I heard her in the hall as she shuffled quietly, calmly, demonstrating no concern over what was about to happen. “Mama?” Her voice was even, sweet. “My tummy hurts. I think I need to throw up.”
It was 1:30 a.m. – I should have been asleep – but even in my exhausted stupor, I knew that standing around chatting about vomiting was probably a bad idea, so I ushered Annie to the bathroom just in time for her to empty her dinner into the toilet.
After getting cleaned up, she seemed no worse for wear, so off to bed she went, tucked in with wishes of sweet dreams and hope your tummy feels better, before I returned to my own bed and stage-whispered to Nick, “Shit! What are we going to do??”
This was completely new for us – not the sick kid, not the puking in the middle of the night – but what to do the following morning. Since Annie’s birth, I have always been the one to stay home with the girls when they’re not feeling well. (Given that I don’t have to take a sick or vacation day to do so, nor do I have to shuffle my schedule to work from home, it just makes sense that I’d be the nursemaid.)
We can’t call on help, either; with no family close by who can watch a kiddo with a low-grade fever or a tummy ache (save for my fabulous grandma – who, at 93, I’m not willing to expose unnecessarily to kid-germs), it falls to Nick or me (in this case… me) to cancel appointments or rejigger things in order to sit by a sick one’s side. Thankfully, my piano students’ families have been tremendously understanding of my occasional need to cancel lessons for an ailing daughter. Part of that may have to do with them not wanting me to sit right next to their offspring for thirty minutes with plague germs emanating from my sweater, but still. They’re really good about it.
These days, though, taking care of sick children isn’t quite that easy. Last Tuesday, I started an 11-week, long-term subbing job as a middle school General Music teacher (oh yes, I did. HOLLA!), and so for the first time in seven years, I felt an unfamiliar terror grip me as I slid back into bed: OMG, will I have to miss work? Who would cover for me? Who do I even call in order to get a sub? Wait… is that funny? A sub for the sub? I haven’t even been there long enough to leave a set of emergency lesson plans behind…
Nick would normally have immediately offered to watch Annie, but – Murphy’s law – one of the “big bosses” was in town and there was a very important lunch meeting that he absolutely could not miss. We entertained several possibilities other than my just staying home all day… Perhaps I could go in for the first few periods and then ask someone to cover for me so I could cover for Nick? Perhaps a neighbor could watch her for a short while? Each seemed less appealing than the last.
And so I did the only thing I thought made sense: I crossed my fingers and prayed fervently that Annie would be fine in the morning. Annnnd, thusly, I committed Cardinal School Parent Sin #1: Contemplating the possibility of sending your child to school within twenty-four hours of vomiting, despite the very clear school rule prohibiting such activity.
But… you see… I had excuses. Or, perhaps better, I had explanations. After dinner, I had discovered that the brand new shredded mozzarella I’d included in that night’s baked pasta was covered with mold. A quick 10 p.m. Google search confirmed that it was entirely possible for moldy mozzarella to make people sick to their stomachs… So, perhaps that was what was wrong with Annie.
Translation: she wasn’t contagious, so there was no reason not to send her to school, despite vomiting.
Translation #2: I freaked out about missing work on only my third day, so I was willing to do almost anything to avoid such a possibility.
Because I am awesome like that.
I was still slogging through my thoughts, nearly incoherent, when Annie appeared – silently – at our bedroom door a little after three a.m. “Mama? I just threw up in my bed.”
Much like Uh oh! or It’s even bigger than I thought! or Promise you won’t be mad!, the words I just threw up in my bed will startle even the heartiest, been-there-done-that of parents. Prying my stinging eyes open, I immediately sprang to action (after waking Nick for some help), changing sheets, offering a toothbrush and a glass of water, and once more tucking Annie back into her bed.
You might think that this second bout would cause me to rethink my earlier stance on possibly sending her to school, but no. She had puked up the rest of the pasta, which clearly indicated that it – the moldy mozzarella – was the source of her trouble. Smart little tummy for getting rid of the offending junk! She had no fever. She said she felt fine. Surely, she could go to school.
