partner and my in-laws are both retired; but there are still times when my child needs his mother and I have to change things at the last minute. So I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to be in your shoes without support. If your boss can help you with resources to work offsite, I would look into that. I try to log in at home any time I’ve had to leave to deal with my child and it really seems to help with keeping up with the workload and not needing others to take extra work on. Good luck and hang in there!

  24. Avid*

    This is veering off topic but have you thought about homeschooling/ online school for your son? From your letter it seems like going to school is a big trigger for your son. Having him stay at home and work at his own pace may be a solution. Especially if you feel he is trustworthy and responsible enough to stay at home alone while you are at work. You could go to work without having to try to coax him on the bus and then he could start his classes in the evening after you get home and are able to supervise him as needed.

    1. Regina*

      I’d advise against this – it would mean OP would have to spend even more time at home during the school/work day supervising her son instead of being at work. However your school district may consider an alternative school placement at a therepeutic program. Please consider contacting your special education office for guidance. This is very much a “trend” we are seeing in special education right now, so know that you are not alone.

    2. Limepink22*

      Flvs is a great high school online, i took several advanced classes through it my senior year, and it is state accredited. Being flexible with his schedule might help him a lot which would then trickle up to you.

    3. OP*

      He’s already in a “blended learning” online charter school. The entire curriculum is online, but the district that created the school has a dedicated classroom for the online-school students that is staffed with two teachers and a counselor and a social worker. Because his anxiety affects his ability to complete assignments, he goes to schoolroom for the support of the staff almost every day, even though it’s not technically required.

      We tried the whole me supervising him thing when he first started the online school, but it didn’t work out well at all between my lack of skill as a teacher and my other obligations in my part-time work/art.

      The school solved a whole bunch of issues with grades and truancy that we used to have on top of my work issues, so it’s been wonderful, but can’t fix my work problem, especially when there are time where I’m uncomfortable leaving him alone if he’s not at school with the support of staff.

    4. Brisvegan*

      We tried online schooling for my daughter when her illness (similar to OP’s son) was bad. It was a disaster. Her depression meant she lacked motivation and her anxiety made even logging in very fraught with difficulty. The isolation exacerbated her depression. Several of her peers in her hospital program had similar experiences. Online schooling might work for some kids with depression and anxiety, but, according to our psychs, for a lot of kids it is apparently not helpful.

      However, what worked for us (and some others) was something similar to what the OP has found: supportive, flexible attendance based learning where students can work at their own pace and their is support for kids with mental illnesses. (For my child, this meant she actually finished some stuff quickly, because she does well on her good days and doesn’t have massive pressure to stay with her class leading to increased anxiety.)

  25. Erika*

    I have absolutely nothing to add except my empathy. You’re trying, OP. Please don’t be so hard on yourself.

  26. Regina*

    OP, that’s hard, and I admire what you are doing. I have a suggestion – can you work with your school district’s special education department? Regardless of whether your child is classified with and IEP or has a 504 accommodation plan, they should be able to provide you with resources to help you help your son. (I work in the special ed office at a school district.) they may be able to provide you with parent training and counseling, behavior therapy, and support, at no charge to you. Best of luck – it’s a difficult situation to be in, but your son sounds very lucky to have you. ❤

  27. SadieMae*

    OP, my son has very similar issues. In my case, my husband is our primary breadwinner and I gave up my career hopes to do occasional freelance work, so I could be available to handle our son’s issues. (Hubby made more money, so I was the obvious choice.) I don’t know if it was the right choice. Caring for him is so exhausting and stressful, I can’t imagine handling full-time work on top of it. But I often feel angry and resentful that I derailed my career. (Not angry at him – he can’t help it. Angry at the universe, I guess.)

    Anyway, it sounds to me as if you’re handling all this really beautifully!! The only advice I can offer is that one thing I did eventually do, before I left full-time work, was to tell the truth when I needed to be away, as briefly and matter-of-factly as I could. At first I’d invented “my kid has another stomach bug” stories, because I didn’t want to admit the truth – I felt ashamed, and also I didn’t want to embarrass my colleagues by oversharing. But eventually I realized ours was an extraordinary situation, and it was important for people to understand I wasn’t just flaking out on them – and mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of!