Cardinal School Parent Sin #2: Continuing to consider sending your child to school after she has vomited not once but twice.
Come the morning, Annie, indeed, felt fine. Her temperature was normal. Her appetite was solid. She was energetic, despite the lack of sleep. Plus, earlier in the year, Ella had been sent home early from school (on her birthday, no less!) because she’d vomited once in class, which subsequently caused her to miss all of the next day of school… and, turned out, that one little blip was her only hint of illness; she was completely fine otherwise. Although I understand – and agree with – the school’s policy, I was bummed that Ella had had to stay home from school, completely healthy… and so I reasoned that Annie would be equally okay.
Cardinal School Parent Sin #3: Actually sending your child to school after she has vomited twice because you think she’s okay, even though you know the policy prohibits such behavior.
One of the best things about my new (temporary) job is that my schedule is an 0.6, meaning I teach three classes and a study hall and I have to be at school from 8:48 – 11:40 a.m.. Three hours! That’s it! And then the afternoon is mine! Most days, I stay after school for a quite a while because teaching is not exactly a punch-your-time-card kind of job, but that Thursday, there was a class at the Y I wanted to attend. I’d carefully chosen my outfit that morning – black yoga pants, black tank top, cute (long) sweater and scarf – so that it would look professional with black boots… but then I could pull a Superman, throw on some sneakers, whip off the sweater, and be ready to work out.
I am so clever like that.
I left school immediately following teaching and arrived at the Y with a few minutes to spare. Even though I was running on, oh, about three hours of sleep, I managed to feel like an exceptional badass. I am so on top of things. I can change my clothes on the fly. I can work out AND teach. I. am. AWESOME.
It wasn’t until I accidentally touched the screen of my iPhone (yes, I keep it nearby when I work out; I’m
addicted weird) that I discovered I had a voicemail, left fifteen minutes ago. From the school. Or, more specifically, from the school nurse… Who was calling to tell me that Annie was really not feeling well, and would I please come get her.
Cardinal School Parent Sin #4: Having to admit your asshattery and pick up your sick child.
In the blink of an eye, Nick and I had become those parents: the ones who put their own agendas before the school’s. The ones who decide that they are better arbiters of school rules than the school officials. The ones who are struggling with everything in them to figure out how to honor their own job commitments while simultaneously doing right by their children and their children’s classmates.
In short: we become the parents we have long criticized, the ones we bitch about on Facebook or over coffee. And, man, was that a slap in the face.
But it was a weird kind of slap – like a fake stage one, maybe – because, although it stung, both sides of the argument suddenly became crystal clear. Do the rules exist for a reason? Sure. Did we push it by sending Annie? Yes. Should we have kept her home? In hindsight, yes. But, in a nearly identical situation, Ella absolutely did not – medically – need to remain home that second day… And so the doubt, understandably, crept in.
Although the rules do exist for a reason – a good one, at that – they can also be difficult to follow. It’s awfully easy to complain about a parent who sends their feverish kid to school so that she can go to work; after all, it’s “just” work. Our children always come first, right? What about their classmates’ well-being? Since when are your wants and needs more important than everyone else’s? Just keep them home, damn it.
And yet… It wasn’t that easy. It just wasn’t. I knew my students – my brand new students – had no lesson plans awaiting them, and I had no idea what would be done with them that day, especially at the last minute. It’s just one day, you’ll argue, and I agree… but this one day, this early on, was one I wanted to be there for. I had just started my job; I wanted to make a good impression on my superiors. I wanted to be a team player. I wanted to continue to establish a good relationship with my students. I also knew that Nick was going to be out of town all this week… and so, if one of the girls became sick or there was an emergency, there would be no choice but for me to stay home. Doing so on my third day of work just seemed… not okay.
Nick and I also, of course, wanted to do the right thing by Annie. In that moment, the right thing seemed to be sending her to school. Yeah, so we made the wrong choice; but it was not a choice that was made quickly, callously, or without a lot of consideration.
I’ll be honest: Do I feel bad about sending Annie to school? Yes. She wound up feeling icky (although she felt otherwise that morning), and I’m sad for her that she was at school feeling gross. I also feel guilty about breaking the school rule, given what transpired. Ahhh… but that’s the rub, isn’t it… Given what transpired. Because, faced with a similar situation – a kid who’d been briefly ill but rallied and did not seem remotely contagious – I’d do it again.
Yep. I said it. Would I keep her home when she was obviously sick? Feverish? Sore tummy? Vomiting or diarrhea? Absolutely. But if she felt great and exhibited no current signs of illness and I had a super-pressing reason for going to work? I would. I’d send her to school.
It’s only been eight days since I started my new job, but that has been the hardest part: the balance. Some of it is logistical balance – prepping for things the night before, finding time to do my lesson plans, getting the girls off to school in the morning before I head my way, navigating the ins and outs of our schedules with Nick – but the bulk of it is mental and emotional. How much time can I spend researching beat versus rhythm lesson ideas before the girls start to feel that I’m ignoring them? Can I still fix their hair and make it to school with enough time to run copies and organize my classroom? Should these “free” thirty minutes be spent watching my kids put on a Frozen medley (for the 835th time) or making sure I’ve graded the assessments for my other kids?
Which explains why I was still awake at 1:30 a.m. last Wednesday. (Okay, I guess it was technically Thursday. But it felt a lot like Wednesday.)
Don’t get me wrong… I’m loving this. The job is absolutely perfect for me, and I truly don’t think I could have found a more supportive school, district, and staff. The students are hard-working, respectful, and genuinely kind – even though, at age thirteen, this should practically be an oxymoron. I’m being challenged mentally in a way I haven’t in… well… seven years, and it’s fantastic. I’ve even learned how to use a SMART board (mostly).
And when this little ditty arrived in my school mailbox, I did a not-so-little happy dance. It’s OFFICIAL!!
Part of why I’d been so excited for this position was that it would still allow me to continue to teach piano and do most of the mom/wife/volunteer/me stuff that is so important to me. I know myself well enough as a teacher to know that I wouldn’t do it half-assed; I’m going to give my students everything I’ve got, and then some. This amazing job enables me to give them that, while still being able to help out at Ella’s third grade Valentine’s Day party or walk Annie home from school.
Having spent these past seven years with the girls, I imagined that it would be difficult being away from them when I returned to work, and that they would always be prioritized above anything teacher-related. It came as more than a little bit of a surprise, then, when I found myself concerned about missing school when Annie got sick – when, in that particular instance, I prioritized work above being by her side.
Not above her well-being, no. If she’d been more obviously sick, I wouldn’t have hesitated to call in a sub for the sub, however it needed to be done. If she or Ella gets sick again, and Nick isn’t able to take off of work (as he did last Friday, when Annie was still home with an ailing tummy; maybe that mozzarella wasn’t the culprit…), I will be home with them, no questions asked. But, given that she seemed okay, the immediate priority became my students and their well-being… and suddenly, the thought of committing Cardinal School Parent Sins went from shameful to possible to definite.
I’m sure there are parents out there who are abusing the system, who routinely send their kids in when they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they’re too sick to be in school. I’m sure that some of them do it callously and without consideration for their child’s classmates or teachers. And those parents piss me off.
I’m equally sure, however, that for every parent who doesn’t care, there are three more who hem and haw about sending their maybe-sick child to school, who weigh the possibility of rescheduling meetings or finding childcare or taking their last paid sick day or falling behind on their lessons against the possibility that their kiddo might simply have a headache through math, but otherwise, feel fine. Some days, the decision turns out to be good for everyone involved. Other times… it doesn’t go the way you’d hoped.
Turns out, most of those parents are simply us, doing the very best we can with what we have. We deeply admire their teachers. We respect the school rules. We love our kids to pieces. And, occasionally, we commit Cardinal School Parent Sins – because we are frazzled and stretched thin and we make mistakes because we are human.
Lesson learned: enough with the judging. You just never know what’s going on in another person’s life.
And also: make emergency sub plans the first day you accept a teaching job. They might come in handy… immediately.