    So I explained briefly to my colleagues what my son’s issues were – one conversation each, individually – and then, very occasionally (maybe every 6 months?), I would throw in something like, “Fergus, I do apologize that I missed that meeting. I was trying to find a psychiatric placement for my son and couldn’t leave the hospital until that was handled. I really appreciate your help in covering for me.” And then I tried to make myself as indispensable as possible, doing whatever I could to help out my colleagues as well.

    Hugs to you, sister. This life is stressful and sad and exhausting but all we can do is the best we can do. You are doing so, so well. I’m kind of in awe of you, actually!

    1. OP*

      I know exactly that “my kid has a sore throat” thing, and then having to just cop to what was really going on and hoping that people understood well enough. In my previous division/agency, dealing with mostly ex-military people, they very much did not. It was a big change when I transferred.

      It’s really, really hard to know what to do. Things like cancer and asthma and whatnot, people know what they are and what they mean and somewhat how to be supportive – at the very least they know it’s beyond your control. Mental illness is so different. When your kid looks totally normal-seeming, you get so much “well just put your foot down” or “you have to make him do xyz” and don’t even remotely understand that you can’t actually MAKE anyone do anything, especially if they are in the grips of a panic response. Instead you have to give them safe space and simultaneously walk them through coping mechanisms, and if you aren’t in a good place to do those, everything just goes to heck.

      So much love to you too. It’s a long, hard road, but seeing him get better is worth every ounce of fight. I’m so proud of him.

      1. Pat Benetardis*

        After a recent hospitalization, I wound up telling a lot of coworkers about my child’s mental health problems. And a lot of them had stories from their families as well. Many people are or have dealt with family members with mental health issues but not a lot of people talk about it. I was amazed at how we all could have been so much more supportive of each other if we’d been comfortable to speak up.

    2. Jean who seeks to be Ingenious*

      +1 to almost all of the other comments here.
      OP, you’re doing an amazing job. I hope you’re able to find some additional support so you can take care of yourself for one or two hours each week.
      SadieMae and the other special needs parents: rock on. It’s not easy but it’s satisfying when our kids start to develop feathers and wings.
      (FYI our kiddo/teen-o is on the autism spectrum. This is not the most important fact in our family life, but it is significant.)

  28. Ayshe22992*

    I know its not your question but have you thought about cannabis therapy for your son? I’m sure you have gone over many many options but if you haven’t considered this, I suggest looking into it. You can now buy candies, and other such items that do not have the thc that gets you high, all the perks with none of the high. I personally smoke and it really helps keep my depression and anxiety in check.

    1. KellyK*

      Even if it’s legal in her state, this is likely to be a career killer for someone who works for a government agency. I’m glad it works for you and anything that works is worth sharing with people who have similar situations to consider. But the legal and professional repercussions can be pretty severe.

    2. OP*

      I don’t want to say too much on a forum like this, but I will say that I do know that it is really effective for him, but it’s not an option for us because of location and laws, no matter how helpful it is in the moment. Because I have to pass certain security clearances, even though we’re never drug tested, if I ever was found giving something like that to him, I’d lose my job immediately.

      1. Ayshe22992*

        Damn, that’s insane. One would think that as long as its medicinal and the kind that doesn’t give a high, , you would be fine. I’m sorry to hear that’s not an option.

  29. SuttonK*

    I know this comment is late, but this letter really touched me .

    You have all of my good thoughts OP, and you are a truly amazing mother. My family has extensive mental health issues, and particularly with my older sister, and it was extremely hard. The good news though is that it does tend to get better as you get older, and hormones relax and start to settle down. There’s less craziness happening in the brain and that helps a lot.

    My sister is 10 years older than me, and is currently 32. She is WORLDS different now than she was even when she was just 25. The right medications are extremely helpful, but you also sometimes have to wait for biology to catch up and mellow things out. Keep being strong, and know that it will get better and purely by doing what you’re doing and by being there and being supportive you are being an amazing mother and showing your son that he isn’t alone.

    That act in and of itself is very important. I have tears as I read this letter and think of just how amazing and lucky he is to have a mama like you. You have my all of my thoughts.

  30. ThatAspie*

    Poor kid. That’s gotta suck. I also feel somewhat sorry for the mom, but mostly, just…poor kid.

    This isn’t your fault, OP, and any of your coworkers who think it is should get over themselves. Just tell the coworkers that your son’s been really sick lately (you don’t even have to tell them what he’s sick with, just that he’s sick), and that you needed to take care of him when his symptoms got really bad in order to make sure he doesn’t die. Maybe then they’d give a crap. If not, IDK.

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